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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Crooner Kobzon Knows Nothing if Not His Place

He has the voice, the way with women and, according to the U.S. government, the mob connections.

He is Iosif Kobzon, Russia's Frank Sinatra, for decades the favored crooner of television and variety shows, and for decades both the friend of the powerful and a power player in his own right.

Russians might argue that the impeccably tailored Kobzon rivals political leaders in clout, and certainly wealth. Row upon row of photographs in his office attest to his connections: There is Kobzon with Pope John Paul II; with the former Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir; the presidents of Ukraine and Russia; with Liza Minnelli, Charles Aznavour and Julio Iglesias; with stars of Slavic stage and screen; with Soviet soldiers, policemen and cosmonauts.

In a 40-year career, Kobzon has amassed more civic honors than many singers have performances. In the new Russia, he has preserved his political foothold as a twice-elected deputy of the State Duma, winning up to 92 percent of votes cast, and proud that "nobody else got close to these good old Soviet numbers."

Yet the 64-year-old crooner with the obvious dark wig and heavily tinted eyebrows knows nothing if not his place. Circumspection is second nature to anyone who survived the Soviet system, let alone thrived as Kobzon has.

An hourlong conversation, punctuated by calls on the tiny cellphone in his palm, is laced through with the mix of calculation and panache that has accompanied his mellifluous baritone since he started singing in the army in the late 1950s. To sit at his side is to appreciate what it takes to make it in Russia.

How galling, then, the American charge that he has broken the law and has links to the mafia, whispers amplified by his attendance at the funeral in 1994 of a Georgian commonly held to be one of Moscow's biggest gangsters.

By Kobzon's own, eagerly presented account, he had visited the United States some 30 times before being refused a tourist visa in 1995. In January 1996, the unthinkable happened: He and his wife were held for seven hours upon trying to enter Israel. According to Kobzon, friends in the Israeli government intervened to end that ignominy.

But he has been allowed to visit the United States only once since then, as part of a parliamentary delegation to Harvard in May 2000. (He left early, feeling he was receiving unneeded lectures in American democracy.) Kobzon said that a U.S. case file on him sent around the world makes it difficult for him to gain entry without obstacle, even to countries where he either holds or does not need an entry visa.

He said the file was based on false charges that arose out of a power struggle in the 1990s between officials then in the Kremlin and his friend, Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov. The charges, that he was involved in drugs and arms trafficking, have indeed never been brought before a court, and Kobzon has a sheaf of letters from senior law enforcement and other figures attesting to his good name. To date, however, not even hiring U.S. lawyers has been of any avail.

Last fall, according to a copy of a letter Kobzon displayed, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov even wrote "Dear Colin," Secretary of State Colin Powell, requesting his personal help in "one sensitive matter." The State Department, questioned about this appeal, declined to comment.

Kobzon has been forced to take consolation in his enduring status in Russia. Lingering, almost lovingly, over Kremlin New Year's receptions, he recalled being a particularly honored guest of President Vladimir Putin, invited to sing the first public performance of the refurbished national anthem.

To the most recent Kremlin New Year, however, he was invited only at the last moment, without his wife, and was not seated in the president's hall. "But that is not important," he said. "What is important is to know whether you are part of this cartridge clip, or not."

A day earlier, he emphasized, Putin had been careful to strike up a conversation with him at a reception given by Luzhkov. "We are genetically inclined to have an idol," the singer noted with a flicker of a smile. "We need a vozhd," he said, choosing the word for supreme leader, "and we have to adore him."

When Kobzon was born, on Sept. 11, 1937, the vozhd was his namesake, Josef Stalin. The singer's mother was a judge who later practiced law.

Raised among the coal mines of eastern Ukraine, he first studied mining. Yet, he said, "I cannot remember not singing." During his compulsory military service in the late 1950s, he joined a song and dance group.

That led to studies in Moscow and a rapid entree into the entertainment world. In quick succession, he married and divorced a singer, and then an enduringly popular actress, Lyudmila Gurchenko. He met his third wife, Nelli, in 1972, and speaks proudly of his son, daughter and four granddaughters.

In 1997, around his 60th birthday, he officially took leave of the stage, performing countless farewells around the former Soviet Union and winding up with a 12-hour marathon event including tributes from virtually every potentate of the day. One of the items he sent Powell to convince him of his status was a videotape of that concert.

Of course, like Sinatra, Kobzon did not really retire. He is a fixture on holiday variety shows and at almost any concert honoring the army or police. Last fall, Russians got a first: Kobzon in tears as he sang "Commander," the lament of an officer unable to save his young recruit from the bullets of Chechnya. Kobzon said he wept in memory of his many visits to Soviet troops in Afghanistan and the Russian army in Chechnya.

It is a measure of his complexity that Kobzon has won admiration at home and abroad for standing up to anti-Semitism. He refused to join a state-sponsored Anti-Zionist Committee in the early 1980s. When a rabid Russian nationalist, General Albert Makashov, stood in the Duma and denounced "the zhidi," a derogatory term for Jews, Kobzon walked out.

Such outspokenness appears at odds with his desire to succeed by pleasing. Yet conformity alone was not what carried this singer so far. The clue lies perhaps in the words of his favorite ballad.

"I love you, life," he crooned, leaning back in his seat, "and I hope that the feeling is mutual."