The first and only Soviet First Lady

Raisa Gorbacheva
A strong woman with a scholar’s mind, the closest ally of her famous husband, loved by foreigners and frowned upon at home. Raisa Gorbacheva made a small revolution becoming the first “Kremlin wife” with a public agenda.

Mikhail Gorbachev became one of the most popular persons among the western public with a lot of help from his wife. Not only did she support him in his reforms, but also contributed to his work as head of state. Raisa became a public figure, accompanying him on his foreign visits, doing a lot of cultural and charity work, and generally acting the way it was expected from a western-style First Lady of a nation.

This image complimented well Gorbachev’s message of the new Russia, which sought friendship and not rivalry. It is no surprise that Raisa Gorbacheva was praised and admired. She featured on the cover of Time magazine, listed among the “world's ten most important women” in a survey of international newspaper editors conducted by the Ladies’ Home Journal, and received numerous commendations and awards throughout the world.

At the same time in the Soviet Union, Raisa’s self-made role of the first ever First Lady was seen controversial, to put it mildly. Her glamorous posture, stylish suits and media attention sharply contrasted the behavior of other wives of senior officials, both past and contemporary. Men loathed her independence and what was called her “improper influence” on Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies, while women envied her refined manners and tailored business suits.

Mikhail Gorbachev wondered at how his wife developed such features: “How could she, who grew up in Taiga, in railroad cars, among workers and engineers who lived on the road like gypsies, find such aristocratism? Such a reserved dignity, which captured me from the first time we met? Everyone unconsciously felt it,” he told in an interview.

Engineer’s girl

Raisa was born on January 5, 1932, in the Altay region in western Siberia. Her father Maksim Titarenko was a railroad engineer, who traveled east from Ukraine to take part in construction works, while mother Aleksandra was a local girl from a peasant family. Raisa’s maternal grandfather was a victim of Stalin’s repressions, a fact which was made public only in her autobiography in 1991.

The Titarenkos had to move a lot as the breadwinner was always being sent to this or that site. Despite this, Raisa graduated from school with the highest grades, which gave her the privilege to choose any institute or university she liked for further education. She opted for Moscow State University and studied philosophy there. There she met law student Mikhail Gorbachev, her future husband.

“Ball dancing was a fad back then. There were classes in a club’s lobby, once or twice a week. Roommates told me: Mishka, there’s such a girl there! So I went, I saw her and started to stalk her. I was a sophomore; she was in her third year. I was twenty, she was nineteen…” Gorbachev recalled.

His first advances were taken coldly, but eventually Mikhail won the beauty’s heart. They married in 1953. The Gorbachevs’ only daughter Irina says they were not just spouses, but real soul mates:

“Mom never told me why she chose dad. They had some romances before, but if you talk about love, it must have been their first one… Their feelings were as if they were one person. They had their arguments and quarrels, but they were one being. When they got separated, my parents constantly called and wrote to each other.”

Scholar and teacher

After graduating from University, Raisa was offered to stay in Moscow and continue her education. Mikhail, however, pursued his career in the Communist Party and was sent to his homeland, the southern Stavropol region, where the family spent 24 years. For several years Raisa could not find a proper job, but finally started to lecture for both students at an institute and attendants of the “Znanie” society, a nation-wide enlightenment movement.

She also worked on her Ph.D. thesis, which was a research into the life of collective farm workers, and which was one of the first sociological papers in the country. In her memoirs she recalled how she interviewed people in villages, learning their problems and lives.

“My ‘concrete sociology’, is sociology with a human face, with faces and fates, which became part of my life. It deepened my perception of the ‘living life’ with my understanding of this life and the people. From these direct encounters, not books, newspapers, theater performances or movies, I learned about our many problems, saw the dubiousness of many unconditional statements and accepted ideas,” Raisa Gorbacheva said.

How much influence Raisa had on her husband and his political course is a big question. Gorbachev admitted that he asked for her advice and often discussed pressing issues with her. His aide Valery Boldin said “the attitude to the foreign world and the character of his wife played a decisive role in his fate and… the fate of the party and the whole country.” Yury Kovalev, who was a member of Gorbachev’s election team in 1996, when he unsuccessfully (scoring just 1% of the vote) tried to become Russian president, believed that without Raisa “Gorbachev the reformer would not exist.”

