Obituary: Raisa Gorbachev

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FOR A few years in the middle and late 1980s, Raisa Gorbachev was a global celebrity, her country's attempted transformation made flesh. From the moment she first appeared on the international stage during her husband's 1984 visit to Britain and was hailed as a Soviet version of the Princess of Wales, she was a figure of fascination.

That fascination only grew as Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika and glasnost became Russian terms known around the world. Her style, her fashionable clothes, her high-profile visibility were the antithesis of everything traditionally associated with Soviet leaders' wives - creatures usually invisible but, if the camera did for some reason stray upon them, to be seen only in dowdy floral prints and the safest of scarves, uttering not a word.

Not so Raisa. The clothes were by Tamara Mokeyeva and Vyacheslav Zaitsev (who thanks to her patronage became a global celebrity in his turn), the hairstyle immaculate, and the views intelligent, lively and informed. As far as foreigners were concerned, nothing similar had ever burst from the fastnesses of mother Russia. More even than her husband, Raisa was instrumental in making the world believe for an instant that the Communist superpower might be normal after all. "The image of the Soviet Union has changed by virtue of a woman's face," Paris-Match gushed after she travelled with her husband to Paris in 1985.

But the United States, not France, was the Soviet Union's appointed competitor in every field - including first ladies. Raisa Gorbachev will be above all remembered for "the other Cold War", between herself and Nancy Reagan. The two first met in November 1985, on the sidelines of their husbands' first summit in Geneva. A couple of stiff formal tea-parties set the tone. Nancy reportedly found Raisa "pedantic and inflexible", and a "dogmatic Marxist". The Russian, as her body language made abundantly clear, considered her American counterpart vapid and foolish.

The following year, she infuriated Mrs Reagan by at the last moment attending the summit in Reykjavik after signalling she would not go. Raisa had the field to herself; Nancy was left smarting. In 1987, it was Helena Shultz, the wife of the Secretary of State, not Mrs Reagan, who showed Raisa around during the next US- Soviet summit in Washington.

By that time, the Nancy-Raisa standoff was making headlines as large as the treaty to abolish an entire category of nuclear weapons, and the rivalry continued through the Reagans' return visit to Moscow, in May 1988. There was no feud, Mrs Reagan's press secretary lamely insisted, "but the two are from different worlds". Sadly for the gossip columnists, Raisa had a far better relationship with Barbara Bush, after George Bush took over the White House in 1989. But by then, in any case, the decline in the fortunes of herself, her husband and the Soviet Union had already begun.

The last Soviet first lady was born Raisa Maksimovna Titorenko, daughter of a Siberian railway worker. Though the family moved to Stavropol, the town in the Northern Caucasus where Mikhail Gorbachev's political career began, she only met her husband when they were students living in the same hostel at Moscow State University, the most prestigious academic institution in the country, where Raisa studied Marxist-Leninist philosophy. She was impressed by his zest, his ambition and refinement. He was smitten by her vivacity and intellect.

They married in 1955, shortly before Raisa graduated, and returned to Stavropol where he was named first secretary of the local branch of Komsomol, or Young Communist League. There she worked as a schoolteacher, produced the couple's daughter Irina, and a doctoral thesis entitled "Emergence of New Characteristics in the Daily Lives of the Collective Farm Peasantry". The ponderous title belied a groundbreaking work, unquestionably of much value to her husband in his career as a regional administrator and specialist in Soviet agriculture. One of its findings was the extent to which traditional attitudes to women hampered social development in the countryside. Ironically, as the Gorbachevs climbed the ladder of power, she herself fell victim of those same hidebound attitudes.

Even at the height of her husband's popularity, between 1985 and 1988, she was unloved by her own people, despite - or perhaps because of - the impact she was making abroad. Her style and looks inspired less admiration than jealousy. She was suspected of exerting a malign backstage influence on her husband, and generally disapproved of because she did not behave as a femina Sovietica should.

As she dazzled on official visits to Delhi, London, Paris and Washington, rumour and vilification swirled around Raisa Gorbachev at home. A clandestine video purported to show her on a shopping spree in London, armed with an American Express gold card. No Westerner ever saw the video - if it existed. But the very suggestion that it did showed what many thought of her. At a now legendary central committee meeting of October 1987, Boris Yeltsin delivered a sneering criticism of her behaviour. Yeltsin was sacked for his impudence (in the process sealing his own split with Gorbachev). But his leaked speech merely expressed out loud what others privately believed. Raisa was referred to as "the Tsarina" and, during a session of the Congress of People's Deputies in 1990, as "Josephine" (after Napoleon's wife).

In fact, her precise political views were always a mystery, though she undoubtedly shared her husband's belief that the Communist system could be humanised, modernised and thus preserved. Her influence on him, especially in the early days, was plainly immense. "We have a division of labour," she once said. "He's working and I'm looking around. Then I tell him everything I see."

Ultimately however she became an irrelevance, as the Soviet Union disintegrated, torn apart by the very forces Mikhail Gorbachev had unleashed. The country's death throes were particularly painful for Raisa, above all the trauma of being held prisoner for three days in the President's summer villa at Foros on the Crimea during the hardliners' failed coup of August 1991, when she was convinced the plotters would kill her entire family.

After her husband's fall from power, she would sometimes be seen with him abroad, but interest in her vanished. She will be remembered less in her own right, as a woman of great talent who in the West would surely have gone far in whatever career she chose, than as a celebrity curiosity, the privileged product of a system and a country which almost until the last could not abide her.

Only when the seriousness of her final illness became public did ordinary Russians relent. Keeping constant vigil at her bedside in Germany, Mikhail Gorbachev was astonished and overwhelmed by the flood letters of sympathy on her behalf, even including one from his nemesis Boris Yeltsin.

It took the vision of Raisa fighting for her life to remind Russians of that sudden, short-lived flare of hope in the late 1980s, symbolised by the Gorbachevs, that the Soviet Union could transform itself into a better and more human place.

Raisa Maksimovna Titorenko: born Rubtsovsk, Siberia 5 January 1932; married 1955 Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev (one daughter); died Munster, Germany 20 September 1999.