This article belongs to Pax Russica series 

 

Iosif Kobzon's name was once amongst the most popular singers in the former Soviet Union. The veteran performer, who is known as the “Russian Sinatra” in the West and had his name entered into the Book of Records of Russia as the most decorated artist in the country's history during the 20th century, had maintained a positive reputation until recently. Now his name is now mostly associated outside Russia with Russia`s imperialistic ambitions and chauvinistic mood.

Iosif (or Joseph) Kobzon had a speedy rise to fame out of a working-class Jewish family from Donbas, eastern Ukraine. He started singing as a boy and appeared in concerts dedicated to Joseph Stalin— a significant honour at the time.

In the 1960s, he rose through the Soviet music scene's official hierarchy. With a rich baritone, he was an ideal performer of Soviet patriotic songs in communist times.

Despite widespread anti-Semitism, his Jewish origins did not hold him back. Although Kobzon was expelled from the Communist Party in 1983 for his “political short sightedness” after he performed Jewish songs during an international friendship concert (which resulted in the Arab delegations leaving in protest), his reputation was restored when he received the USSR State Prize.

Kobzon was also the first celebrity to visit Chernobyl after the 1986 nuclear disaster and was famed for entertaining Russian troops stationed in conflict zones including Afghanistan and Chechnya.

Despite being a loyal Soviet patriot (in one of his recent interviews, Kobzon expressed his nostalgia for the Stalinist era), he easily adapted to the new post-communist regime.

Sanctions on Russia: The case of Iosif KobzonActive in Russian politics since 1989, Kobzon has been a member of the Duma, the Russian parliament, and more recently became one of the leading figures in United Russia, the ruling political party. He also skilfully converted political influence into business success and wealth.

Seemingly ageless in his trademark dark-brown wig and penciled-in eyebrows, his countenance has appeared frozen since the 1980s, if not the 1970s — allegedly with the help of botox injections.

Since the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis last year, Kobzon has taken an aggressively anti-Kyiv stance. In March 2014, he signed a letter supporting Russia's annexation of Crimea. As a result, some Ukrainian cities stripped him of his honorary citizenship.

In February 2015, Iosif Kobzon found his name among the Russian politicians, public figures and celebrities who were included in the EU sanction list because of their open support of the separatist movement in Ukraine.

According to the official explanation, Kobzon, “visited the so-called Donetsk People's Republic and during his visit made statements supporting separatists. He was also appointed Honorary Consul of the so-called ‘Donetsk People's Republic’ in the Russian Federation.”

Also mentioned was Kobzon's March 2014 vote in favour of drafting a Federal Constitutional Law, “on the acceptance into the Russian Federation of the Republic of Crimea and the formation within the Russian Federation of new federal subjects — The Republic of Crimea and The Federal Special Status City of Sevastopol.”

“My enemies blame me for performing in Donbas and Crimea. I will go there again,” Kobzon said, and announced his next dates in Donetsk and Luhansk later this month. Like many other supporters of Vladimir Putin, he has very publicly backed the pro-Russian rebels fighting the Ukrainian government.

“I spit on their sanctions,” he said proudly on Russian television. However, in another interview, he expressed regret that he would be unable to visit his daughter and grandchildren residing in Europe and to go there for medical treatment. He said, “It displeases me as I was going for medical treatment abroad. But what to do? I shall be treated here. I am proud to be in the company of people who are not indifferent to the fate of Russia and the fate of my homeland — the Donbas.”

Also Kobzon said that he was waiting for reciprocal actions from Russian authorities against European citizens.

It was not the first time the 77-year-old singer had been blacklisted by Western states. The singer has been denied entry to the United States since the mid 1990s. In 1995, the State Department cancelled his multiple-entry visa over suspected mafia ties.

Admired by the majority of Russians for his actions during the Ukraine crisis, some of his statements, however, generated anger even in his own country. In July 2015, at a press conference during his visit to the Crimea, he stated that it would be better to raise funds not for the treatment of individual children, but to help Crimea. The corresponding video immediately went viral.

Nevertheless, the same summer, Iosif Kobzon, who was diagnosed with cancer, sought President Putin's help to go abroad for medical treatment. Although officially blacklisted, Kobzon was able to receive a visa into Europe thanks to Putin`s efforts.

Kobzon`s departure to get treatment in the West caused controversy in Russia, aggravating longstanding popular resentment over the many reports of political elites enjoying lavish lifestyles, owning luxurious properties abroad and sending their children away to foreign countries.

Many commentators accused Kobzon of cynicism and hypocrisy over his anti-western rhetoric. He voted for a 2012 law against adoptions by US families, which prevented thousands of Russian orphans from receiving treatment overseas, and called for Russia to cut diplomatic ties with the US over a visa row.

Some also brought to attention an incident in which Kobzon persuaded a fellow actor, Yuri Kuklachev, to go to Russian cancer centers. “No foreign country! We have excellent doctors!” said Kobzon to his friend.

A survey by the liberal Echo of Moscow radio station found that 82 per cent of its listeners thought Kobzon should not be allowed to go abroad for treatment. One popular blogger wrote that treatment in Russia would be the, “best punishment for the torture he and all the current MPs have subjected our country to”.

This has become an even more sore topic of late as Russians have been asked to endure a falling rouble and embargoes on foreign foods, which accompanied western sanctions against Russia for backing rebels in eastern Ukraine.

Very loyal to all governments throughout his career, Kobzon thrived during all regimes. He sang about the Russian revolution, Soviet achievements, Brezhnev`s heroism and perestroika. At present, Kobzon is not simply a staunch Putin fan but a great symbol of the Putinesque elite of today's Russia – he supports Putin and his actions, praises glorious Russia, welcomes the annexation of Crimea, motivates Russia-backed separatist movements in Ukraine and denounces the West. Yet he ends up having family members, children and grandchildren, as well as his bank accounts in the ‘rotten West’, as it is called by official Russian propaganda. His main destinations for tourism and medical treatment are Europe or America, not any point in Russia's vast territory.

Of course, it is everyone’s right to fight for his or her own life. It is also every individual's own business to serve any regime. It is even okay to first spit on sanctions, then to ask to have them removed for himself. But to help Putin transform Russia into what it is today – a corrupt, police state without satisfactory medical treatment – is a national matter and Kobzon's actions do not serve a better future for Russia.

 

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