Vladimir Putin’s ever-decreasing circle of friends

President Putin’s popularity has been dented by the open opposition of two celebrities, hitherto ardent supporters: Lyudmila Narusova and Kseniya Sobchak, respectively widow and daughter of his former political mentor, Anatolii Sobchak. A real stab in the back and evidence that things are hotting up, thinks Daniil Kotsyubinsky.

The girl from Bryansk

To put my cards on the table straight away, I will say that I don’t think there was anything unjust, or even unfair, about the story of how Bryansk senator Lyudmila Narusova was effectively kicked out of the Federation Council.  Or rather, there’s as much that is unjust about that as there was about her appointment to the Council on 13 October 2010 to represent the governor of the Bryansk Oblast.

The fact of the matter is that it would hardly be appropriate to consider Narusova the true voice of the Bryansk voters. No more is Nikolai Denin, the governor who treated Narusova with such disrespect and who, even in an election totally controlled by the Kremlin, was only able to squeak home in the second round.

‘One outsider dislodging another from the warm seat of Bryansk politics is hardly the stuff of Shakespearean tragedy…but there is more to this fairly ordinary story than meets the eye.’

At the last relatively fair elections (1999) both Narusova and Denin lost the Bryansk majority constituency resoundingly to the voters’ unfailing favourite, the forceful brutalist proletarian CPRF [Communist Party] candidate, Vasily Shandybin. He received more than 36.63% of the vote and Denin less than half that figure (17.75%). Narusova came in with less than 6%, a matter of particular shame for her because she is actually a native of the region.

One outsider dislodging another from the warm seat of Bryansk politics is hardly the stuff of Shakespearean tragedy…but there is more to this fairly ordinary story than initially meets the eye. What the Narusova case shows is how rapidly and irrevocably the political situation in Russia is changing, while apparently retaining its official stability and police docility.

The Sobchak family

For many years Lyudmila Narusova and her daughter Kseniya Sobchak were all-powerful Putin favourites. At one time Putin had been Deputy to the Mayor of St Petersburg, Narusova's husband Anatolii Sobchak, one of the most prominent figures of the perestroika era. Putin and Narusova headed up Sobchak's campaign team in the gubernatorial elections of 1996, which he lost to his deputy Vladimir Yakovlev.

Narusova_sobchak

In the eyes of Kremlin the active involvement in the opposition of Putin's former favourites, Lyudmila Narusova (left) and her daughter Kseniya Sobchak (right), was a veritable stab in the back (Photo: Alexei Druzhinin, RIA NOVOSTI AGENCY )

At the beginning of 2000 Sobchak became a confidant of Putin when he was a candidate for the post of president of the Russian Federation. 

'For many years Lyudmila Narusova and her daughter Kseniya Sobchak were all-powerful Putin favourites. At one time Putin had been Deputy to the Mayor of St Petersburg, Narusova's husband Anatolii Sobchak, one of the most prominent figures of the perestroika era.'

He died unexpectedly that same year and Putin was at Narusova's side during the funeral. He described Sobchak as his mentor, words to which rumours circulating about the death of his former patron being anything but an accident gave a particularly sinister ring. However, Narusova made no comment which would have cast doubt on the official explanation for Sobchak's death. In her capacity as presenter of a political TV talk-show she subsequently helped Putin wage his media war against Vladimir Yakovlev with the aim of forcing him to take early retirement so that Putin could install his own candidate, Valentina Matviyenko, as mayor of St Petersburg. 

Mother and daughter

Throughout this time both Narusova and her by now grown-up daughter Kseniya Sobachak proudly referred to Vladimir Putin as a friend of the family (which they still do, though no longer with quite the same pride), enjoying all possible forms of overt (and covert) high-level protection.

At first Lyudmila Narusova was entrusted with monitoring the distribution of the enormous inflows of foreign currency from the German and Austrian so-called Funds for Reconciliation i.e. compensation payments for victims of Nazi persecution.

Then, during the period 2002-2010, the Republic of Tuva Great Hural [Assembly] faithfully elected Narusova as its representative on the Federation Council;  she subsequently became chair of the influential Information Policy Committee. At the same time the widow of Putin's mentor, Anatolii Sobchak, regularly appeared on TV screens presenting various programmes of her own. In 2010 she was re-elected a Senator, but this time somewhat nearer the capital, for her own home region of Bryansk (379km south west of Moscow).

Sobchak_Putin

The first democratically elected Mayor of St. Petersburg, Anatolii Sobchak, was at the height of his popularity when he handpicked an unknown ex-KGB officer Vladimir Putin as his deputy (Photo: RT website)

The career of Putin's younger family friend, Kseniya Sobchak, developed along the same highly-connected lines. As a child she had dreamed of fame like top-model Claudia Schiffer; her exclusive 'friend' status enabled her to become the presenter of the most popular TV show, where she blossomed, piling up fame and money, until….

…a very distinct pre-revolutionary rumble started rolling over the vast reaches of her mother country.

'Kseniya Sobchak was prominent in the 'white ribbon' movement.  Narusova spoke in the Federation Council against Putin's anti-protest law.'

