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Monday, September 20, 1999 Published at 08:37 GMT 09:37 UK


World: Europe

Raisa: Charmed the West, hated at home



Alongside her husband, Raisa Gorbachev was seen by many in the West as a breath of fresh air blowing through the usually subdued Soviet establishment.

With her haute couture outfits and outgoing, sociable manner, she was a living symbol of the changes taking place in the Soviet Union during the late 1980s.

And her husband shocked some when he admitted that she was politically influential, too. "I discuss everything with my wife, including Soviet affairs at the highest level," he said.

But to the Russian people, struggling with greater shortages and coping with the radial restructuring of the economy, perestroika, she became a hate figure who embodied all the excesses of their corrupt leaders.

She was born Raisa Maksimovna Titorenko, in the Siberian village of Vessolayarsk, on 5 January, 1932, the daughter of a railway worker.

Student romance

She moved to Moscow where she graduated as a student of Marxism Leninism, and met and married a fellow student, Mikhail Gorbachev.


[ image: She was her husband's greatest supporter]
She was her husband's greatest supporter
While her husband was the rising star, first of the Communist Party's youth section, the Komsomol and, later, in the party itself, Raisa Gorbachev, now the mother of a daughter, Irina, continued with her studies.

Her doctoral thesis, starkly titled Emergence of New Characteristics in the Daily Lives of Collective Farm Peasantry, pulled no punches.

In it, Raisa, one of the first Soviet sociologists, pointed out the great differences in living standards between people in the Stavropol region in southern Russia, where she and her new husband had gone to live.

In most other societies, this would mean little, but in what was supposed to be a classless country, her views were opposed to the official Party line and would normally have been supressed..

But they complemented, and certainly informed, the radical political views of her, now influential, husband who was to become the architect of openness, glasnost, in the leaden Soviet system.

Ladder to success

The death, in 1982, of Leonid Brezhnev, who had brought Mikhail Gorbachev to Moscow and the politburo, saw the head of the KGB, Yuri Andropov, become the Soviet leader.

During his brief reign, Andropov named Gorbachev as his successor. Party infighting prevented him from succeeding.

He had to wait for the death of the next leader, Konstantin Chernyenko, before he could take over at the Kremlin in 1985.


[ image: With Margaret Thatcher in 1984]
With Margaret Thatcher in 1984
The year earlier, Raisa Gorbachev accompanied her husband to Britain for a meeting with the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher.

Raisa's smiling face and stylish dress sense reflected the changing times and she perfectly complemented her husband, the man of whom Margaret Thatcher famously said, "I can do business".

The West, used to stern-faced Soviet leaders and their frumpish and silent wives, instantly took to the Gorbachevs. They were mobbed throughout the world and called upon to make walkabouts through adoring crowds wherever they went.

The greatest supporter of her husband's policies, which emphasised more efficient industry, a loosening of state control and a crackdown on corruption, Raisa Gorbachev was in a unique position to advise him.

The nuclear accident at Chernobyl in April 1986 spurred Raisa Gorbachev into action. She worked hard on behalf of the children who were left sick after being contaminated by radiation and her reputation at home was greatly enhanced.


[ image: With US President George Bush]
With US President George Bush
But the dream turned sour. Soviet citizens bore the brunt of the new policies. Wages were cut and prices increased as state subsidies ended.

Unemployment and homelessness, unknown under the Soviet regime, returned: drunkenness and random criminality became everyday events.

Unpopular

Raisa Gorbachev, with her expensive clothes and seemingly carefree lifestyle, was caricatured as a Marie Antoinette-like figure, a symbol of decadence in a fragmenting society.

In August 1991, she was at her husband's side when he returned, humiliated, after an attempted coup had been crushed by Boris Yeltsin and his supporters.

The couple had been held as prisoners for three days, far from Moscow, as others played the drama out.

The Soviet Union, and Mikhail Gorbachev, were both finished. The former broke up into a group of independent nations, the latter retained great respect in the West, but was powerless at home.


[ image: A shaken Raisa Gorbachev returned to Moscow after the abortive 1991 coup]
A shaken Raisa Gorbachev returned to Moscow after the abortive 1991 coup
Raisa Gorbachev's health failed in the aftermath of the coup. She suffered a stroke, the first of a number to darken her final years, and spent 18 days recovering in hospital.

Raisa Gorbachev, once the attractive and articulate face of hope for the Soviet Union, ended her days with her reputation at home in tatters, one more victim of the seamless tide of history which has washed over Eastern Europe in recent years.



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