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OBITUARY: Victoria Brezhnev

Victoria Brezhnev was the widow of the Russian president Leonid Brezhnev and for the 54 years of their marriage his true and forgiving friend.

Her kingdom was their main dacha (Brezhnev's favourite dacha was another at Zavidovo), a three-storey building at Zarechye, west of Moscow, 10 minutes from the Kremlin, where she controlled some 20 houseboys, all of them KGB officers, among whom her favourites were Vladimir Medvedev, Brezhnev's personal bodyguard, and Tolya, his hairdresser for his last 15 years.

When Victoria Petrovna was born in Kursk during the reign of the last Russian Tsar, Nicholas II, it was a provincial town with fewer than 100,000 inhabitants. She was one of five children of an engine-driver, Petr Denisov, and attended a local medical school. She met Brezhnev in 1925 at a party, taught him to dance and soon introduced him to her parents. Three years later they married. From 1928 on Victoria Petrovna lived wherever her husband, already a high party official, was sent: in Dnepropetrovsk, in Ukraine, in Kishinev, the capital of Moldavia, in Kazakhstan, and later in Moscow. Her first and only employment was as a midwife at a local hospital, until her daughter Galina was born in 1929.

"Vitya", Brezhnev's pet name for her, was by all accounts tolerant and agreeable, and led a simple life. She used to sit in their palace at Zarechye watching her favourite television programme, ice dancing, to which Channel One's management, knowing her taste, gave plenty of air-time. She had no close friends but often invited the late President Konstantin Chernenko's wife, Anna, or the late Yuri Andropov's wife, Lydia, to join her.

She put up with her husband's young mistress living in the house (she was not the first), a married woman with a child, as well as his nurse, who had a powerful grip over him during his last 10 years. It was that "Mata Hari", the KGB's nickname for her, who made Brezhnev an addict to the tablets which eventually killed him.

Victoria Brezhnev was seldom invited to accompany her husband during his trips abroad after he became head of the Communist Party in October 1964. She was embarrassed by her lack of talent for public speaking. But she did travel with him to India, where she met and talked - in private - with Jawaharlal Nehru, and then France, where she was approached by Jewish demonstrators carrying placards that read: "You are a Jewish woman, help to let Jewish otkazniks [refuseniks] go." "They thought I was Jewish because my face looked Jewish," she said in a rare interview.

She was devoted to her husband. She never began her lunch, if he was at home, without him. He responded with "Ask Vitya . . ." or "Do as Vitya says . . ."

"Vitya" had a scare in January 1969 when Victor Ilyin, an officer from Leningrad, made an attempt on Brezhnev's life (but missed and killed a driver instead) and the second time following a car crash in Tashkent in the spring of 1982.

She looked after and virtually brought up their favourite granddaughter, Vitusya (another diminutive for Victoria), the daughter of Galina by her first husband, a circus acrobat and strongman, Yevgeny Milayev.

At the Brezhnevs' palace at Nizhnyaya Orcanda, in the Crimea, Victoria entertained her husband's friends such as the Romanian leader Nicolae Ceausescu (who - insultingly - flew over with his own cook, his own food and even his own water), the Bulgarian leader Todor Zhivkov, Gustav Husak of Czechoslovakia, Edward Gierek, secretary of the Polish Communist Party, and other East European Communist leaders; also their own close intimates such as Semen Tsvigun, deputy chairman of the KGB, Yuri Andropov and Victoria's brother-in-law, Yuri Churbanov, Deputy Minister of the Interior. She would play dominoes all night, teaming up with Brezhnev's doctor, Rodionov, against her husband and the KGB head of security, Alexander Ryabenko.

From 1974, when Leonid Brezhnev started showing signs of serious illness, Victoria looked after him, as did his mistress. But after his death in 1982 she could not forgive the KGB for allowing her husband's body to be handled by the mistress, aided by his bodyguard Medvedev. She was sidelined, and not even told that her darling "Lenya" had died.

Victoria Brezhnev appeared for the last time in public at the Kolonny Hall, in the centre of Moscow, where Brezhnev's coffin lay in state. Later that day she gave a brief speech at his pominki (memorial ceremony) at Novo-Ogarevo, a Moscow suburb, at one of the Soviet government residences. She commanded attention because after many official dry speeches about Brezhnev's "achievements" she told a simple human story of the first time the young Lenya had come to her parents' house and how much they had liked him. She then returned to the Kolonny Hall and stayed there, surrounded by the KGB, sitting and looking at him for all the three days until his funeral.

She continued living with her large family's problems - the chronic alcoholism of both her children, her daughter Galina and her son Yuri. In the late 1980s "Brezhnev's mafia" (as the Soviet press called them) came under investigation; Victoria's brother-in-law, Semen Tsvigun, Andropov's deputy, committed suicide, and she lost all her previous privileges. Usually untalkative with officials and totally apolitical, when she was asked to vacate her state dacha she suddenly snapped at Gorbachev's KGB officers, "Of course, I am guilty of the invasion of Afghanistan."

She moved to her last address on the prestigious Kutuzov Prospekt, and it was there that she died. Her final four years she lived virtually alone, abandoned by everybody. She had suffered for a long time from diabetes and was nearly blind.

Jeanne Vronskaya

Victoria Petrovna Denisova: born Kursk, Russia 1908; married 1928 Leonid Brezhnev (died 1982; one son, one daughter); died Moscow 5 July 1995.