Anatoly Alexandrovich Sobchak

Anatoly Alexandrovich Sobchak (born 1937), a popular democratic leader of Russia, was elected mayor of St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad) in 1990.

Anatoly A. Sobchak, the urbane mayor of St. Petersburg (named Leningrad in the Soviet era) often mentioned as a future president of Russia, began his life far from the city in which he became famous. Sobchak was born in Chita, east of Lake Baikal in the Soviet far east, an area with a long revolutionary history. Both his grandfather and his father worked for the railroad and participated in the revolution and consolidation of Soviet power in Siberia. Although his family was a humble one, Sobchak revealed that his Czech grandmother tutored the family in the manners of the intelligentsia, which perhaps contributed to his demeanor and image. Like other families, the Sobchaks experienced the cruel hand of Stalinism when his grandfather was arrested in the late 1930s. His father fought in World War II, while his mother earned a meager salary to support the family.

Young Sobchak was selected to go to Leningrad University, a rare honor for someone from the remote provinces. After the university, he worked at first in the Stavropol region and later attended graduate school in Leningrad. He became a resident of Leningrad, building his career as an attorney and as a professor in the Law Department of Leningrad University. Unlike most prominent figures of the Soviet era, Sobchak was not a long-time member of the Communist party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). He joined the party in 1988 during the opening of the ranks (called perestroika) because he believed reforms would have to begin within the CPSU, the most entrenched structure in that society. His public life began as a response to Gorbachev's initiatives in perestroika in the late 1980s and was fueled by a desire to advance the reform movement.

In 1989 Sobchak was nominated and elected to the new parliament, the Congress of People's Deputies. His "I, Too, Have a Dream" speech to secure the nomination was inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous speech. Sobchak was subsequently elected by the People's Deputies to the smaller, more powerful standing parliament, the Supreme Soviet. In his early political career in the Congress, Sobchak moved slowly and carefully, observing his colleagues, aware of the entrenched power and the fragility of the new democratic movement. He approached the national political arena not as a long-time bureaucrat (apparatchik) but as a critic of the Soviet state structure, theoretically based on the local Soviets or councils that for many years had been rubber stamps for the party. Boris Yeltsin, elected to the new Congress and the Supreme Soviet, also criticized the status quo but had been part of the system for many years before he was removed from the Politburo in 1987.

Sobchak worked with Andrei Sakharov to abolish Article VI, which gave special status to the CPSU, from the Soviet Constitution, continuing the struggle after Sakharov's death. In March 1990 the article was removed despite Gorbachev's continuing opposition. A confrontation between the leaders of reform and the party old guard at the 28th Party Congress in July 1990 resulted in the resignation of numerous reform leaders, including Sobchak.

In 1990 when Sobchak was elected chairman of the Leningrad city council, and shortly afterward mayor of Leningrad, he was already a politician with a national following. After 1992 Sobchak was viewed as an important leader of independent Russia, a significant voice in Russia's democratic movement, and an articulate spokesperson for the new Russia. He was criticized, however, as were other Russian leaders, for sometimes wanting to govern without accountability to anyone. In addition, his reputation as a democrat was clouded by a minor furor over an elaborate tsarist-style ball he and his wife sponsored during a time of general economic hardship. Sobchak, however, remained widely respected by Russia's intelligentsia and was one of numerous academics who made a successful transition into politics during the Gorbachev era.

Sobchak was successful in changing the name of the former Leningrad to St. Petersburg. He achieved significant progress in St. Petersburg despite its serious economic problems. The city's economy was built on the defense industry, which faced cutbacks and conversion. It is in a region with few natural resources and is dependent on other areas for raw materials and food. His goal was to develop the city as a center for free enterprise, emphasizing finance, tourism, and trade. He was able to designate it a free economic zone and to create a municipal bank to handle foreign exchange and regulate other banking activity. He encountered considerable frustration in his efforts to transform the city into a financial center, primarily because of its financial and economic backwardness in respect to Moscow, which widely outdistanced Leningrad in employment, income, banking activity, access to currency, and infrastructural soundness.

