Indeed, Sobchak’s celebrity could only have happened in times like these. She was four when Mikhail Gorbachev took power and 10 when the Soviet Union collapsed. That was in December 1991. At the time, her father, Anatoly Sobchak, was a law professor, a member of the quasi-independent Congress of People’s Deputies and a leading democratic light close to President Boris Yeltsin. From 1991 to 1996, as the country clawed its way out of 70 years of socialist totalitarianism, Anatoly Sobchak served as St. Petersburg’s first democratically elected mayor. Among his senior lieutenants was a former KGB hand named Vladimir Putin.
The story of Anatoly’s fall from grace is a metaphor for Russia. Immediately following the Soviet implosion, a mafia war broke out across the country, with criminal organizations battling for control of state assets. St. Petersburg witnessed some of the worst violence. Local authorities, far from bringing order to the city, were accused of conspiring with mafia bosses, channeling billions into bank accounts and holding companies in Switzerland and Cyprus. In 1996 Anatoly was defeated for re-election, and the next year, under investigation for any number of scandals petty and not so petty, he fled to Paris. He returned to Russia in 1999—only after Putin had risen to the highest echelons of the Yeltsin government—and appeared en route to a full-fledged resurrection when, the next year, he suffered a fatal heart attack while campaigning for his former protégé. Ksenia, then 18, says she was in Amsterdam with her boyfriend when her father died. She won’t say anything else about what happened; she says she’s unclear about a lot of details.
What’s very clear is that a fortuitous alignment of politics and star power has catapulted Sobchak from student to starlet. After her father’s death she moved from St. Petersburg to Moscow, where she studied international relations at the top-ranked Moscow State University. And soon after coming to the big city, she embarked on a career in showbiz, starring in the 2004 film Thieves and Prostitutes, or the Prize Is a Mission to Space. Other roles followed. Then television. Then came the write-ups in the tabloids. Then more television. Then, in 2006, Sobchak launched, with oligarch-widow Oksana Robsky, the perfume To Marry a Millionaire. A few months later came the similarly titled book, which featured a cover photo of Sobchak and Robsky in bad-girl wedding dresses brandishing automatic weapons.