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'Russia's Paris Hilton' goes political

By Jill Dougherty, CNN Foreign Affairs Correspondent
updated 11:11 AM EST, Sat March 3, 2012
  • Kseniya Sobchak says she was true to her political tastes even during her "Paris Hilton years"
  • Though she has reason to back Putin, she opposes his run for re-election
  • Putin's political manipulation is "not how it should work and people feel offended," she says

Moscow (CNN) -- In her previous life, Kseniya Sobchak bared her soul -- and a lot more -- as Russia's version of Paris Hilton, a socialite with her own reality show.

One installment of her 2008 production "A Blonde in Chocolate" featured her sprawled on the floor sporting white, stiletto-heeled boots, a slip and a fur wrap, looking as if she'd had a tough night on the town.

But even then, Sobchak tells CNN, she was a closet political junkie.

"During my Paris Hilton years," she says with a smile, "I was always saying that I'm better off in show business and better doing some stuff that people would call cheesy. But I wouldn't do something to betray my political tastes."

And political tastes she had. The daughter of political icon Anatoly Sobchak -- the former mayor of St. Petersburg who helped to launch Vladimir Putin's career in government back in the early 1990s -- is trying to transform herself into a political animal, a talking head, and an opponent of Putin.

"I was always feeling something, torn between my respect for the help of Mr. Putin for my father in early years and for their work together," she says. "But I always was torn between (my father's) work, because he was a democrat and I think would never have dreamt of living in a situation like this in Russia."

Sobchak's favorite look these days is a chic dark blouse, blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail, and a pair of oversized, black-framed glasses. It is a cool but serious image, befitting her new incarnation, which began at a key moment last year.

It was September 24, 2011, when Vladimir Putin stunned his fellow Russians with the announcement that he, and not the current president, Dmitry Medvedev, would be running for election -- again. Putin had become prime minister after serving the maximum two consecutive terms as president.

"They decided to change Medvedev for Putin and Putin for Medevedev and then they give out the results," Sobchak says indignantly. "That's not how it should work and people feel offended."

Sobchak exploits her fame and uses her well-honed media skills to get her message across. In one political video called "I am voting for ..." Sobchak, her hair disheveled, T-shirt falling off her shoulder, looking straight at the camera with a kind of dull, programmed expression, says she's voting for "the candidate" (no name mentioned) who is "benevolent" and has helped Russians to live better.

"Especially now," she says, "at this time of threat from an 'Orange Revolution of the Syrian and Libyan variety' you can't rock the boat. You have to unite behind one candidate."

One second after she announces that she is voting for that "candidate" a man tapes her mouth shut, she's strapped to a chair and armed men carry her off screaming with tongue-in-cheek horror.

Who is Sobchak really voting for? Billionaire candidate Mikhail Prokhorov. "I don't think that Prokhorov would become the president," she laughs, "but he's handsome! And I would vote for him. Why not?"

Some question Sobchak's new image and her political conversion. At one opposition rally where she spoke the crowd loudly booed her.

Putin, she thinks, will be elected president again, but Russia is no longer the same.

"My forecast? He will try to strengthen and tighten the system," she says. "But now, with the protests on the streets, it's not possible any longer. So it will take, I think, a couple of years of a real protest movement to change the situation."

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