Miles Kington: Brezhnev loved the Wild West, and dressed up too

Brezhnev was asked if there was anyone in America he'd like to meet. He had the pick of great Americans. The man he chose was Chuck Connors
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The Independent Online

I was reading idly about John Prescott's visit to Mr Anschutz's ranch and how, unknown to us, Prescott had always been mad about cowboys and the Wild West and saddles and guns and things, when a very strange feeling came upon me. An uncanny feeling that I had been here before. That once upon a time there had been another politician who had been mad about cowboys and the wild west and guns and saddles and things...

Suddenly I was back in Moscow.

Not much more than a year ago, in the winter of 2004, I had been taken there by a Radio 4 producer, the excellent Neil George, who had persuaded me to get involved in a documentary on Brezhnev.

"Brezhnev!?" was my initial reaction to the idea. "But why on earth him...? And why on earth me? And what's the point of going to Moscow in midwinter...?"

Despite which we soon found ourselves in a very cosy country house talking to a man called Viktor, who had interpreted a lot for Brezhnev, not to mention Khrushchev and many others.

I had always imagined interpreters to be quiet, mouse-like creatures - small, grey conduits through which great men's thoughts passed. Not Viktor. He was large and loud, and laughed a lot, and smoked, and, unnervingly, had a perfect Wodehousian English accent. On the walls of his house were photos of the Pope and Eisenhower and people, and Viktor was in all these photos. On the mantelpiece was a Frank Sinatra LP. Written on the sleeve in big letters was the message: "To Viktor, from Frank".

"That's Frank Sinatra's writing?" I goggled.

"Sure. I met Frank Sinatra when I went with Brezhnev to California to meet President Nixon in 1973."

Apparently, knowing Brezhnev's taste for fast cars, Nixon had arranged for him to be presented with some sporty model or other. Brezhnev was delighted and offered to take Nixon for a spin. Nixon could not refuse, so off the two went together.

"Brezhnev always drove far too fast," said Viktor. "There was real fear in Nixon's eyes when they came back."

"Who else did you meet out there?"

"You won't believe this," said Viktor, "but before we went Brezhnev was asked if there was anyone, anyone at all, in America that he wanted specially to meet. He had the pick of great Americans. From Arthur Miller downwards. And the one man he chose to meet was Chuck Connors."

"Chuck who?"

"Exactly. He was an obscure B-movie actor who specialised in Western roles. He was in a TV thing called The Rifleman. And Brezhnev often sat up late in the Kremlin watching cowboy movies, and he just loved Connors's films. So the meeting was arranged, and Connors lifted him off the ground in a great bear hug, and presented him with a pair of six shooters he had used for filming, and these became prized possessions for Brezhnev. I remember him saying plaintively, 'Why did Connors not give me a belt and holsters as well?' But he had those made when he got back to Moscow. He wore the guns as often as possible."

"A bit difficult for the General Secretary of the Russian Communist Party to go around wearing pistols, surely?"

"Ah, but the top brass often went off to a shooting lodge in the country for long weekends, and he could dress up there to his heart's content."

And sure enough, when Neil and I later went to a trendy café in Moscow where there were photos from the bad old Soviet days ironically plastered round the walls, there was one huge picture of Leonid and his chums at their weekend retreat. And they were indeed dressed like hunters. And Brezhnev did have a belt and six-shooters on, and it must have been the ones that Chuck Connors gave him.

So he never got into trouble, unlike John Prescott, for accepting gifts from the Wild West.

Of course, Chuck Connors wasn't aiming to set up a casino in Moscow either.