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  • Raisa Gorbachev: Reviled in Life, Redeemed in Death (Sept. 20)

  •   Raisa Gorbachev, Last Soviet First Lady, Dies

    Former Soviet first lady Raisa Gorbachev, seen here in a 1999 file photo, died from leukemia in Germany early Monday. (Reuters)
    By J.Y. Smith
    Special to The Washington Post
    Tuesday, September 21, 1999; Page A1

    Raisa Gorbachev, 67, whose stylish, forceful and glamorous performance as the wife of the last Soviet leader, Mikhail S. Gorbachev, made her a lightning rod for attacks on her husband's programs of economic and political reform, died yesterday of leukemia at University Hospital in Muenster, Germany.

    Mikhail Gorbachev led the Soviet Union from 1985 to 1991, first as general secretary of the Communist Party and then as president of the Soviet Union. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990, survived an attempted coup by communist conservatives in 1991 and resigned the presidency at the end of that year when the Soviet Union voted itself out of existence.

    Upon learning of Raisa Gorbachev's death, President Clinton, in a statement issued by the White House, said, "The example she set, through her help for child victims of leukemia and through her own courageous struggle against this terrible disease, was an inspiration to people everywhere."

    Former first lady Nancy Reagan released a statement saying she and former president Ronald Reagan were "shocked and deeply saddened."

    "We believe that Raisa was a strong partner with her husband and an important voice in the friendship that our two countries established in the 1980s," Nancy Reagan said.

    Gorbachev was a presence in her husband's life in a way that was unprecedented in the Soviet experience. She appeared with him in public at home and abroad, served as his eyes and ears on her travels and was one of his closest advisers. Her activities were readily accepted in the West, but they were the subject of much criticism in the Soviet Union.

    She was practiced in diplomacy, but she created a minor furor in 1987 during a summit between her husband and President Reagan. After touring the White House with Nancy Reagan, Raisa Gorbachev described it as "an official house. I would say that humanly speaking, a human being would like to live in a regular house. This is like a museum."

    The U.S. first lady was furious. In "My Turn," her memoir, she said, "It wasn't a very polite answer, especially from somebody who hadn't even seen the private living quarters!"

    Nancy Reagan also said her counterpart was given to lecturing rather than carrying on a conversation. The alleged chill between the two first ladies was widely reported in the press, but by all accounts they put their differences behind them.

    In any case, it was a long way from Gorbachev's humble origins. She was born Raisa Maksimova Titorenky on Jan. 5, 1932, in the village of Rubtsovsk, Siberia. She grew up in various parts of the Soviet Union, where her father was a railroad engineer.

    She was a brilliant student and graduated from high school at the head of her class and with the coveted Gold Medal. This got her into the elite Moscow State University, where she studied philosophy. It was there that she met her future husband, a law student and the child of peasants. They were married in 1954. They were so poor that they had to borrow a pair of white shoes to complete her bridal outfit.

    The next year, they moved to Stavropol, a provincial capital in the Caucasus, her husband's native region. Mikhail Gorbachev began his climb through the bureaucracies of the Communist Party and the Soviet state.

    His wife earned a doctorate in sociology from the Lenin Pedagogical Institute in Moscow, having written a thesis called "The Emergence of New Characteristics in the Daily Life of Collective Farm Peasantry (Based on Sociological Investigation in Stavropol Territory)." She taught at the Stavropol Agricultural Institute.

    In 1978, the couple returned to Moscow. He entered the inner sanctum of Kremlin power. She joined the faculty of their alma mater. In 1985, she gave up teaching to become an unpaid member of his staff.

    "I am very lucky with Mikhail," she told an interviewer. "We are really friends, or if you prefer, we have great complicity."

    The Gorbachevs were beneficiaries of the Soviet system, but they were also keenly aware of the stagnation and contradictions that were such a prominent part of daily life. Moreover, their families had firsthand experience of the terror visited by Josef Stalin -- a grandfather of each had disappeared into the Gulag during purges in the 1930s.

    They fit naturally into the "sixties generation," which struggled to carry forward the efforts, begun by former premier Nikita S. Khrushchev in the late 1950s, to shake off the Stalinist legacy of oppression and cruelty.

    "We were bound first by our marriage, but also by our common views of life," Mikhail Gorbachev wrote in his memoirs. "We both preached the principle of equality."

    When they reached the pinnacle of power, these attitudes brought them into conflict with two powerful forces. The first was the conservative wing of the Soviet Communist Party, determined to defend its position and privileges against reform.

    The second and perhaps greater force was domostroi, the traditional and rigidly patriarchal code of Russian behavior in which women are rarely seen and almost never heard. It proved to be all but impervious to the "vanguard doctrine" of Marxism-Leninism.

    To start with, as Gorbachev observed in his memoirs, Soviet society "did not have a tradition of according the First Lady a special status." No wife of a previous Soviet leader, not even Nadezhda Krupskaya, the aggressively ideological wife of Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Soviet state, had sought to function as a first lady in the modern sense.

    Raisa Gorbachev had many supporters as she found her own way, but there were raised eyebrows in one quarter or another about almost everything she did. Some of the criticism was personal, but much of it came from opponents of perestroika (economic reform) and glasnost (openness), the centerpieces of her husband's policies.

    Questions arose about activities that had been accepted as a matter of course for first ladies in the West, such as accompanying her husband abroad and appearing with him in public at home. Once when she called her husband's attention to a child during a meeting with ordinary citizens in a street, many Soviets were scandalized: A wife does not direct her husband in any way, particularly in public.

    Although Mikhail Gorbachev never identified his wife as an adviser in public statements in Moscow, it was widely known that he had done so abroad. By his own account, he relied on her observations of conditions she observed in her travels around the Soviet Union.

    "She visited the families of workers and the homes of peasants," he wrote in his memoirs. "She went to new and old neighborhoods and got to know how medical institutions, household services, shops operated, how the municipal and rural markets worked. This was due both to her natural curiosity and to her professional interest as a sociologist."

    She visited victims of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster and worked to see that they were cared for, and she was the sponsor of a major pediatric hospital in the Soviet Union. She was a key figure in the Soviet Cultural Foundation, which had contacts with similar organizations in other countries.

    She also represented her husband at occasions he could not attend for political or other reasons. An example was a celebration at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow of the 1,000th anniversary of the introduction of Christianity to Russia, at which she sat in the front row with a number of bishops and church dignitaries.

    These activities would be unexceptional for the spouse of a Western leader,but they were novel in terms of the Soviet experience.

    The Gorbachevs were sometimes compared to Nicholas II and Alexandra, the last czar and czarina.

    In a typical joke, they are in bed and she says: "Misha, how does it feel to sleep with the wife of the leader of the Soviet Union?"

    Raisa Gorbachev's clothes -- of a variety, quality and quantity not available to ordinary Soviet citizens -- were another source of criticism, as was her manner. She was said to be imperious.

    In 1991, she published "I Hope," a memoir in the form of a long interview with Georgi Pryakhin, a Soviet journalist.

    Her purpose, she said, was to correct "invention, myths and even slander" that had been written about her.

    Since her husband left office, she had been active in cultural affairs and had traveled widely with her husband.

    In addition to her husband, survivors include a daughter, Irina.

    © 1999 The Washington Post Company

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