Raisa herself denied the allegations of being “a force behind the throne”:

“Of course we discussed many issues. But my taking political or staff decisions and having major influence on something is a myth. All decisions were taken by the Politburo. One must be unaware of our Russian reality to suggest that someone other than the Politburo could take any decisions. And one must not know Mikhail Sergeevich at all. He always does what he sees necessary. He may listen to everyone’s opinion, but the decision is only his to make.”

Her scholar mindset affected the family’s everyday life. Raisa was meticulous in keeping her household in order, made sure that everything was organized and neat even when they lived in a communal flat. The first thing she would do after moving into a new state-sponsored apartment would be to have the carpets stuck into some closet, saying they accumulated dust and made her feel like in an office, not at home. She was also fond of small souvenirs and memorabilia, and favored petite field flowers over those grown in a greenhouse.

Grande Dame

Raisa Gorbacheva quit lecturing only when her husband became the top Soviet official in 1985. With her newfound position she focused on public work. She chaired the Soviet Culture Foundation, which funded numerous museums, promoted cultural dialogue and helped return to Russia art and literature objects, which were taken abroad after the Bolshevik revolution. Her fundraising efforts over the years are estimated to have brought in approximately $100 million for the foundation.

Later she branched into child-oriented charity work. She patronized several international charities, helped raise aid money for child victims of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and leukemia sufferers. Ironically, the very disease she helped fight against eventually took her life. Her last public effort, after Gorbachev was ousted from power, was the “Raisa Maksimovna’s Club”, which was aimed at helping women get more influence in society.

During most of Gorbachev’s foreign trips Raisa accompanied him, getting her share of public attention. This was absolutely against the soviet tradition, which called for officials’ family members to keep a low profile. The rumored personal disaffection between her and Nancy Reagan was probably of the same interest to the media as were the arms reduction negotiations between their husbands.

Just like her husband, Raisa Gorbacheva was hailed abroad but criticized much at home. She was said to have a Prima Donna attitude to other women, demanding that the staff of her home didn’t include young or attractive women. She was also rumored to have confronted Valentina Tereshkova, the world’s first female cosmonaut and one of the women in Soviet Union with a celebrity status.

Critics speculated that her clothes and jewelry were imported, too expensive and paid for with “the people’s money”. She was said to have a taste for luxury. Many of the common folk thought Raisa was getting above herself, and part of this resentment was reflected on Gorbachev and his policies.

Downfall

The coup attempt of 1991 was the end of Gorbachev’s rule, of the Soviet Union, and of Raisa. She took the events very painfully, offended by what she felt was the betrayal of her husband by close friends, struck by fear for the lives of their loved ones. During the three-day imprisonment at a Crimean resort, Raisa had a cerebral stroke, developed stuttering and sight problems and was left emotionally crushed. The way Gorbachev was thrown out of power was humiliating too.

“Raisa, of course, took it badly. Especially the rudeness of how we were kicked out of the presidential apartment and dacha. They told us: ‘immediately, in 24 hours’. We hastily heaped our personal things and loaded them into a car. And some goons were following us, suspecting that the Gorbachevs would take some state-owned property,” Mikhail Gorbachev recalled.

In subsequent years Raisa was mostly hidden from the public’s eyes. She helped her husband work on his books, double-checking facts and figures for him. She was against Gorbachev’s presidential bid in 1996, but still supported him

“I’ve learned that a life of a reformer is not from books. I had to share this life with him. So much we had to endure since 1985. This is the only reason why I didn’t want Mikhail Sergeevich to return and become president. But Gorbachev is a politician down to the last body cell. He took this decision, and I am his wife and I help him,” she said.

Her death in 1999 came unexpectedly. In July, Raisa’s health rapidly deteriorated, and she was diagnosed with leukemia. US President Clinton offered to take her to America for treatment, but doctors feared she would not survive such a long flight. Raisa was hastily transported to an oncology clinic in Germany on a presidential plane provided by Boris Yeltsin.

Thousands of letters and telegrams were sent, wishing Raisa to get well, both from abroad and from Russia. On her deathbed she found love and compassion from those who used to loath her.

“I guess I had to get this grave illness and die for the people to understand me,” she told her husband.

Less than two months later on September 20 she passed away.

Alexandre Antonov, RT