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The Facebook Drama That's Brought Russians To Tears

  • Daisy Sindelar

It wasn't just Russians captivated by Lidia Ivanovna's story. Organizers for the 90-year-old Charles Aznavour, who is due to perform in Moscow on April 22, wrote to Chernykh, saying the singer wanted to personally meet her backstage.

It wasn't just Russians captivated by Lidia Ivanovna's story. Organizers for the 90-year-old Charles Aznavour, who is due to perform in Moscow on April 22, wrote to Chernykh, saying the singer wanted to personally meet her backstage.

Elderly Russian women -- universally known as "babushki" -- don't often have the distinction of becoming Internet sensations.

But that all changed this week, when 73-year-old Lidia Ivanovna was spotted staring wistfully at a celebrity tabloid in a vending machine at a Moscow subway station.

Aleksandr Chernykh, a journalist with the Kommersant newspaper, noticed Lidia Ivanovna -- "an absolute classic of her type, dressed in an old coat and a colorful head scarf" -- and asked if she needed money to buy the magazine.

She declined. It wasn't the tabloid she was after -- just the cover, which featured a photograph of one of her favorite singers, the French-Armenian crooner Charles Aznavour, famous for songs such as Emmenez-moi, or Take Me Along.

"He's so handsome," Chernykh, in a lengthy Facebook post, later recounted her as saying. "I really love his songs."

As Lidia Ivanovna -- who introduced herself simply by her nickname, Lida -- joined Chernykh on the metro escalator, she enthused about not only Aznavour but another French singer-songwriter, Joe Dassin, whose 1969 hit Les Champs Elysees remains a beloved favorite of many Russians.

Suddenly, Lida burst into song, moving from Les Champs Elysees to the dreamy Dassin hit Et Si Tu N'Existais Pas and finishing with Je Ne Regrette Rien by the legendary French chanteuse Edith Piaf.

"It was even more piercing than Piaf's version.... She turned out to have a wonderful voice and amazing French pronunciation," wrote Chernykh, who managed to film a brief clip of Lida Ivanovna singing another Piaf number, Milord.

Asked where she had learned her French, the babushka said in the 1960s, while still in her 20s, she had spent many happy hours at the library, where visitors could reserve a special cabinet and listen to records. "You would go, listen to records through earphones, and you'd remember everything," Chernykh quotes her as saying. "It was a very fashionable thing to do. We all went."

Chernykh gave her his telephone number, hoping he could record her again or even escort her to an Aznavour concert she had seen advertised on the magazine cover.

But as they parted, he assumed it was the last he would see of Lida. He wrote up the fleeting encounter and posted it and the video on Facebook, where it quickly drew nearly 400,000 viewers enchanted by the story of the singing babushka.

"This story brought me to tears," wrote one user. "Now Lida will no longer be lonely. Simply an incredible elderly lady." Another reader wrote, "Thank you for not just walking past this babushka." "Bravo! There are still kind souls in Russia," a third wrote.

It wasn't just Russians captivated by Lida's story. Organizers for the 90-year-old Aznavour, who is due to perform in Moscow on April 22, wrote to Chernykh, saying the singer wanted to personally meet her backstage.

Since then, Aznavour has posted an online video from his home in France, in which he pledges to lower ticket prices so that elderly fans might find it easier to go.

The news delighted Russians following Lida's story, with many offering to pay for her ticket. But without a phone number -- Lida had said she didn't have a phone -- Chernykh had no guarantee he would ever be able to find her.

But his Facebook post did the trick. Within 24 hours, journalists from the Armenian news site Barev Today had their own chance encounter with Lida, whom they recognized from Chernykh's video.

Chernykh was contacted by Barev Today and was delighted to have another chance to speak to Lida, whom he now called by her full name and patronym, Lidia Ivanovna. They sat in a McDonald's and talked until midnight. Lidia Ivanovna was a Moscow native, divorced, and had worked as an accountant. Her father and brother had died in World War II.

Now she shared a tiny flat with her granddaughter, her granddaughter's husband, and their baby. "Probably, in order not to bother her family, she spends the entire day walking around the center of Moscow," Chernykh recounted in a subsequent Facebook account, saying she knows the names and histories of all the street musicians she encounters.

But told about the offer to meet her idol Aznavour, Lida Ivanovna flatly refused. "I'm not in good health, I have headaches, how would I be able to sit there so long?" she told Chernykh. "And all the people around me will be beautifully dressed, and I have nothing to wear. They'll ask, 'What is this toothless old lady doing here?'"

Chernykh says he still hopes to persuade Lidia Ivanovna to change her mind. Even if he fails, the chance meeting has clearly left him in a philosophical mood about the fate of Russia's elderly, who live largely in the shadows.

"She worked all her life, never left Moscow, just lived and sang -- an ordinary person," he wrote. "But see what kind of unexpected magic can happen to all of us. A world-famous French singer wants to meet a Moscow babushka in a head scarf. Such stories are taking place in our city."

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