Prominent Russians: Anatoly Sobchak
Lawyer, professor and politician Anatoly Sobchak was the first and only mayor of St. Petersburg. At one time as popular a figure as Boris Yeltsin, he was one of the first politicians to push for democratic changes in Post-Soviet Russia. During his time as professor of law at Leningrad State University, much of the new generation of modern Russia’s political elite passed through his care, including President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.
Family background and childhood
Anatoly Sobchak was born on August 10, 1937 in the Eastern Siberian town of Chita near the Chinese border. In Imperial Russia rebels were exiled to this region, so its tradition of free and independent thought may have contributed to Sobchak’s uncompromising character. Or perhaps he owed it to the mixed nature of his lineage - Sobchak’s father, from a Polish-Czech background, was a railroad worker, and his mother, who had Russian and Ukrainian blood, was a bookkeeper.
Despite this diverse background, Sobchak always considered himself Russian - “For me being Russian is about thinking and speaking Russian, but most of all belonging to Russia, being proud of my country and its contribution to world heritage, and being ashamed of the Chechen war, Chernobyl, of the desolate kolkhoz fields, of the poverty of the people, whose country owns countless natural resources. It is about mourning the victims of Stalin’s repressions and interethnic conflicts. But above all, it is about believing! Believing in a peaceful, democratic and prospering Russia, which we must leave to our children and grandchildren.”
Anatoly was one of four sons. When he was two years old, the whole family moved to Uzbekistan. When WW2 began, Sobchak’s father went to fight, with the weight of the entire household resting on his mother’s shoulders. This poverty and semi-starving existence had a big impact on the young Sobchak: “When I was little, the most rare and precious thing was food. I had lots of friends, nice parents, and pets to play with, but I never had enough food. I still remember that constant feeling of hunger. Our only salvation was our goat, as we couldn’t afford to maintain a cow. My brothers and I went every day to pick grass for it. Once someone hit our goat with a stick – she got ill and died. You know, I have never cried so much in my life as I did that day.”
He made it through the hungry years and kept up his studies, his integrity gaining him popularity among his peers. Even when a child, Sobchak’s qualities earned him the nicknames “professor” and “judge” because he knew a lot and was fair in solving rows. During wartime, Leningrad University professors as well as actors and writers were evacuated to Uzbekistan. Some of them turned out to be Sobchak’s neighbors. The stories they told him about Leningrad and university life impressed the boy so much, he made up his mind that he would never study anywhere else.
The ‘Straight A’ student breed
After graduating from high school, Sobchak entered the Law Faculty of Tashkent University. He studied there for one year and then got a transfer to Leningrad State University. He loved to study and always joked that he came for a breed of “Straight A” students. No one doubted this – by then, Sobchak had earned a Lenin scholarship, probably the highest achievement for a Soviet student. During this time, he married Nonna Gandziuk from his hometown, who had also come to Leningrad to get an education. They were still students when they married, and prestigious as it was, the scholarship wasn’t enough to pay the bills. The young couple was very poor; however what they lacked in food or material goods was made up for by the abundant cultural life of Leningrad, which Sobchak grew to love as a hometown. After a while, Sobchak and his wife had a daughter Maria, who later followed in the footsteps of her father and became a lawyer. However, the marriage was a failure and ended in divorce in 1977.
After university, Sobchak was sent to work as a lawyer in Southern Russia’s Stavropol region. Interestingly enough, that is the region Mikhail Gorbachev comes from. Sobchak worked there for three years, and since both he and Gorbachev were lawyers it is very probable that the two met during this time. However, Sobchak never mentioned this in any of his interviews and avoided the question altogether. Some say Sobchak owed much of his career as a politician to Gorbachev, but had to preserve his image of a self-made and independent politician. In any case, three years later, in 1962, Sobchak returned to Leningrad to get his PhD and continue his work as a lawyer and teacher.
In 1973, he presented his doctoral thesis, in which he put forward ideas of liberalization of the socialist economy and closer links between the state economy and the private market. His ideas were thought to be rather risque, and his thesis was rejected. Later Sobchak learned that he had been placed on the university’s blacklist because of his support of his former professor, who was fired after his daughter emigrated to Israel. Sobchak decided to lose the battle, and keep his chances of winning the war – he stopped defending himself and decided to wait with his degree.
A few years later when he felt the situation had changed, he wrote another thesis, successfully defending it in Moscow and becoming a Doctor of Law in 1982. The winds of perestroika were already beginning to blow, and this time no one gave Sobchak any trouble. Times had changed so much that he was allowed to become a professor without joining the Communist Party – virtually the only professor who wasn’t a member.
