HomeEuropeRaisa Gorbachev — the last Soviet leader’s steelier half

Raisa Gorbachev — the last Soviet leader’s steelier half

Paul Starobin is the former Moscow bureau chief of Business Week. He’s currently writing a book on Russia.

Back when Mikhail Gorbachev was a party leader in southern Russia’s Stavropol region, he found himself at a seemingly interminable liquid lunch, his comrades begging him to stay for just one more round. “No. That’s it,” Gorbachev told them. “Raisa Maksimovna will let me have it. She’s the boss.” 

It was a “joke,” William Taubman said of the spousal retort in his 2017 biography of Gorbachev, “but with far more than a grain of truth.”

The death of the last head of the USSR on August 30 has spurred obituaries in the Western media that hail Gorbachev as the “reformist Soviet leader who lifted the Iron Curtain,” per the New York Times. It wasn’t until the 38th paragraph that the paper finally mentioned his wife, Raisa. 

Yet, her husband’s accomplishments are unthinkable without Raisa’s intimate, disciplined involvement in his ascent to the top spot in the Soviet system, as well as his efforts to remake Soviet society and improve relations with the West. If anything, she was the smarter and steelier — and possibly more ambitious — of the two. 

As Mikhail wrote years after her death from leukemia in 1999, he and Raisa were “engaged in a dialogue that never stopped.” Or, as she once said of their relationship, “We are really friends, or if you prefer, we have great complicity.” 

Raisa was born in 1932 in a Siberian village. Her father was a railway worker who never joined the party, and her uneducated mother toiled in the endless household labors of sewing, cooking and cleaning. Yet, even in these cramped circumstances, Raisa found scope to exercise her capacious mind and vivid imagination. Her happiest childhood memory was of reading books aloud to the family. 

After placing first in her high-school class, she met her husband-to-be in the early 1950s at the elite Moscow State University. Although she was one year younger than Mikhail, she was one year ahead of him in class, and her field of study, philosophy, was considered more prestigious than his in law. To her gold medal upon graduation from high school, he had taken a mere silver. 

Raisa was “elegant, very slender with light brown hair,” Mikhail recalled. “She bewitched me.” 

In the Soviet ideal, women were nominally equal to men. But in the Russian patriarchal tradition — still of great weight in Soviet life — women, especially in any public setting, were supposed to take a back seat. The wives of Soviet leaders seldom appeared in public. 

Raisa defied this convention. She accompanied Mikhail on global summits, and once, she even appeared with him on the deck of a Soviet submarine during an inspection — the sailors muttering that a woman on board would bring bad luck. And so, she paid a price for her refusal to heed custom: the social disapproval of many Russian men, and many Russian women as well. 

Her husband, who began his role as Soviet leader with a crackdown on alcohol sales, had his own popularity problem. And in a sense, his unapologetic treatment of Raisa as a “complicit” partner contributed to his negative public image. Some Russians derisively branded him a podkabluchnik — a husband under the heel of his wife.  

Mikhail Gorbachev and his wife, Raisa, in Budapest on June 9, 1986 | Daniel Janin/AFP via Getty Images

A writer of a letter to the party’s Central Committee asked, and not in a nice way, ”Who does she think she is, a member of the Politburo?” And an underground video — possibly the work of Soviet intelligence operatives opposed to his reforms at the time — showed Raisa purchasing stylish clothing, unavailable to a typical Soviet woman.

Yet, Gorbachev never stopped relying on her. As part of her husband’s glasnost initiative — aimed at loosening restrictions on what could be discussed, debated and published in Soviet public life — Raisa served as a kind of ambassador to the Russian intellectual elite.  

He availed himself of her “natural curiosity,” as he put it, along with her willingness to travel on her own throughout the USSR, keeping him informed of conditions on the ground. “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,” he later wrote of this period.

Later, Raisa was physically and mentally devastated by the coup the Soviet old guard mounted against her husband in 1991. Worried their private correspondence would fall into the wrong hands, she burned a cache of their letters. “I can’t imagine someone reading them,” she told him. He burned 25 of his notebooks in solidarity.  

Russian attitudes toward Raisa started to soften when it was learned, in the late 1990s, that she was in hospital in Germany with leukemia. Today, the pair rest next to each other at Moscow’s Novadevichy cemetery, beneath a life-size statue of her.  

And how stands her legacy? 

I put that question to a scholar, a Russian, who lived in Moscow during Gorbachev’s tenure in the Kremlin. These are fearful days in the Russia of President Vladimir Putin, and while happy to talk, he asked not to be named. 

He said that with Raisa’s compelling public image of a woman who was “absolutely equal to her husband” — intellectually and otherwise — she “contributed immensely” to a shift, however slow to gain momentum, in the Russian perception of the role that a determined, educated woman could play in society. 

And though much reviled in her time, Raisa Maksimovna has proved a pioneer.



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