Khil was wryly amused by his late dawning celebrity in the West when he was notified of it by his 13-year-old grandson, Eduard Jr, and spent many happy hours watching fan tributes from across the world online. He declined to capitalise on his newfound fame, however, preferring to enjoy the peace and quiet of his retirement in St Petersburg.
The crooner’s surprise return to the limelight followed a barren quarter century. A great star during the Brezhnev era, Khil found himself deeply unfashionable following the collapse of the Soviet Union as the newborn Russian Federation was flooded with Western music, regarded as a relic by the younger generation and as a puppet of the old regime by their elders.
He was quite literally reduced to singing for his supper in the 1990s, entertaining diners in a Russian restaurant in Paris with nostalgic songs from the old country.
Celebrity in the USSR was always a political matter. Khil, who grew up in Nazi-occupied Smolensk on the Belarussian border and remembered singing for wounded soldiers, rose to prominence in the early 1960s following his graduation from the Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory in Leningrad (now St Petersburg), when he took part in patriotic singing competitions organised at the Kremlin’s behest.
Khil’s booming baritone led him to win the All Russian Competition for Performers in 1962 and take second place in the Sopot International Song Festival in 1965.
He quickly became a national hero, eulogising Communist values with song’s like ‘Woodcutter’, an ode to the health and vitality of the working lumberjack, humbly toiling for the greater good.
His popularity grew and Khil’s status seemed assured in 1974 when he was awarded the title of People’s Artist by the state and allowed to tour the world, a privilege extended to few civilians outside the Bolshoi or athletic community.
Khil performed in more than 80 countries representing the might of the USSR through song.
He even visited the US, Russia’s superpower nemesis, taking a holiday that saw him travel from coast to coast and entertain Russian immigrants in New York.
He taught young singers at the Leningrad State Theatre Arts Academy between 1977 and 1979 and all appeared comparatively rosy for Khil until the gradual disintegration of the bloc a decade later brought hardship and decline.
Beloved though he was in his heyday, Khil was no stranger to Soviet censorship.
Even his “Trololo” song was a matter of controversy. A cowboy ballad written by composer Arkady Ostrovsky whose proper title was ‘I Am Very Happy Because I Am Finally Coming Home’, its lyrics were expunged because they were seen to sentimentalise the US, hence his syncopated warbling as an alternative means of expressing the returning protagonist’s joy.
Khil told Pravda in an interview that the song originally told the story of, “John on a mustang is riding across a prairie to his love Mary who is waiting for him and knitting him a woollen sock.” Apparently too enticing a vision of Western domestic bliss for a paranoid Kremlin to stomach.
Eduard Khil (Getty)
After his years in the wilderness, “Trololo” saw Khil become Russia’s unlikely answer to Rickrolling and he found himself a star once more. The forgotten man was presented with the Order for Services to Homeland by then-President Dmitry Medvedev in November 2009. Medvedev would later describe his death as “an irreplaceable loss to our culture” and said his songs were, “dear to people of different generations, loved not only in our country but also abroad.”
Vladimir Putin also praised the late singer and “Trololo” was even played at the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014 – Eduard Khil deployed at the service of proud Russian grandstanding on the international stage one final time.