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.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: HR Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are in need of a HR Manage...

h2 Recruit Ltd: Business Development Manager - HR Consultancy - £65,000 OTE

£35000 - £40000 per annum + £65,000 OTE: h2 Recruit Ltd: London, Birmingham, M...

Day In a Page

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
Sports Quiz of the Year

Sports Quiz of the Year

So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect