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This Russian reality TV star won’t beat Putin at the polls. Why is she running anyway?

Ksenia Sobchak, one of Russia's most famous women, is embracing an impossible mission: unseating President Vladimir Putin. After an elite upbringing and fame as a reality TV star, she joined massive protests against the Russian president and is now campaigning against him. But she is also highly unpopular and some have called her candidacy a charade. Nick Schifrin reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    But first: In just over four weeks, Russian voters will go the polls to elect a president. There is no suspense about the outcome. It is a pretty safe bet that Vladimir Putin will be reelected to a fourth term, extending his rule into a third decade.

    As Nick Schifrin reports, Putin has a high-profile challenger from his own past who's trying to convert celebrity into votes.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Thirty-six-year-old Ksenia Sobchak is one of Russia's most famous women. And now she's exchanging her mission to grab wealth and fame to mission impossible: Unseat Russian President Vladimir Putin.

    Why are you qualified to be the president of Russia?

  • Ksenia Sobchak:

    Because I have no fear in myself. I'm courageous. In Russia, which is authoritarian country where someone who is against Putin can be put to prison, can be killed, can be suppressed in different ways, the real thing you need now is courageousness, is just to show that you're not afraid.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Sobchak grew up not having to fear anything. She inhabited the privileged post-Soviet elite. She became a reality TV star, a millionaire entrepreneur with commercial empire, a socialite with 5.5 million Instagram followers.

    She traveled widely and lived well and voted for Putin. But, in, 2011 she switched sides. She joined massive protests to criticize Putin for being corrupt and authoritarian. And she became a journalist on Russia's only opposition TV channel. For her efforts, she was hounded by police.

    That's her being detained in 2012. Today, on the campaign trail, she argues Putin had the chance to enrich the country, and instead enriched himself.

  • Ksenia Sobchak:

    We had so much oil money, but they were all disappeared. No roads, no new hospitals, but, moreover, no new industries. We don't have a single thing we can be proud of, only palaces for the people who are connected to our president, only villas that are so chic on (INAUDIBLE) or somewhere else connected with our government and president.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    With all due respect, you have definitely been part of the privileged class. So, why would someone in Russia think, ah, you know, you can change that?

  • Ksenia Sobchak:

    Yes, I had some privilege to get a good education and to be brought up in this political family. But I didn't have any other privileges. No one can say that she has her money from corruption, because I'm not into this.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Sobchak's criticisms of Putin are not only domestic. She also attacks the core of his popularity, his muscular foreign policy, invading and then annexing Crimea, supporting separatists who destabilized Eastern Ukraine, sending the Russian air force to Syria, and supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

  • Ksenia Sobchak:

    I don't support Crimea annexation, and I'm saying this out loud. And I don't support our operation on Syria. And I think that Crimea was a huge mistake which will live on with all our generation and we will cope with it for years now.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    For years, she's known Putin. Sobchak's father, Anatoly, was the mayor of St. Petersburg and Putin's political patron. At Anatoly's funeral, Putin embraced Ksenia's mother.

    That relationship has led many to call Ksenia Sobchak a Kremlin stooge, helping legitimize a preordained election.

    Alina Polyakova is a Brookings fellow.

  • Alina Polyakova:

    The outcome of the Russian — quote, unquote — "election" is absolutely not in dispute.

    And I think they're hoping that having a young, female, dynamic socialite in the election will get people to come to the polls, especially young people, which will, in the end of the day, legitimize Putin once again.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    That's what Alexei Navalny argues. He's the country's leading opposition figure who's been banned from running for president on what he calls trumped-up criminal charges.

    Back in 2012, Navalny embraced Sobchak after they were both released from jail. But, today, he criticizes Sobchak for ignoring his election boycott and participating in what he calls a charade. Sobchak returns the favor.

  • Ksenia Sobchak:

    I see a big double standard, because Alexei Navalny wanted to take part in those elections too, as you remember, and he made a really good campaign to take part in the elections. But tell me that, if he would be registered, wouldn't he legitimate Putin?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    For the Russian establishment, Sobchak is no threat. Her liberal ideas aren't popular. She's polling at 1.5 percent. She admits she has no chance, and accuses Putin of stacking the deck.

  • Ksenia Sobchak:

    It's a casino where one person always wins and others lose.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So, why even take part in a process that, as you said yourself, will end up in Putin's election?

  • Ksenia Sobchak:

    The goal is to get the microphone. The goal is to be heard by millions of people who never watched Internet, who do not know who is Alexei Navalny, and who know me only because I am very, you know, big media figure in Russia.

    So I want to use my popularity to convince those people that changes are needed.

  • Alina Polyakova:

    She is giving voice to those people. But, again, that voice is only temporary. The elections are not real. And so, in many ways, like, she falls potentially into trap of being used by the regime to legitimize itself.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    That skepticism followed her to Washington. She spent all last week holding events and giving interviews, advocating against the same sanctions the Kremlin complains about.

    Are you echoing the Kremlin's line while you're here in Washington?

  • Ksenia Sobchak:

    I'm echoing my own line as a candidate on presidency.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    For Sobchak, that line has always been thin. She's elite, but oppositional, widely recognized, but unpopular. She could bolster the opposition, or help split it.

    And she will lose. But, by running, she wins new a seat in the real game, the next presidential election in six years.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin in Washington.

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