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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

ESSAY: The Exemplary Rise of the House of Kobson




Revolution, opined Maurice-Georges Pal?ologue, French ambassador to Russia during World War I, is always more of a postscript than a preface, a verdict rather than a vision. This passing reflection was made one chilly morning in St. Petersburg in March 1917, as the lightly clad ambassador, out in Alexandrovsky Park for a saunter and a quick study of the Russian national character, was treated to the illuminating spectacle of a mob laying waste to the house of Matilda Kshessinska. As well as the lover of Tsar Nicholas II, Kshessinska was prima ballerina of the Imperial Russian Ballet and the first Russian dancer to master 32 consecutive fouettes en tournant.


Recently, I and a friend of mine on a visit from England went out for what he called a little stretch. Passing Moscow's Filippovsky Pereulok, we stopped in wonder at the sight of rather a pompous mansion under construction. Or rather, my friend stopped in wonder and I stopped because he stopped. It was a building of the distinctly ostentatious kind that is favored by New Russians and that baffles the unprepared mind completely. Two guards twice our size were standing at the entrance looking testy.


As my friend was wondering out loud how many families may move in and who the lucky so and so's may be, a little bespectacled lady, spotting two inquisitive travelers in confusion, stopped beside us.


"Do you know whose house this is?" she asked in reasonably good English.


We did not.


With her horn-rimmed glasses and book in hand, she had an air of plain, perfect propriety. She seemed earnestly bent to serve us in this little investigation.


It is the house that Iosif Kobzon, the singer, is building for himself, she said.


She smirked. She sniffed. She winced. She cursed. And then she was gone.


What a folly to build a house like that in times like these, my friend said.


Why? I asked.


If the winter is hard, he mused, and the people are driven to their limit, who would fall victim to whatever resentment might be vented?


Meaning? I said.


Whose house will they ransack first?


Your guess as good as mine, I said.


It was not. Kobzon's house? he ventured.


Mon ami, I said patiently, it will be the little lady's house.


.. Kshessinska was a ballerina, but not the best ballerina, for that was Anna Pavlova. Tamara Karsavina, arguably, was second best. Kshessinska was simply very good. But she had been Nicholas' lover before he married and became a tsar. That elevated her to prima ballerina of the Mariinsky. She was paid more than her mere dexterity merited. She toured hospitals with the Mariinsky during the war - one of the preposterous ideas of the Russian government, which unable to send guns to the front sent ballerinas instead. The soldiers applauded politely as told, but were said to have been stunned by the spectacle of a thinly veiled woman jumping around the stage. They believed she was a harlot. She probably made a modest and unwitting contribution to the cause of revolution, strengthening the simple people in their belief that their blue-blooded compatriots were debauched to the core. One year later, she was booted out of her house with great and brutal suddenness. Miss Kshessinska left Russia in 1920 and, for 30 years, taught ballet in Paris.


Mr. Kobzon is a middle-aged Soviet crooner and member of parliament. Or, at least, that is what he says. The FBI tells us he is a mafioso of some distinction. He was denied a U.S. entry visa some time ago. So was Kobzon's friend Shamil Tarpishchev, captain of Russia's Davis Cup team and Boris Yeltsin's tennis partner. Kobzon was quite popular in Soviet times. I have met people who claim to have attended his concerts. They struck me as people of debased sensibilities. Their language was appalling.


Kobzon has had an exemplary career and stands for everything that used to make Soviet pop music ludicrous. In the good old days, he established his integrity of purpose by serenading party bosses. Today, in a bid to curry favor with the left, he carols striking miners in front of the Russian White House. Both the nomenklatura and the blue-collar types liked him immensely. The rewards must have been quite out of proportion to his industry if they helped Kobzon to some $5 million worth of real estate in a posh Moscow neighborhood. Which means that there is a great deal to be said for the arts. Or maybe the Americans are right in saying that there is another, less reputable, side to Kobzon's business.


The Grand Canyon-sized gap between Russia's haves and have-nots has repeatedly been the target of a fluent and often brutal assault by the press. One has every reason to compare the magnitude of the gap to the one that existed in imperial times. It is an extreme heresy, however, to compare Russia's new money with toffs on horseback of yore, as many a brave pundit has in Russia and Europe.


The Russian aristocracy was but a thin veneer of European gloss on the impenetrable and antique hinterland of backwardness, cynicism and cruelty - a dark place of the earth touching the telegraph and Tolstoy on one side, and on the other the days of Genghis Khan. "Scrub a Russian and you will see a Tartar," the French writer Germaine de Sta?l once said. Scratch an oligarch and reveal an old apparatchik.


The aristocracy was not necessarily rich. Its members lived on a tiny, smiling island full of wine and pictures and loose young women and bachelors with a penchant for white satin sofas and pretty baubles. They were unembarrassed people made for special occasions - banquets, weddings, festivals, fetes where the weather - if we are to believe the books and paintings of the period - was warm and airy and brilliant. Their houses had the lilt of Old Vienna.


Rulers do not come like that today. Kobzon's house is going to be very ugly. The new money are the real thing, they are the Russian people. Your typical nouveau riche is a shadowy character with a murky but very Soviet past. His political connections - first forged as a young Communist - helped him to cheap stakes in some of Russia's most valuable businesses. His bank grew fat on free floats of state money at times when opportunities for the nimble, well-connected and sticky-fingered were almost limitless. He is an opportunist, usually from the Brezhnev school of diction and comportment, who cannot look beyond the short term. He is an astute student of survival, the sum and substance of the Soviet system, past, present and future - every inch the Homo Sovieticus - everything, in short, that the little lady with her spectacles, books and laudable command of English is not. That is why he is here to stay - lightly taxed - and she is to go.


Dmitri Alexandrov is a journalist in Moscow. He contributed this essay to The Moscow Times.