The women challenging Putin

If he decides to run in the presidential election in March, Russian President Vladimir Putin will face not one but two women rivals. But are the candidacies of Ksenia Sobchak and Ekaterina Gordon just a ruse to divide the opposition? Arvind Jayaram finds out more about them.

Ms Ksenia Sobchak's father, former mayor Anatoly Sobchak, is seen as Mr Vladimir Putin's godfather.
Ms Ksenia Sobchak's father, former mayor Anatoly Sobchak, is seen as Mr Vladimir Putin's godfather.
Ms Ekaterina Gordon says she is disillusioned by both pro-Kremlin politicians and the liberal opposition.
Ms Ekaterina Gordon says she is disillusioned by both pro-Kremlin politicians and the liberal opposition.

 'Chocolate blonde' mocked over links to President

In Russia, Ms Ksenia Sobchak is known as the author of the best-selling book, How To Marry A Millionaire, and host of reality TV show House-2.

The 35-year-old has also appeared in films such as Thieves And Prostitutes and The Blonde In Chocolate, which left her with the nickname "chocolate blonde".

But the scorn that has greeted her candidacy stems not so much from her being a socialite and TV personality, but her family's links to President Vladimir Putin.

Her father, the late Anatoly Sobchak, a former mayor of the Soviet Union's second-largest city, Leningrad (now St Petersburg), is seen as Mr Putin's godfather, having made him his deputy in 1990.

Mr Sobchak defended Mr Putin when he faced corruption allegations. In turn, Mr Sobchak, who fled Russia after being hit by graft allegations, returned to the country only after Mr Putin became prime minister.

Some have mocked Ms Sobchak's candidacy as the Kremlin's bid to legitimise a contest where the victor has been decided.

But Ms Sobchak has presented a largely liberal agenda contrary to Mr Putin's policies, calling for the release of political prisoners and criticising the legitimacy of elections.

In an open letter, she made it clear her aim was to offer an alternative to Mr Putin and other opposition politicians as the "against everyone" candidate.

She has also described herself as a feminist, bemoaning the lack of women's representation in industry and politics in her manifesto.

As a child, she attended the ballet school attached to the Mariinsky Theatre and Hermitage Museum art school. She studied international relations and politics at university, and married actor Maxim Vitorgan in 2013, with whom she has a son.

Despite her links to the establishment, Ms Sobchak has won some credibility as an opposition activist. In 2012, she secured a seat on the Opposition Coordination Council, coming in fourth behind prominent Putin critic Aleksei Navalny, chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov and popular writer Dmitri Bykov. She was also taken more seriously as an opposition figure after the police searched her house in 2012.

However, critics said her true colours were revealed at a meeting she had with Mr Putin before she announced her candidacy. She appeared to have asked Mr Putin for permission to run against him.

Ms Sobchak has conceded that she has little hope of becoming president. And she has flatly refused to criticise Mr Putin.

Challenged by a journalist to voice her criticisms of him at her first press conference at a Moscow theatre after announcing her candidacy on Oct 18, she said she would not engage in "personal insults".

"For a few people, Putin is a tyrant and a dictator. For others, he is a strong leader. For me, Putin is someone who in very difficult circumstances helped my father, saved his life even," she said.

Singer, law firm founder - and presidential hopeful

Ms Ekaterina Gordon has never been shy of trying out new things - be it working as a journalist or TV and radio host, fronting a band, or setting up her own law firm.

The 37-year-old has championed the cause of non-pedigree dogs, and appeared nude in a photoshoot for the Russian version of Playboy.

But she raised many eyebrows last Monday with her latest move - throwing her hat into the ring for Russia's presidential race in March despite admitting that she has never voted in elections.

Ms Gordon, a mother of two who is thrice divorced, says she is disillusioned by both pro-Kremlin politicians and the liberal opposition.

"I understood that everyone is fed from the same trough," she said last Monday in an online video announcing her candidacy. She added that "we are a country of single mothers, and no one gives a damn about them".

Ms Gordon said she would focus on the rights of single mothers and children, stressing that running a law firm specialising in family law had given her experience with the problems Russian women face.

She also made clear that unlike the other woman candidate, Ms Ksenia Sobchak, she had not agreed on her candidacy with the Kremlin.

"I am not a representative of glamour. I wasn't born with a silver spoon in my mouth," she said in an apparent dig at Ms Sobchak.

The two women had a bitter fight on a radio show in 2008, in which Ms Gordon, who was co-presenter, mocked Ms Sobchak, who in turn called Ms Gordon "Hitler". Though they reconciled years later, as shown by a photo on Instagram, that fight cost Ms Gordon her job.

She was born Ekaterina Prokofyeva, but later took on her stepfather's surname, Podlipchuk.

She studied at the so-called Humanitarian Gymnasium No. 1507 in Moscow and the economics school in the Russian capital's International University. In 2002, she graduated from the Moscow State V.I. Lenin Pedagogical Institute, where she studied social psychology.

Afterwards, she took script writing and directing courses, winning an award for her diploma short film.

She adopted the surname of first husband Alexander Gordon after they married in 2000, and retained it even after they divorced in 2006.

As a singer-songwriter, she has won two Golden Gramophones - a national Russian music award.

She sings as a solo artist and fronts a pop-rock band, Blondrock - a semi-finalist in the national rounds of the Eurovision Song Contest.

In July 2011, she married lawyer Sergei Zhorin but they divorced a few months later after he beat her up, leaving her hospitalised with a concussion.

In 2012, she gave birth to her first son and founded a law firm, Gordon & Sons. She married Mr Zhorin again in April 2014, only to divorce a month later. Earlier this year, she gave birth to a second son, but declined to reveal the father's identity.

In a Facebook post, Ms Gordon said she hopes for a world where her two sons can be fearless. "I want them not to be afraid of criticising the authorities and going to rallies. I vote for the best World. And any mother will understand me."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 06, 2017, with the headline 'The women challenging Putin'. Subscribe