At this moment of extreme difficulty for Putin, when his political assets suddenly clearly showed their deficiencies and when publicly expressed faith in the stability and reliability of his power vertical became vitally important to avert financial and political ruin, it appeared that Putin might be a friend of the family, but the truth of the new situation was actually more important. The degree of radicalism may have differed, but first the daughter, then the mother, started de facto publicly opposing the man who had been their protector for so many years.

The road to Damascus?

Kseniya Sobchak was prominent in the 'white ribbon' movement.  Narusova spoke in the Federation Council against Putin's anti-protest law. These acts of selfless civic devotion could, of course, be regarded as the result of a road to Damascus moment but, if so, then why so late? Putin was already in his fourth term of office (including the Medvedev fancy dress ball) and it was many years after the disasters of the Kursk [submarine], Nord-Ost, Beslan [terrorist attacks], the Khodorkovsky affair and the murder of  journalist Politkovskaya.

It would, therefore, appear that it wasn't related to a moment of enlightenment, but more to do with the ladies' totally pragmatic and publicly expressed – thus even more wounding for him – lack of faith that the national leader's empyrean political flight with the Siberian cranes could go on for ever.

Curiously enough, at first Narusova (and possibly Sobchak too) assumed that their not completely loyal stance would not affect their former guarantees and dividends, as long as they didn't go completely over the top and start chanting 'Russia without Putin!' And it has to be said that neither Narusova nor Sobchak have as yet ever expressed the view that Putin should go.

'Of Putin [Narusova] said diplomatically: 'I don't think money is so important for him. I've known him for 20 years and am sure of that.' 

Even when the Kremlin made it perfectly clear that it was no longer prepared to turn a blind eye to Kseniya Sobchak's opposition escapades (in March the Moscow Police initiated criminal proceedings against her and Ilya Yashin for attacking a group of Life News journalists), Ludmila Narusova apparently continued to believe that it would all work out all right for Kseniya and that she herself would be left in peace. After her speech against the anti-protest law, she confessed she had not taken much notice of hints from fairly high-ranking people that it would be better for her daughter to stop mixing with the wrong sort of people. 'I told them my daughter was 30 years old and she made her own choice of friends,' she said. But now 'there's a move to kick me out of the Federation Council for my speech on 6 June expressing my perplexity at the hurry to pass the anti-protest law, which can only be interpreted as an attempt at intimidating the demonstrators on 12 June…'

Narusova_Putin_Matviyenko

St. Petersburg Museum of Democracy, February 2010. Former city mayor Valentina Matviyenko, TV celebrity Kseniya Sobchak, Vladimir Putin and senator Lyudmila Narusova (from left to right) at the exhibition organized for the 10th anniversary of Anatolii Sobchak’s death. Two years ago Lyudmila Narusova could still boast of close and friendly relations with her husband’s former deputy (Photo: Alexei Danichev, RIA NOVOSTI AGENCY)

For a time Narusova continued to resist her imminent disgrace. She spoke critically of opposition actions (carefully isolating her daughter from its leaders): 'We will bring down the world of violence, but then….What I want to know is what then?  Rebellion for its own sake means nothing.'  Of Putin she said diplomatically: 'I don't think money is so important for him.  I've known him for 20 years and am sure of that.'  But at the same time she showed her teeth: in an interview for the TV channel 'Top Secret' she expressed doubts that Anatoly Sobchak would have been needed, had he been alive, and declared meaningfully that she herself had looked into the reasons for her husband's death, concluding that he had died because his heart had stopped working, though it wasn't a heart attack.

Changing reality

This naturally only completed Narusova's already irrevocable fall from grace. But it was caused less by the overweening self-confidence of the ex-senator from Bryansk, than by the speed with which political reality and truth are changing in Russia: if 18 months ago a politically ambiguous position was just about permissible, this is now completely unacceptable to the Kremlin.

'For Putin in his current situation, public protests by Lyudmila Narusova and Kseniya Sobchak, who are well known for their ability to keep afloat and their lack of stylistic discrimination, are not just 'disorderly conduct on the part of spoilt favourites.'  They are a veritable stab in the back or, more precisely, evidence of the system lurching once more towards the dramatic decline of its political assets.'

For Putin in his current situation, public protests by Lyudmila Narusova and Kseniya Sobchak, who are well known for their ability to keep afloat and their lack of stylistic discrimination, are not just 'disorderly conduct on the part of spoilt favourites.'  They are a veritable stab in the back or, more precisely, evidence of the system lurching once more towards the dramatic decline of its political assets. In the same way as the mass whistling and chanting at football grounds, or the hooting of the cars and the middle-finger gestures of passers-by when the presidential cortege is driving past. The current governor of St Petersburg, Georgii Poltavchenko, speaking on TV after this incident, described the protestors as 'yobs'. At the next football match tens of thousands of Petersburg fans set up a chant lasting several minutes of 'The Governor is a yob!'

All these events, small- or large-scale, taken together mean that in a comparative historical calendar we have got to 1915, possibly already 1916. It also means that February 1917, the collapse of autocracy in Russia, is not a million miles away…

What can the Kremlin do in this situation, other than growl rather pathetically, trying to 'scare' and 'catch out' at least some of the individual 'boat-rockers'? They can't do much with tens of thousands in football grounds and hundreds of thousands of passers-by, after all.