A Russian Role Model for America’s Politicians

Americans are becoming familiar with the story of how “Russia’s Scandalous ‘It Girl’ Remakes Herself as an Unlikely Face of Protest.” Kseniya Sobchak (KSAIN-ya sub-CHACK), writes the Times, “The pampered “it girl” of Putin’s Russia, author of “Philosophy in the Boudoir” and “How to Marry a Millionaire,” who once posed topless in Playboy, has restyled herself as a leader of the opposition to Prime Minster/President Vladimir Putin. That’s as remarkable a change as Mitt Romney’s restyling from a socially liberal Mormon to a conservative protestant fundamentalist. Think about it:

It is difficult to imagine a more unlikely standard-bearer than Ms. Sobchak, 30, the ubiquitous blond party girl known as Russia’s Paris Hilton. Most people here know her through her raunchy career in reality television, or the scandalous liaisons and broken engagements that make up the basic molecular structure of Russia’s tabloid culture.

Do you see what I’m getting at? This is a young woman who has made a serious about-face in her life, one we can’t imagine the actual Paris Hilton making, and one that nobody but nobody believes Mitt Romney has made (dare I mention Sarah Palin in this context?). Ms. Sobchak is showing the world that you can change your stars, or at least the stars you set yourself to follow.

Nor is she letting her past be an impediment. Look at how Ms. Sobchak has handled questions about her previous party-girl existence:

“I am sincere in what I am saying now, and I was absolutely sincere then,” Ms. Sobchak said this month, when a Ukrainian television talk show host, Oleksandr Tkachenko, asked if she was the same person. “Yes, I also was that vulgar fool with pink bows in bright white hair emitting the most unbelievable rubbish. This is also a part of my life, the merry and carefree one.

“And in fact I lived a number of years as this enfant terrible. Yes, I was that person.”

Forget for a moment that most Republicans probably don’t know what an enfant terrible is (it means ‘terrible child’) much less use it in a sentence. I’m not trying to compare levels of intellect here. She didn’t, like Mitt Romney, simply pretend the past never happened, didn’t insist that she had always been the Kseniya Sobchak we are seeing today. Instead, she admitted to a change taking place within her:

She added: “I began to change. A situation has taken shape in such a way that a larger number of people saw these changes. But it was the path from my 20th birthday to my 30th.”

She goes on to explain the circumstances that led her to become the face of the opposition to the man who saved her father’s life, whom some say is her godfather. It has taken courage to face her detractors among the opposition, who see her tainted by her family’s association with Putin, to expose herself to attacks from Putin’s own party, who see her actions and her words as a betrayal. We don’t see – or even expect – much in the way of courage from our politicians.

This is not something you will hear in American politics, where change is anathema, a betrayal, a violation of trust, a sure sign that a politician is not to be trusted. I have for a long time wished an American politician would respond as Ms. Sobchak responded, but I do not think we will ever see it happen. In America, if you change your mind, you doom your political aspirations. Change is seen as weakness. An American politician must be wedded to an ideology.

What is wrong with admitting you once acted a certain way, or thought a certain way, and then saying that you came to see things a different way? I would respect that: “I changed my mind, and here is why…” Instead they say it and do it and then pretend it didn’t happen, even though we have video footage of it, audio recording of it, documentation of it…

I’m sorry, but it ain’t an urban legend and it ain’t liberal mythmaking or conspiracy theorizing. It’s documented. Just admit it, own it, explain it, apologize for it if necessary, and move on. But Miss Sobchak is owning her past,and in owning it making of it not a weakness but a strength.

And you have to admire Ms. Sobchak’s courage in explaining why she has put herself in harm’s way (and I don’t mean to words  only; this is Russia we are talking about, though police actions against our own opposition are narrowing that divide…):

“If you see a boy being beaten in a dark alley, you will not pass by, you will stop and try to defend him, though you realize that you may be beaten too,” she said. “A person doesn’t want to feel like scum, and this is what happened to me. I realized I could not participate in this unfair monkey business anymore. And I quit.”

American politicians could take lessons from Ms. Sobchak in not only basic honesty but human decency. Any Republican you care to name would leave that beaten boy in the alley, muttering about personal responsibility or that its his own fault he doesn’t have insurance or lives too far from a hospital to crawl to it on his own power. Why, he shouldn’t have been in that dark alley in the first place!

Ms. Sobchack told a crowd of 80,000 demonstrators, “We know who we are against. We need to show what we are for.”

That’s something more liberals should be saying. We too could learn a thing or two from Ms. Sobchak. Of course, for her troubles, Ms. Sobchak has, like Sandra Fluke, been called a “cheap prostitute” but even if she had been a cheap prostitute it does not mean a cheap prostitute cannot have a brain, or use it, or learn from experience or become something else. It does not mean a prostitute cannot be a more genuine human being than a Republican politician, and a better citizen by far.

Republicans go through life trying to find excuses to avoid the responsibility of shared humanity and citizenship. Ms. Sobchak, like many other women both here and in Russia, demonstrates the ability to not only embrace that shared humanity, but by doing so to become a better human being, and a better citizen. If it’s a choice between a “cheap prostitute”, with Ms. Sobchak or Ms. Fluke as the exemplar of cheap prostitutes, I’ll take a cheap prostitute over a Republican politician any day of the week and twice on Sunday.

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