By 1991 many people began to perceive the mayor of Leningrad as the most articulate and progressive alternative to Gorbachev. In August 1991 Sobchak was involved in the anti-coup movement against the conservative party and government officials, who had tried to remove Gorbachev and reverse the reforms. He led demonstrations in Leningrad and was in frequent contact with Yeltsin, who led the resistance at the parliament building in Moscow. After the coup had failed, Sobchak tried to prevent the dissolution of the parliament and the union, realizing that rapid disruption of existing structures and the end of the Soviet Union could be more problematic than working within a less than perfect system. In post-Soviet Russia, supporters of reform advocated differing paths, and at times Sobchak disagreed with Yeltsin on the pace and course of reform.

A tall, handsome man, Sobchak had a commanding presence and good speaking skills that were assets in Russia's expanded use of television in politics and elections. In the parliamentary elections of December 1993, he was a leader of one of several competing reform parties and was perceived as a possible future presidential candidate. He was also well respected abroad, where he made numerous appearances as mayor of Leningrad

Sobchak had difficulty in dealing with a cumbersome city council apparatus. He was criticized for an intransigent administrative style. In The Struggle for Russia (1995), Yeltsin wrote that "Sobchak had to change in his job as St Petersburg's town governor' from his old image as a liberal, from a well-respected politician and law professor to a harsh, authoritarian administrator." Sobchak's image as a haughty national leader in-waiting did not enhance his local popularity as mayor. In a period of economic decline and hardship, he also suffered, with others, from a general public disillusionment with the fathers of liberal economic reforms. He was perceived by many Russians as cold and detatched. He alienated many with his strong anti-communist positions and was accused of spending more time away from the city than in it.

Sobchak was unexpectedly defeated in the second round of the 1996 mayoral elections by Vladimir Yakovlev, an economist specializing in municipal affairs and Sobchak's Deputy Mayor responsible for housing. The campaign was recriminatory, with accusations by Sobchak and his wife, Lyudmila Narusova, a deputy to the state Duma from St. Petersburg, that Yakovlev, who spent far more than the 125-million-ruble limit on his campaign, had exerted pressure on the local media to provide favorable coverage for Yakovlev. Yakovlev and media employees retorted that Sobchak, who as mayor had a weekly call-in television show with a huge regular audience, and Narusova had regularly attempted to dictate coverage during his term of office.

Narusova, an influential woman like Raisa Gorbacheva, was both admired and resented by others in political life. She and Sobchak had two daughters. Although successful in his own political career, Sobchak had reservations about politicians and political life. He functioned both as a political actor and as an observer of the very process in which he participated. His ambivalence can be summarized in a passage from his book, For a New Russia: "If we overcome the system's resistance and build a market economy, powerful democratic forces capable of preventing any relapse into the past will appear. Then we … will feel free to go back to our private lives. We are mere recruits, and most of us dream of completing the work that was suspended in spring 1989 until better times. I dream of my books, my research, and the joys of life within a Russian intellectual's compass."


Further Reading on Anatoly Alexandrovich Sobchak

Anatoly Sobchak, For a New Russia (1992) is an interesting chronicle of the years 1985 to 1991 and includes an autobiographical sketch of his life. It is a useful resource to understand the man and his thinking. David Remnick, Lenin's Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire (1993) offers insights on Sobchak's role in the anticoup movement. Stephen Sestanovich's article, "Amateur Hour," in the New Republic (January 27, 1992) gives a good analysis of Sobchak and his views on politics. Articles on Sobchak's public activities can be found in The Economist, Central European, and World Press Review. See especially Peter Kurth, "Great Prospekts," Condé Nast Traveler (February 1994). The Soviet Biographical Service provides well-updated information on public figures. Events of the Post-Soviet period are discussed in Boris Yeltsin, The Struggle for Russia (1995) and G.D.G. Murrell, Russia's Transition to Democracy (1997).