A career bureaucrat from the Stalin era, Leonid Brezhnev presided over an often-repressive dictatorship. Domestically, Brezhnev’s 18-year reign was characterized by frequent crackdowns on dissidents and the unrelenting oppression of Soviet Jews. In foreign affairs, Brezhnev courted détente with the West but oversaw the crushing of reform movements in Czechoslovakia and Poland and invaded Afghanistan. One Westerner who saw another side of Brezhnev, who died on Nov. 10 at age 75, is Armand Hammer, 84, chairman of the board of Occidental Petroleum. In 1973 Hammer—who has negotiated numerous deals with the Soviet government in commodities ranging from wheat and furs to art treasures since 1921—sold Brezhnev on a 20-year, $20 billion fertilizer deal. In their many meetings, Hammer found the Soviet President a genial, generous host and grew to consider him a friend. Last week he reminisced about Brezhnev with PEOPLE correspondent Clare Crawford-Mason.
I first met Brezhnev right after President Nixon faced him at the summit in 1972. He was a very warmhearted man and very emotional. I had some Lenin letters with me that I gave to him. He was so touched, his eyes filled with tears. “I didn’t prepare any gift for you,” he said. “Here, take this.” And he took off his gold watch and chain and gave it to me.
He was human, warmhearted. He had a twinkle in his eye and he was always ready to crack a joke. Of course, I spoke Russian and could speak to him in his own language. He had a habit of kissing you on the lips and Mrs. Hammer was kind of taken aback. It wasn’t the first time I had been kissed by a Russian—but it was the first time on the lips. Once Mrs. Hammer complained that she wasn’t going back to Moscow because she didn’t like conditions in the National Hotel. Brezhnev’s assistant told him, and they gave us a beautiful apartment that overlooked Red Square. It was four or five smaller apartments turned into one.
When we were working on the fertilizer deal, Brezhnev had a file in front of him with everything I had done. I was negotiating with one of the heads of foreign trade, a tough bargainer named N.D. Komarov, a deputy minister. “Has Komarov squeezed you plenty?” Brezhnev asked me. Then he laughed.
In 1978 the State Department asked me to go to Yalta to see Brezhnev about an American businessman who was under arrest for alleged black market operations. Brezhnev sent his plane to Moscow for us, and he had cars waiting for us with a police escort. We were wined and dined and had a yacht at our disposal and we sailed around the Black Sea. I had dinner with him and we discussed the case. He said that they had the goods on the businessman through the KGB. “We are going to make an example of him,” Brezhnev said.
“What do you gain by that?” I asked him. “You’ll alienate the American business community. No businessman will feel safe here. They’ll feel you framed this man. Why don’t you just expel him from the country?”
So Brezhnev did that.
On many occasions I was able to get him to help in cases that seemed impossible. There was a little child who needed special treatment that she could only get outside of Russia. I went to him about it and he overruled everyone and gave permission for the child—and the parents—to leave.
One night we had dinner together—and of course lots of vodka. I couldn’t keep up with him. He could drink glass after glass. He got very mellow and we talked about peace. He told me about some of the terrible things he had witnessed during the war. He said he would gladly give his life for peace. His eyes filled with tears, and I knew he meant it.