Say what you like about Ksenia Sobchak, who this week declared her intention to challenge Vladimir Putin in next year’s Russian presidential election, but she’s certainly creating a splash. In a single day, Sobchak has managed to create two scandals – first by saying that under international law Crimea is part of Ukraine, and second by calling Russia a ‘страна генетического отребья’, a phrase I have difficulty translating, but which roughly speaking, I think, means a country from which all the good genetic material has been removed.
On the first issue – Crimea – one might say that Sobchak has a point, if one sticks strictly to the issue about international law. But the thing about international law is that it is open to wide interpretation. Western lawyers will say one thing; Russian lawyers another. And the nuance that she was referring simply to the legal situation won’t have made much difference given that the headlines in the Russian press were ‘Sobchak says Crimea is part of Ukraine.’ Considering the overwhelming support for the Crimean annexation/reunification among the Russian population, it’s not exactly a vote winner.
As for the genetics issue, Sobchak tried to explain herself by saying that she was referring to the first two decades of the communist era, when in her words ‘our country underwent a vast quantity of human purges, when the best of the best were destroyed. … you and me … are the result of what happened.’ Again, it’s not something designed to attract the voters, as it pretty much confirms the original impression – Sobchak thinks that Russians are made up of genetically inferior material. It’s hard to think of a better way to insult a lot of people.
According to some conspiracy theories, Sobchak is a Kremlin quasi-puppet candidate, whose role is to liven up what would otherwise be a boring and predictable campaign and so increase the turnout, in order thereby to make Putin’s inevitable election seem more legitimate. The problem with that theory is that it assumes that Sobchak can mobilize a reasonable number of people to come out and vote for her (enough to enhance turnout, but not so much as to be a genuine threat). But judging by her performance so far she’s unlikely to manage that feat. Sobchak’s faux pas induced Vzliad.ru to proclaim that ‘the candidate seems ‘not to be interested in the final result … isn’t trying to attract the maximum number of votes. On the contrary, with her first step she’s cutting herself off from the support of hypothetical voters.’ If Sobchak doesn’t buck up and change direction, she runs a serious risk of being an immediate bust and crashing so far out of contention as to be unable to fulfill her required role.