A prominent TV celebrity and former socialite with close family ties to President Vladimir Putin has fled Russia in the aftermath of a criminal investigation, the latest sign of the domestic impact of the Ukrainian war.
Ksenia Sobchak, dubbed the “Russian Paris Hilton,” arrived in Lithuania on an Israeli passport on Thursday, the Baltic country’s state security service confirmed to NBC News.
Russian state media initially reported that she had fled to avoid arrest and that her home had been raided as part of a criminal case involving one of her employees, reports that dominated domestic news.
Sobchak, 40, is one of Russia’s most well-known figures.
She has frequently criticized Putin and spoken out against the war, but opponents have viewed her family history, as well as her transformation from party girl to politician and well-connected journalist, with suspicion, accusing her of assisting the Kremlin’s agenda.
According to Sergei Markov, a political analyst and pundit, the raid shocked the Russian elite and sent a clear message to its members that all bets were off.
“If they can arrest Putin’s mentor’s daughter… does that mean there are no untouchables?” Markov posted a comment on the Telegram messaging app. “An arrest warrant for Sobchak is a blazing sign in the skies for some members of the elite.”
Her arrival in Lithuania also raised eyebrows, as the country stopped admitting Russian citizens with valid visas in September in order to support Kyiv’s defensive fight in the conflict. Hundreds of people were turned away, but many others were allowed to enter after presenting passports from other countries at the border.
Sobchak has recently joined them.
According to Jauniskis, Lithuania has no evidence that Sobchak poses a threat to national security. “If we had anything, we would take appropriate measures,” he told the radio station.
According to the Russian state news agency Tass, Sobchak is a suspect in an extortion case involving her media director, Kirill Sukhanov. Sukhanov’s arrest and detention were reported by the state news agency Ria on Wednesday.
Sobchak has not confirmed her departure from Russia, but she stated on her Telegram channel on Tuesday that the extortion case was “nonsense” and yet another attempt to suppress independent media in Russia.
Sobchak’s youth spent partying and appearing in her own reality TV show earned her comparisons to Paris Hilton, but she transformed herself into a prominent political journalist and interviewer a decade ago.
Sobchak has long been suspected of being Putin’s goddaughter, which she has denied. Her father, Anatoly Sobchak, the late liberal mayor of St. Petersburg, was known as Putin’s mentor and is widely credited with launching the Russian leader’s career in mainstream politics.
In 2018, the former socialite ran for president against Putin, but received only 1.7% of the vote. Many opposition figures viewed her campaign with skepticism, seeing it as a Kremlin ploy to create the impression that alternative candidates were permitted and thus legitimize Putin’s consolidation of power.
Sobchak is a well-connected media figure who runs a YouTube channel with over 3.2 million subscribers where she conducts often frank interviews with Russian newsmakers. She also has a sizable social media following, with 9.4 million Instagram followers who follow her glamorous personal life and political views.
She declared her anti-war stance when the conflict began in February, but she has faced criticism at home and from many Ukrainians for not being critical enough of the Kremlin, as well as for statements opposing the notion that all Russians bear “collective responsibility” for Putin’s actions.
Sobchak’s departure marks the latest celebrity exile from Russia. Many musicians, entertainers, actors, and media figures have fled the country, fearing repercussions for their anti-war views.
The last remnants of independent media in Russia disappeared shortly after Putin launched his full-scale invasion of Ukraine nine months ago, with the Kremlin deepening its crackdown and forcing many journalists to flee the country or face potential prosecution over strict limits on what can be said about the Russian leader’s “special military operation.”