Europe

Profile: Iosif Kobzon, Russian crooner and MP

Iosif Kobzon (right) with separatist leader Alexander Zakharchenko, Oct 2014 - file pic Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Last October Kobzon (right) gave a solidarity concert in rebel-held Donetsk

Iosif Kobzon - a veteran Russian variety singer-turned-politician - has been added to the EU sanctions list.

It is another badge of honour for the "Russian Frank Sinatra", the ever-loyal crooner, politician and businessman.

"I spit on their sanctions," he said with a proud grin on Russian television on Monday.

"I'm very pleased and grateful," he said in another interview.

His only regret was that he would be unable to visit his daughter and grandchildren. His daughter is married to an Australian citizen and lives in the UK.

But he remained defiant.

"My enemies accuse me of performing in Donbas and Crimea. I will go there again," he said, and announced his next dates in Donetsk and Luhansk later this month.

Like many other supporters of President Vladimir Putin, he has very publicly backed the pro-Russian rebels fighting the Ukrainian government.

It is not the first time the 77-year-old singer has been blacklisted by Western states.

Since 1994 he has been repeatedly denied a US visa, despite almost annual applications, although not on political but crime-related grounds.

The original rejection quoted his involvement "in unlawful activity". He was allegedly closely connected to a Russian gangland boss, Vyacheslav Ivankov (nicknamed "Yaponchik"), who died in Moscow in 2009 from multiple bullet wounds.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Iosif Kobzon was awarded a medal by President Putin in 2012

Spectacular career

Mr Kobzon seems to have been around forever.

He had a meteoric rise to fame for a working-class Jewish boy from eastern Ukraine. He was born outside Donetsk and grew up in Dnipropetrovsk.

He started singing while serving in the Soviet army in the late 1950s.

In the 1960s he rose through the Soviet music scene's official hierarchy. 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. The list of his official awards runs to a few pages.

He also cultivated powerful connections in the Soviet elite.

Despite being a loyal Soviet patriot, he effortlessly adapted to the new post-communist regime.

Since 1990 he has been a member of the Russian parliament, and more recently one of the leading figures in United Russia, the ruling party. He also skilfully converted political clout into business success and wealth.

In 2002 he was diagnosed with cancer. He has undergone much surgery and collapsed on stage in 2010.

His looks have appeared frozen since the 1980s, if not the 1970s - allegedly with the help of botox injections. He also sports a very obvious glossy black wig.

Staunch Putin fan

Since the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis last year, Mr Kobzon has taken an aggressively anti-Kiev stance. In March 2014 he signed a letter supporting Russia's annexation of Crimea.

He has travelled repeatedly to the rebel-held areas of eastern Ukraine and was even appointed Russia's "honorary consul" to the so-called "Donetsk People's Republic".

As a result, some Ukrainian cities stripped him of his honorary citizenship.

"I don't care," he said in response. "For me there's no Ukraine that is governed by a fascist regime. Therefore I don't want to be an honorary citizen of Ukrainian cities."

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