One of the best-known Russian public figures who has often criticized the government has left the country, shocking many in a nation that has grown accustomed to steadily diminishing dissent.
Ksenia Sobchak, who has challenged President Vladimir V. Putin at the polls while sometimes appearing to accommodate his agenda, entered Lithuania on an Israeli passport, Lithuania’s foreign minister, Gabrielius Landsbergis, told reporters on Thursday. Videos posted on social media hours earlier had appeared to show Ms. Sobchak, 40, crossing a border.
A day before Ms. Sobchak’s departure, an executive at her media company was arrested and accused of extorting a Russian state firm. Security officers searched Ms. Sobchak’s home this week, according to Russian state media. Ms. Sobchak did not respond to a request for comment, and she has not commented publicly on her departure.
One of Russia’s most polarizing figures, Ms. Sobchak exemplifies a generation of the country’s elite that has sought to build a public following while largely playing by the rules of a system built by Mr. Putin in over 20 years in power.
Her departure appeared to indicate that even modestly contrarian voices connected to the government were no longer safe from persecution, a level of suppression last seen in Russia four decades ago.
Ms. Sobchak’s father was Mr. Putin’s political mentor, Anatoly Sobchak, who was once the mayor of St. Petersburg. She assumed an array of often conflicting public personae before becoming one of Russia’s most prominent public affairs commentators.
Over the years, she has frequently criticized Mr. Putin’s policies, joining antigovernment protests in 2011 and running against him in the 2018 elections. But many opposition figures, including the jailed politician Aleksei A. Navalny, have accused Ms. Sobchak of being a Kremlin operator, creating a mirage of competition in what is really a one-party system.
“I like Putin as a person, but I don’t like him as a politician,” she said in early 2012 amid the biggest wave of anti-government protests in years, underlining the ambiguity of her political agenda.
She sharpened her attacks somewhat during her run for the presidency in 2017, saying at one meeting of her supporters: “We are against this rule, against one candidate, against Putin.” Her campaign, however, largely focused on criticizing local officials and general governance rather than directly attacking the president.
Ms. Sobchak also has avoided taking a strong stance on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, lamenting her country’s disastrous path while often mimicking the Kremlin’s line in calling the war a “special operation.” Since the start of the war, her regular posts on social media, which sometimes draw millions of viewers, have largely avoided directly confronting its reality, leading many detractors to accuse her of abetting the Kremlin’s propaganda by distracting the Russian public.
Ms. Sobchak’s often contradictory actions have mimicked the experiences of millions of her compatriots, who have sought to find an ever-shifting balance between independent thought and conformity in Mr. Putin’s Russia. To many, including her detractors, her flight from Russia appeared to be a watershed in the country’s transformation since the start of the war in Ukraine.
Andrew Higgins, Alina Lobzina and Anton Troianovski contributed reporting.
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