Sobchak founded and headed the first USSR Department of Economic Law at his Alma Mater. He worked there until 1989 – the time when he went into politics. Sobchak’s knowledge, wisdom and teaching manner made him very popular with students, and even when later he became mayor of St. Petersburg, he continued lecturing at the university.
Comrade-in-arms Ludmila Narusova
In 1975 Sobchak met Ludmila Narusova, who was to become his second wife. This is her account of their meeting: “I was going through a divorce and my husband didn’t want to give up the apartment, which was paid for by my parents. It was a difficult situation and someone recommended a lawyer who taught at the university. I was told that he dealt with difficult cases and had a non-standard way of thinking. I went to the university to meet him, and ended up having to wait a long time before he finished a lecture. I was tired and a bit disappointed. Then I saw how young pretty students flocked around him, asking him questions and trying to flirt with him, and thought he would be no good for me. I had no idea at the time that he was going through a divorce as well and had firsthand knowledge of this experience.
We went to a café to discuss my situation. I was so frustrated I began telling him everything about myself and my life, and cried so much, the cleaner came several times to wipe the floor. He listened to me and decided he needed to talk to my husband. He had the gift of persuasiveness but could be rather tough when needed – my husband backed down.
To thank the lawyer for his help I bought him a bouquet of chrysanthemums and three hundred rubles in an envelope. That was some money – a month’s salary of an assistant professor. He took the flowers and returned the money saying – ‘You are so pale. Why don’t you go to the market and buy yourself some fruit.’ I was very offended by that. Three months later we met at some party, and he didn’t even remember me. And that was even worse. I put my efforts into making sure he’d never forget me again! We started dating, however we had quite an age gap between us – he was thirty nine and I was only twenty five. We dated for 5 years, and he seemed in no hurry to propose - I was becoming very frustrated with his indecisiveness.. But 1980 we finally got married and a year later had our daughter Ksenia.”
Little did the happy father know at that time that several decades later, his daughter would almost surpass him in popularity, albeit not political, becoming the Russian Paris Hilton. However, when he picked her up from the maternity hospital, all he dreamt of was to live long enough to see her turn 18. As it happened, he died just a few months after her 18th birthday.
It was a second marriage, and a late one at that - Sobchak adored his wife, and admitted that he owed his life to her. She became more than a wife; she was his comrade-in-arms, fighting for the cause of her husband and even for his very existence. Later he wrote that during the time of his severe persecution her devotion, bravery and support won her great respect even from his enemies. Living and working so close to Sobchak, Ludmila too joined politics, getting elected as a deputy of the State Duma for the St. Petersburg district in 1995.
From university life to politics
Meanwhile, Mikhail Gorbachev became leader of the Soviet Union, bringing about the total reforming of the country - Perestroika, which put a start to the democratization of government. In 1989 Sobchak was elected a People’s Deputy of the USSR in the first democratic elections in the country.
The talented lawyer and professor was talented in politics as well. His uncompromising principles made him a name and all-Soviet popularity after the investigation of the massacre of nationalist demonstrators in Tbilisi, Georgia in 1989. He had been appointed head of the parliamentary inquiry into the tragedy – his report exposed gross misconduct by the security forces against the people. His straight questions during the cross examination of then Soviet Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov regarding the orders and actions of all government officials were televised nationwide, which was unheard of just a few years earlier.
Mayor of St. Petersburg
In 1990 Sobchak was elected Chairman of Leningrad City Council. The following year, at the general election of the head of the city he was elected the first mayor of Leningrad. On that same day a referendum was held on returning the historic name of St. Petersburg to Leningrad. With 54 per cent in favor, Leningrad became Saint Petersburg.
Sobchak quickly gathered a strong team of young well-educated professionals, who were also capable managers. Most of the people from his team now make up the political elite of Russia. One of his assistants was his former student Dmitry Medvedev, and another member of his team, Vice-Mayor Vladimir Putin. Sobchak genuinely loved St. Petersburg, strove to improve its image worldwide, and establish it as the cultural capital of Russia.
In the meantime, the coup by Communist Party hardliners in August 1991 gave Sobchak the opportunity to enter history. While Boris Yeltsin, President of Russia gathered and coordinated opposition in Moscow, Sobchak did the same in St. Petersburg. His role was crucial, as this is Russia’s second city and without his efforts, the coup could have succeeded there. He bravely confronted troops and persuaded them to keep away from the city.
