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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Slavic Soul Sister: 50 Vocal Years

If Mother Russia were to sing, she would have Lyudmila Zykina's voice.

With a range as broad as her proportions, Zykina is the acknowledged diva of Russian song, the matriarch of melodic melancholy, the high priestess of tuneful patriotism. Kate Smith with a Slavic soul.

Particularly among the generation of the Great Patriotic War, Zykina's singing touches resonant emotional chords, from the awesome sweep of the steppe to the endlessness of Russian tragedy.

Now 66, Zykina is celebrating a half-century in song. Even if her contralto has lost some of its richness and her heyday has passed, Zykina is still in perfect pitch with her loyal fans.

"She sings with all her soul," said World War II veteran Anatoly Morozov after a performance over the weekend at the Estrada Theater. "You hear her voice and your spine tingles."

It is that effect that won Zykina gold records in Russia and abroad, where homesick emigr?s flocked to hear her perform favorites such as "The Orenburg Shawl" and "The Volga Flows On."

Zykina's repertoire through five decades has totaled some 2,000 songs, and they form a national vocal history. For Zykina has used her powerful crescendos not only to portray a village girl's unrequited love or a soldier's mother's grief, but also to celebrate such Soviet milestones as Yury Gagarin's triumphant flight, the USSR's first atomic power station and even the Uralmash heavy equipment factory's 50th anniversary.

For Zykina, these were not propaganda pieces, but songs in praise of the country she loves. "I can't leave Russia for more than two weeks without feeling bad," the singer said in a recent interview.

The People's Artist was a frequent guest at Kremlin dinners -- beginning in the Stalinist era, when she was a member of the renowned Piatnitsky folk choir, and later under Krushchev and Brezhnev. "I never liked it. It always shocked me that they would be busy eating while you were performing."

Nowadays Zykina's political connections are to Viktor Chernomyrdin's Our Home is Russia party, and she sings the praises of both Chernomyrdin, whom she has known for years, and of Yeltsin, whom she believes should be re-elected. Zykina declined to take a Duma seat, devoting her time instead to cultural affairs. She is president of the Russian Academy of Culture, founded four years ago to organize tours and exhibits by Russian artists. And she still tours with her own ensemble.

Even after 50 years in the spotlight, Zykina is hard-pressed to explain how she rose from wartime lathe operator, at 12 years old, to Soviet superstar. "For some reason people cry when I sing. All I know is I have worked hard all my life."

It was apparently not just her voice that commanded attention. The story goes that when the comely, buxom brunette lost her voice in Tbilisi, the Georgian males in the audience happily invited her to simply parade back and forth onstage instead.

Married four times -- always to younger men, the last 14 years her junior -- Zykina says she will not wed a fifth time. "What is a husband?" she mused. "When you have one, you have to completely belong to him and take care of his every need, make sure his shirts are starched and his underwear is clean." Laughing, she said she is too old, too independent and too career-minded for all that.

Zykina is reportedly among the three wealthiest singers in Russia, along with Iosef Kobzon and Alla Pugacheva. "I am not poor," acknowledged Zykina, diamond and emerald wattage lighting her ears, fingers and wrist.

She is also, by the way, not just Lyudmila Zykina the Russian singer but maintains she is also the reincarnation of an African medicinal "herb-gatherer" forced into slavery in the American South. "I intuitively sense what ails a person," she said, proceeding to prescribe a cure for her interviewer's health troubles that nonetheless sounded suspiciously Slavic: "Two cloves of garlic a day."