Russian singer dubbed ‘Soviet Sinatra’ dies aged 80

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A Russian lawmaker and singer who was dubbed “the Soviet Sinatra” during his decades-long career has died aged 80.

The Russian State Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament, said that Iosif Kobzon died on Thursday.

Russian news agencies quoted his assistant as saying the singer’s death resulted from a protracted illness, a typical Russian euphemism for cancer.

Russia Obit Kobzon
Russian singer Iosif Kobzon, right, has died aged 80 (Dmitry Lovetsky/AP)

Kobzon’s striking baritone and repertoire of songs about the heroic achievements of the Soviet people helped make him one of Russia’s most popular singers of the 20th century.

He stopped touring over a decade ago but still performed an occasional show until recently.

President Vladimir Putin sent his condolences to Kobzon’s family, calling him “truly a people’s artist” and a “man of great strength, courage and dignity”.

Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said Kobzon was “a wise mentor who was always there with help and advice”.

With his trademark toupee and boxer’s build that could easily withstand seven-hour singing marathons, Kobzon was a perennial fixture on Soviet and Russian radio and television starting in the early 1960s.

His devotion to the Communist party and a repertoire of patriotic songs about the achievements of the Soviet people helped him become one of the most successful performers of the Soviet era. He sold tens of millions of records in the Soviet Union and the Socialist Bloc countries.

But to generations of Soviet dissidents and rock music fans, Kobzon symbolised the omnipresent Communist propaganda that contradicted the idea of artistic expression free from censorship and government control.

Kobzon was born into a poor Jewish family in the eastern Ukrainian town of Chasov Yar in 1937 — in the darkest hour of purges instigated by Soviet leader Josef Stalin.

As part of a children’s choir, Kobzon performed in front of Stalin and later graduated from the prestigious Gnesin music school in Moscow. He rose to fame in the early 1960s with Cuba My Love, a song praising the anti-US struggle of Cuban Communists.

By 1973, Kobzon had become a member of the Communist Party and earned a degree at the University of Marxism-Leninism.

In 1989, Kobzon was elected to the first Soviet parliament. In the same year, as an influential member of the Soviet Jewish community, he participated in the talks that restored Soviet-Israeli diplomatic ties, which had been cut after the 1967 Middle East War.

He tried to organise a Russian tour for his long-time idol Frank Sinatra. But to Sinatra’s demand to be sent a handwritten invitation from Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and to hold his show on Moscow’s Red Square, Kobzon replied with a four-letter swear word.

From 1997 until his death, Kobzon was a lawmaker in the State Duma, joining the Kremlin-organised United Russia party.

Kobzon advocated for the introduction of strict limits on foreign music in radio and television broadcasts.

Using his political and business connections, he facilitated the release of dozens of captured Russian soldiers and civilians during the separatist wars in Chechnya.

In recent years, Kobzon travelled to his native separatist-controlled eastern Ukraine to show his support for the Kremlin-backed rebels, defying protests from the Ukrainian government. In one of his last shows, he performed in the rebel capital of Donetsk in October 2014, celebrating the inauguration of the rebel leader.

Kobzon is survived by his third wife Nelly, son Andrey, daughter Natalya and 10 grandchildren. He will be laid to rest in Moscow on Sunday.

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