The coup failed, the Soviet Union broke up at the end of 1991 and Sobchak emerged as Russia’s second most important political leader after Yeltsin. His legal education and experience allowed him practically to write the new constitution of Post-Soviet Russia. However, Sobchak was perhaps too soft a politician and wasn’t able to utilize his immediate post-coup popularity to move to a higher level of politics. Instead he became ensnared in local St. Petersburg politics and began losing popularity after failing to curb organized crime in the city. Soon, accusations of corruption and financial impropriety began to appear in the press.
From the height of popularity to persecution
In the beginning of 1996, Sobchak’s competitors launched a full campaign to discredit him – it was reportedly organized by his assistant Vladimir Yakovlev. Scandals involving Sobchak and his team appeared in the press – they were accused of mismanaging city resources, resulting in losses of hundreds of millions of dollars. Sobchak was accused of illegally privatizing property in prestigious areas of St. Petersburg. Some held that Sobchak and his popularity were too uncomfortable for Boris Yeltsin, whose second presidential term would have been greatly threatened if Sobchak had moved upwards. “I wouldn’t even wish it on my enemies to experience what I and my family went through in the last four years. All of a sudden a man with a spotless reputation was turned into a corrupt official, persecuted and accused of all deadly sins,” Sobchak later wrote in his book A Dozen Knives in the Back of Anatoly Sobchak.
He lost the election by just over 1 per cent, however the persecution did not stop. Sobchak had already had two heart attacks and was in poor health. In 1997, Prosecutor’s Office investigators tried to bring him to an interrogation by force – he was supposed to be a witness in a corruption case. His wife insisted that Sobchak was too ill to be interrogated, but the investigators didn’t believe her and tried to take him by force. She called an ambulance - the medics diagnosed Sobchak with what turned out to be a third heart attack.
He spent weeks in hospitals, the doctors receiving direct threats from Sobchak’s enemies. Some sources say that one of the doctors called Sobchak’s wife and told her that he had been ordered to kill Sobchak. Ludmila decided Russia was no longer a safe place for her husband, and in November 1997 took him to France. He lived in Paris for 2 years receiving medical treatment, teaching at the Sorbonne and working with archives and books.
Sobchak returned to St. Petersburg in July 1999. By this time, his former student and assistant Vladimir Putin was gaining power and Russia looked safer for Sobchak. His biggest persecutors had been either fired or arrested on criminal charges. In October 1999 Sobchak received official notice from the Prosecutor General’s office about the closing of the criminal case against him. Every one of the accusations published by the press was deemed groundless. Sobchak restored his honor, winning cases against those who had published libelous material about him.
However, the press wasn’t in a hurry to make it up to Sobchak with a shower of positive reports. The material which had been published years ago had had an effect on people. In December 1999 Sobchak stood for election to the State Duma. However, lack of support and heavy competition with the city authorities played a decisive role – Sobchak fell short by just 1.2 per cent.
Before long though, the political situation in the country began to look more promising again. In 2000 Russia changed presidents – Vladimir Putin, Sobchak’s former protégé was appointed acting president before the March election. In his turn, Putin appointed Sobchak as his representative to manage campaigning in Russia’s westernmost region of Kaliningrad, where he went on February 15. If Putin won the March election, Sobchak would likely be given a senior position in Putin’s government.
Death and legacy
Five days later, on February 20, Sobchak was found dead. Right away opinions were voiced in the press by Sobchak’s wife and close ones that it was murder, while the autopsy established heart failure as the official cause of death.
The murder claims were supported by a recent interview Sobchak had given to Kommersant newspaper, shortly before leaving for Kaliningrad. When asked about his health, Sobchak said: “I received extensive medical treatment last summer and now feel fine and am prepared to work as usual. There have been attempts to kill me, but thank God I am healthy and full of energy.”
Vladimir Putin, who at the time was the acting president of Russia, attended the funeral. He was asked what he thought about the death of his former professor, boss and representative: “Right now I’m here as the head of state, so I cannot make sharp statements, however, I can tell you my general opinion – I think this isn’t simply a death, it’s slaughter. And for sure it’s the result of victimization.”
Sobchak was a representative of the generation which held the political stage both in Soviet and post-Soviet Russia. Having gained massive popularity during Perestroika, he became one of the ideologists and political leader of capitalist reforms. In a way Sobchak’s death, which coincided with the end of Yeltsin’s presidency, closed the romantic period of Russia’s democratization. However, the new political generation he raised is his ongoing contribution to the country for years to come.
Written by Olga Prodan, RT