DONETSK, Ukraine — As war raged between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists this summer, the border crossing at Uspenka was the point of entry for Russian mercenaries, supplies, heavy weaponry, and rebels. On Monday, Russia sent subversive cargo of a different sort: 77-year-old crooner and pro-Putin lawmaker Iosif Kobzon, whose wobbly baritone brought a rapturous crowd of old ladies in the rebel stronghold of Donetsk to tears.
Known as the Soviet Frank Sinatra for his repertoire of schmaltzy Soviet classics and alleged ties to the Russian mafia — he has been unable to receive a U.S. visa for years because of his alleged links to mobster Semyon Moglievich, one of the FBI's 10 most wanted — Kobzon is revered in his native east Ukraine. He has the keys to more than half a dozen cities in the region; Donetsk even built a statue in his honor.
His full-throated backing of the Kremlin's stance on the Ukraine crisis has made him persona non grata to the federal government in Kiev. Ukrainian secret services even attempted to stop him from visiting Donetsk by placing him on an entry ban list, though their lack of control of much of the Russian border meant this was essentially a token gesture.
For the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, which is attempting to fashion an independent pro-Russian rump state, the appearance in the city's opera house of Kobzon's trademark Lego-man wig and stock-still facial complexion of poorly sculpted clay was an important signal that life is slowly stabilizing after months of conflict with Kiev's government forces. Much of the city's remaining population is made up elderly people who grew up on Kobzon's songs and still long for the Soviet Union of their youth.
The audience — consisting almost solely of heavily made-up women over 50 in outdated evening finery — met him rapturously, standing for much of his set and breaking into chants of "Russia! Russia!" Many other elderly women fought each other viciously at the entrance for the few available free tickets and had to be restrained by militiamen. "I remember when he played in Donetsk 20 years ago," mumbled an older woman sitting a row behind BuzzFeed News. "He started at six in the evening and didn't stop singing until midnight. He sang seven songs in Russian, seven in Ukrainian, and seven in Jewish."
Camouflaged men with guns were the ushers. A faint smell of burning lingered over the theater after a poorly extinguished cigarette butt set a bin of used toilet paper in the women's bathroom on fire. The backing band was the same Russian police choir that performed a bizarre cover of Daft Punk's "Get Lucky" at the Sochi Olympics, appearing in violation of a recent Russian ban on security officials leaving the country. For the last number in his set, Kobzon was joined onstage by rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko, who stumbled through a Soviet classic, "I Love You, Life," to which he clearly didn't know most of the words. "It's fine — I'm an even worse soldier than you are a singer," Kobzon said.
Elderly, obsessed with World War II, and obsequious to state power (he even nominated Putin for the Nobel Peace Prize last year), Kobzon is the ideal musical face of rebel-held eastern Ukraine. His concert was clearly meant to mark a new normal — and a cultural line of demarcation. Since the Ukrainian crisis began, Kobzon has been trotted out as a doddering counterweight to the younger, hipper, pro-Western musicians who stray from Kremlin orthodoxy. His musty, pompous music and preening retrogradeness ("Most of you weren't even born when I started singing these songs," he joked) are a world aside from the Dire Straits-like rocker Andrei Makarevich — who has seen his career nearly ruined since he performed for eastern Ukrainian refugees this summer — or Ukrainian revolutionary icons Okean Elzy.
As if to reinforce the notion that Kobzon is the lead singer for Kremlin-land, where reality itself is a relative concept, Russian TV even reported on moments from the concert that never actually happened. Though Kobzon omitted to sing the rebel national anthem he had claimed he would perform, Russian state media nonetheless said that he did anyway, and spoke repeated encores, even though he gave none. Appropriately enough, he dedicated his set to "those who fought for the freedom of Donbass," omitting to mention that many of them were Russian soldiers and that the entire area now depends solely on Russian help for its survival. "You can't put Donbass on its knees," he said. The crowd gave him a standing ovation.
Max Seddon is a correspondent for BuzzFeed World based in Berlin. He has reported from Russia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and across the ex-Soviet Union and Europe. His secure PGP fingerprint is 6642 80FB 4059 E3F7 BEBE 94A5 242A E424 92E0 7B71
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