I’ve been listening again and again over the last few days to the songs of Vadim Kozin, the great popular Russian singer of the 1920s, 30s and 40s. Two weeks ago I’d never heard of him, but browsing through the BBC News website just after Christmas I came across a short article based on a BBC World Service documentary about Kozin made by the British singer Marc Almond.
Vadim Kozin was born in St Petersburg in 1903, his father a merchant and his mother a singer in a gypsy choir. Following the Revolution and his father’s early death Kozin supported his mother and sisters as a musician and singer and rapidly became one of the most successful stars of the 1920s and 1930s. His style – wistful, nostalgic, yearning – is the kind of lachrymose, sentimental Russian fare, torch songs of love, hope and loss, that should probably be consumed with vast quantities of vodka. He was gay, but in the relatively liberal times of the 1920s, more or less openly so.
In 1934 homosexuality was criminalised in Russia (as a decadent, capitalist vice, perhaps) and although Kozin travelled extensively during the Second World War to rally the troops (he even sang for Churchill at the Tehran or Yalta conference (accounts differ), his crimes eventually caught up with him. He was convicted of homosexuality and sent to the gulags. It didn’t help that he was apolitical, and not overtly supportive of Stalin (when asked by Beria why he didn’t sing about Stalin he replied, with imaginative tact, that Stalin was not suitable for the tenor voice).
His mother and sisters died in the siege of Leningrad. He never saw them again and never returned to Moscow, living until 1994, first in the prison camps of Kolyma, and then, after his sentence was completed, as an exile in Magadan.
Marc Almond’s research in the 1990s resulted in an album Orpheus in Exile of Kozin’s songs. They’re excellent versions, but listen to the originals first on Spotify or YouTube.
This is my favourite: