Former U.S. Rep. E. Kika de la Garza, D-Texas, recently spun an interesting tale about how one man, unknown to most of the world, is largely responsible for the good relations that now exist between the United States and Russia.

Those improved relations, de la Garza said, were evidenced by President Bush's visit to Russian President Vladimir Putin's hometown of St. Petersburg, where the two leaders signed an historic arms reduction agreement.

De la Garza, or Kika, as he is more commonly known, was on stage recently at the Texas A&M Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Weslaco to accept the Distinguished Texan in Agriculture Award presented to him by Dr. Ed Hiler, dean of agriculture and life sciences, on behalf of A&M's Agriculture Program.

De la Garza's tale begins in the months after President Reagan had labeled the Soviet Union as the “evil empire,” while both superpowers still had nuclear warheads aimed at each other. But as chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, De la Garza managed to arrange for himself and a few committee members an agricultural tour of the Soviet Union, a rare feat since congressional delegations were not allowed there at the time.

After the tour, and upon departing the Soviet Union, De la Garza said he made an offhand remark to the Soviet agriculture minister that he should one day visit him in the United States. Shortly thereafter, and much to De la Garza surprise, the minister, Viktor Patrovich Nikonov, accepted his invitation. “What do I do now?” De la Garza remembers thinking.

The U.S. State Department was so upset at him for having usurped their protocol, De la Garza was made to wait in an ante room as Nikonov met with President Reagan in the White House.

In the days that followed, De la Garza escorted Nikonov to the various U.S. sites he wanted to visit, including Iowa State University, the Chicago Board of Trade and Disney world.

“We made arrangements to borrow then-Vice President George Bush's plane to take him to all the places he wanted to see,” De la Garza said. “The Disney people in Florida were very kind and very generous. When we arrived we were met by Mickey Mouse in his bright red suspenders and Minnie Mouse.”

But De la Garza soon learned that the ag minister was not so much interested in cartoon characters as he was in visiting the futuristic agriculture display at Disney's Epcot Center.

“We toured the Epcot Center, and the minister was very happy,” he said.

De la Garza was on hand at Andrews Air Force Base as Nikonov finally departed and was pleased to learn from the Soviet ambassador that Nikonov had thoroughly enjoyed his visit, based on the customary but unusually high number of kisses the minister had exchanged with his hosts at departure.

Only later, though, did De la Garza learn “the rest of the story.”

“Later we found out that Nikonov and (then Soviet president) Gorbachev had grown up together in the same area. Nikonov had come here to see if the atmosphere was favorable for Gorbachev to come visit the United States,” De la Garza said.

“Having found the U.S. atmosphere to his liking, Nikonov's visit led to Gorbachev and Reagan's historic visits to each others' countries, which began the thaw of the long-standing Cold War tensions.

The eventual downfall of the Berlin Wall, and indeed, the Soviet Union, followed.

“So where we are now with the former Soviet Union is thanks to Nikonov and his interest in American agriculture. That's what did it. The world may never know that it was Nikonov's first visit, and then Gorbachov's visit, and I had the privilege of working alongside that.

“For all many farmers, scientists, farm workers and everybody that makes up American agriculture, thank you for this award. I accept it on their behalf,” he said.