Understanding the huge outpouring of grief for Magomayev is key to understanding Russia’s national psychology. What my parents’ generation is mourning provides vital clues to who they are and what they want - their values, and by extension, Russia’s values.
Magomayev was many things: a quintessential dandy who also happened to be a People’s Artist of the USSR; a trained opera singer with a Sinatra’s showman touch; a brilliant scion of an family of artists and musicians in an ardently ‘class-less’ society; a globe trotting cosmopolitan performing at La Scala and to sell out crowds at the Paris Olympia whilst remaining a steadfast Soviet patriot who always came back; a consumate gentleman and a sex symbol in the officially sex-less Soviet Union; a ‘national treasure’ moving in the poshest echelons of Moscow society, without giving up his deep ties to his native Baku.
Interestingly, I've never heard of Magomayev, and that says as much about the direction Azerbaijan is looking as Russia. Music is the one real cultural gift of Azerbaijan -- its great poets are all ancient (and many are disputably Armenian, ugh), but its traditional music scene is still very much alive, and popular even with the same youth who listen to 50 Cent on their cellphones while riding bareback with their herds in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains. Azerbaijani English textbooks are full of slavish devotionals to Azeri stars of the Soviet cultural scene. But the singers (and, less commonly, actors) who populate these textbooks are those who somehow glorify and propagate only Azeri musical forms. Bulbul, a favorite of Stalin, is the most popularly referenced. That Magomayev isn't in the same constellation says something important about Azerbaijan's desire to come out of its shell.
Update: Man, this guy is just so unutterably groovy that I'm putting a video up here. My City Baku: