Leading Article: A woman of substance, and a symbol for Russia

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The Independent Culture
RAISA GORBACHEV, wife of the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, was praised in the West for her elegance, and for the contrast to all the frumpiness that came before. She was the public face of Gorbachev's reforms; her self-confidence and modernity seemed to embody all the changes that her husband was trying, against all the odds, to introduce. Nobody had seen anything quite like it before.

In Russia itself, that glamour was a stick to beat her with. The image was of the grande dame who waved her American Express card around in foreign boutiques.The new freedoms allowed Russians to ask: what makes her better than us?

But things have changed in the intervening years. In particular, they have changed since the announcement earlier this year that Raisa Gorbachev was suffering from leukaemia. Some Russians spoke scornfully of her even after her death in a German hospital yesterday. But many Russians who once felt little sympathy for either Mikhail or Raisa Gorbachev have softened, not least because of the dignity that both of them have shown.

Like Raisa, Mr Gorbachev was always adored more in the West than at home. The hardliners in Moscow resented too many reforms; liberals resented too few. The couple's personal relationship was equally unpopular. In a country where male chauvinism was taken for granted, a relationship of equals represented a breaking of the mould.

Seen in the longer term, however, the strength of the relationship was a tribute to Raisa and Mikhail Gorbachev alike. As Raisa lay dying in hospital, the former First Couple rediscovered the affections of ordinary Russians. Some remarkable hatchets have been buried. Mr Gorbachev treated Boris Yeltsin with petty brutality, after sacking him in 1987. Later, President Yeltsin savoured his revenge, deliberately humiliating the Gorbachevs. Yesterday, all that was swept away. The Russian President ordered a plane specially to bring Raisa's body back to Moscow.

Death and sympathy should not necessarily be confused. De mortuis nil... is not always an appropriate motto, especially in politics. In Raisa Gorbachev's case, however, it is right if her compatriots remember her more kindly than they spoke of her in life. She was glitzy, when Russia lacked glitz; she was honest and thoughtful, in the new Russia that has a shortage of those qualities. If she is remembered more fondly by the historians than she was seen at the time, that is as it should be.

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