Russia Mourns a Crooner Who Always Found Political Favor

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Iosif Kobzon, the Russian crooner who died at 80 on Thursday, came out on top in three distinct chapters of his country’s history: the Soviet era, the brief window of freedom and chaos in the 1990s and Vladimir Putin’s imperialist revival. No one else embodies all three periods as he did.

Kobzon remembered singing for Josef Stalin in 1946 after winning an amateur contest as a schoolboy; he’d been told not to stare at the dictator but he did so anyway. Stalin clapped. This must have determined the direction of Kobzon’s Soviet-era career as the foremost singer of World War II-era, patriotic and political songs. He knew what Nikita Khrushchev and his successor Leonid Brezhnev wanted him to sing. He collected every prestigious prize and title, including “People’s Artist of the USSR,” the highest Soviet-era honor, which he received when Mikhail Gorbachev was in power.

He sang onstage with Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, and with Fidel Castro. He received a medal for singing to troops in Afghanistan. Even though he was briefly kicked out of the Communist Party in the 1980s for singing in Yiddish, his pompous baritone remained the Soviet Union’s official voice.

“I wasn’t a Kremlin nightingale,” he would say later. “I didn’t rhapsodize power but rather the time, I sang about my people’s heroic feats.”

The way he did it contributed to my generation’s hatred of official Soviet culture, which Kobzon personified for us. Konstantin Kinchev, one of the rock musicians we listened to, sang of a country where “each is Sid Vicious in his soul but Iosif Kobzon in his actions,” meaning a nation of rebels pretending to conform in everyday life. But when the rebellion won and the Soviet Union collapsed, Kobzon was still there, singing in his familiar official style, but now about Russia and freedom.

He wasn’t a favorite of Boris Yeltsin and was briefly banished from official events for “Drunken Coachman,” a song that hinted broadly at the president’s drinking and erratic governing style. But he had plenty of backers: Yeltsin lifted the ban after then-Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov intervened on the crooner’s behalf. By then, Kobzon was a wealthy businessman with a hand in many industries, including oil and radio broadcasting. His commercial empire thrived in part thanks to his wide-ranging connections, including with the Soviet Union’s former undercover businessmen. Otari Kvantrishvili, one of the leaders of the Moscow underworld, was a close friend until he was gunned down in 1994.

A parliament member since 1997, Kobzon sailed effortlessly into the Putin era, when he served as a legislator for the ruling United Russia party. With his powerful Soviet nostalgia, Putin went out of his way to show Kobzon respect. Last year, when the singer turned 80, Putin presented him with a bronze bison figurine, a reference to the Soviet poet Alexander Ivanov’s quip: “As you can’t stop a running bison/So you can’t stop a singing Kobzon.” (The crooner was known for marathon concerts; a performance he gave in the Kremlin for his 60th birthday lasted more than 12 hours). 

Kobzon, who made no secret of his respect for Stalin, took to Putin’s Soviet revival project with gusto. In 2014, he embraced the Crimea annexation. He even sang a duet with Alexandxer Zakharchenko, leader of the unrecognized Donetsk People’s Republic set up by Russian proxies in eastern Ukraine. Ukraine stripped him of the numerous honors it had given him over the years, and in 2015, the European Union sanctioned him, making it difficult for him to get cancer treatments abroad. Like many in the patriotic Putin elite, he preferred European health care.

The singer’s vocals have been an occasional unwelcome soundtrack to my entire life. Even now that he’s dead, his voice grates on my nerves like steel on glass. It’s the sound blaring from every TV set I have ever wanted to toss out the window. But I’m doomed to hear his voice loud and clear in my memories. That’s because he channeled something important about the country of my birth.

Kobzon’s career should be a powerful reminder that in Russia, the more things change, the more they stay the same. His life helps to see that what appear as a chain of upheavals and abrupt turnabouts in Russian history is an unbroken, logical chain of events that only scratched the surface of the essential nature of a huge, mostly dormant country. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics and business. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

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