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Russia: Raisa Gorbachev, Dead At 67, Broke Soviet Stereotypes

By Askold Krushelnytsky

Raisa Gorbachev, who died of leukemia yesterday at a clinic in Germany, was fashion-conscious and high-profile, vastly different from most Soviet wives. RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnytsky looks at Raisa's impact on the Western public's perception of Soviet leadership and the Soviet Union.

Prague, 20 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The wife of former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev was a groundbreaker. Raisa Gorbachev, who died yesterday, broke with the Soviet tradition that held that wives of leaders should rarely be seen in public. Her outgoing manner, good looks and sense of fashion were a spectacular contrast to the dour, anonymous styles of previous Kremlin wives. Western women's magazines lined up for interviews with her on everything from Russian cooking to Kremlin policy. She was widely believed to have a great influence on her husband's political actions.

Raisa Gorbachev had been at the cancer clinic in Germany for two months before her death at age 67. She was undergoing treatment for leukemia, cancer of the blood. Her husband was with her throughout her treatment and was at her bedside when she died.

The former Raisa Maksimovna Titorenko met Gorbachev while both were students at Moscow State University. She studied sociology; he studied law. The two were married in 1953. Raisa taught Marxist-Leninist philosophy in Stavropol, and later lectured at Moscow State University. She gave up her job when Gorbachev became Communist Party chief in 1985.

In the Soviet Union, her outgoing style provoked widespread scorn and hostility. Most Soviet citizens believed that a woman had no right to play a public role in high politics. According to Gorbachev, "People would ask, who does she think she is, a member of the Politburo?"

But it is undeniable that Raisa played a large part in dramatically altering the way the West viewed the Soviet leadership when her husband embarked on his "perestroika" program. Oliver Wates was the Moscow bureau chief for Reuters news agency during the perestroika years. He says Raisa's accessibility to the Western press helped the West see Soviets as real people. "Of course in the West, she had a very dramatic effect in terms of making the Russians seem more human. All of these gruff and unsmiling Russian leaders of the past -- suddenly here's a man who is not only jolly himself but has a real, ordinary wife with him. A person who is very charming but also very normal."

Raisa had a reputation for arrogance and even managed to enrage the wife of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan. After being subjected to an extended lecture from Raisa at a dinner in Washington, Nancy Reagan is said to have asked, "Who does that 'dame' think she is?" On another occasion, Nancy was said to have been annoyed that Raisa attended a summit in Rejkavik, Iceland, to which wives were not invited.

But Raisa's knowledge of culture and the arts won her praise from journalists in Britain, Italy and France, where she accompanied her husband on official visits. Wates, who met Raisa several times, said she could be very pleasant to foreign journalists.

"The first word that comes to mind was 'charming' because she was utterly charming herself. She also, somewhat to my surprise, was very natural when you were in her presence. Her image was very much of a person who spends lots of time and attention on her clothes and appearance. But I found her utterly natural and very much at ease. Not at all the kind of person that some of the media at the time would have given us to believe."

Like Nancy Reagan, Raisa Gorbachev was criticized by her countrymen as having too much influence over her husband. Anatol Lieven is an analyst at the Institute for International and Strategic Studies in London. He believes that Raisa Gorbachev did influence her husband. Her family had suffered badly during Stalin's repressions of the 1930s, and Lieven says she may have persuaded her husband to refrain from using violence to prevent the breakup of the Soviet Union.

"She had the significance of any close adviser. I think that it's undoubtedly true that he did take her advice a lot and that they did discuss matters. She was a highly educated, intelligent person, so why shouldn't he? But as far as I know, nobody has ever suggested that she gave advice that, in principle, would have been very different from the things he was inclined to do anyway."

Another criticism from Russians was that Raisa was too fond of a Western lifestyle. She was often portrayed on shopping trips with her credit card in the world's top fashion capitals - something that angered many of the impoverished people in the Soviet Union.

But Lieven says Raisa was scrupulously honest compared with other prominent Soviets, who became fabulously wealthy.

"You could see her in some ways as the first swallow of this new capitalist nomenklatura spring. She was perhaps, in retrospect, one of its more honorable elements."

Now that she is gone, some of the rancor felt by ordinary Russians seems to have gone, too. Mikhail Gorbachev said he has received many expressions of sympathy and support, from Russian pensioners as well as Russian and world leaders.