A prominent TV celebrity and former socialite with close family ties to President Vladimir Putin has fled Russia in the wake of a criminal probe, the latest sign of the war in Ukraine’s domestic impact.
Ksenia Sobchak, who was once known as the “Russian Paris Hilton,” arrived in Lithuania on an Israeli passport, the Baltic country’s state security service confirmed to NBC News on Thursday.
Russian state media first reported that she had fled in order to avoid arrest and that her home had been raided as part of a criminal case against one of her employees, reports that topped domestic news.
Sobchak, 40, is one of the best-known people in Russia.
She has often been critical of Putin and voiced opposition to the war, but opposition figures have viewed her family history — as well as her transformation from party girl to politician and well-connected journalist — with suspicion, accusing her of helping to serve the Kremlin’s agenda.
Sergei Markov, a political analyst and pundit, argued that the raid shocked the Russian elite and sent a clear signal to its members that all bets were now off.
“If they can arrest the daughter of Putin’s mentor ... it means there are no untouchables?” Markov wrote in a commentary on the Telegram messaging app. “For some members of the elites, an arrest warrant for Sobchak is a blazing sign in the skies.”
Her arrival in Lithuania raised eyebrows, too, since the country stopped admitting Russian citizens who hold a valid visa in September as it backs Kyiv’s defensive fight in the conflict. Hundreds were turned away, but many still entered after presenting passports of other countries at the border.
Sobchak has now joined them.
“Without any doubt, she is (in Lithuania) ... I confirm the fact,” Darius Jauniskis, who heads the country’s State Security Department, told the Ziniu radio station early Thursday, according to Reuters. The department later confirmed the details of Jauniskis’ comments in an email to NBC News.
Jauniskis said Lithuania has no evidence of any threat that Sobchak could pose to national security. “If we had anything, certain appropriate measures would be taken,” he told the radio station.
Russian state news agency Tass reported Wednesday that Sobchak was a suspect in an extortion case involving her media director Kirill Sukhanov. State news agency Ria reported on Sukhanov’s arrest and detention Wednesday.
NBC News has not verified the reports.
A video showing a woman purported to be Sobchak crossing the border between to Lithuania at Belarus’s Vidzy checkpoint has been shared widely on social media. It has been geolocated by NBC News, but it is unclear exactly who the video shows.
Sobchak has not confirmed that she left Russia, but said on her Telegram channel Tuesday that the extortion case was “nonsense” and yet another attempt to crack down on independent media in Russia.
A youth spent partying and appearing in her own reality TV show earned Sobchak comparisons to Paris Hilton, but she underwent a complete rebrand a decade ago and became a prominent political journalist and interviewer.
Sobchak has for years been rumored to be Putin’s goddaughter, which she has denied. Her father, the late liberal mayor of St. Petersburg Anatoly Sobchak, was known as Putin’s mentor and is often credited with launching the Russian leader’s career in mainstream politics.
The former socialite ran for president against Putin in 2018 but only garnered 1.7% of the overall vote. Many opposition figures treated her campaign with skepticism, viewing it as a Kremlin set-up to create an illusion that alternative candidates were allowed and help legitimize Putin’s consolidation of power.
A well-connected media figure, Sobchak runs a YouTube channel with more than 3.2 million subscribers where she conducts often hard-hitting interviews with Russian newsmakers. She also has a prominent social media presence, broadcasting her glamorous personal life and political opinions to 9.4 million followers on Instagram.
She declared her anti-war stance when the conflict began in February, but has faced pushback at home and from many in Ukraine for not being critical enough of the Kremlin and for her statements against the notion that all Russians bear “collective responsibility” for Putin’s actions.
Sobchak’s departure marks the latest exile of a prominent Russian celebrity. Many musicians, entertainers, actors and media personalities have left the country out of fears they will face repercussions for their anti-war views.
State news agency Ria published an op-ed Thursday calling her exit a “symbol of the final collapse of the liberal elite.”
The last remnants of independent media in Russia disappeared shortly after Putin launched his full-scale invasion of Ukraine nine months ago, with the Kremlin deepening its crackdown and forcing many journalists to flee the country or face potential prosecution over strict limits on what can be said about the Russian leader’s “special military operation.”