OBITUARY: Mariya Gorbacheva

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The Independent Online
Mariya Gorbacheva, the mother of the first (and last) Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, was a decisive and outspoken peasant who bequeathed to her son many of the features that characterise his political style.

Gorbacheva is remembered by fellow villagers as strong, self-confident and self-righteous and was never shy about venturing her opinions at party meetings. Even her husband would cringe in embarrassment when she got up to make yet another fuss, haranguing party speakers and bombarding them with questions and criticisms. She was particularly given to berating drunkards, especially on one occasion in winter when a farmhand allowed half the collective farm's poultry to die of cold through drunken indifference.

Mariya Panteleyevna Gopkalo was born into a family of peasants of Ukrainian origin around 1911. After the collectivisation of agriculture her father Pantelei became chairman of the collective farm in the village of Privolnoye in the Stavropol region. Mariya also joined, becoming a team leader. She married Sergei Gorbachev, a quiet man who was head of the machine tractor station, and their son Mikhail was born in 1931.

Sergei went off to fight in the Second World War in 1941, leaving Mariya and the 10-year-old Mikhail in Privolnoye which in August 1942 was occupied by the Germans without a fight. The Germans were ousted in January 1943 and were soon driven from Soviet territory. Sergei was wounded three times during the war but returned home in 1946. The following year Mikhail gained a brother, Alexander, who became Mariya's favourite in a way Mikhail had never been.

As the young Mikhail Gorbachev worked his way up the Communist Youth League and later the Communist Party ranks, his mother remained in their home village. Sergei died in February 1976 but Mariya carried on in the same house, by now retired, tending her chickens and pigs in the back yard. Mikhail would visit at least once a year. Even in March 1985, on the eve of his election as General Secretary of the Community Party, he made the 900-mile round trip from Moscow. After his election, a special telephone line to the Kremlin was installed in her home so she could keep in touch with her son.

Like many villagers, Mariya Gorbacheva had little education and could write only with difficulty. But she - with her forceful character - seems to have had a far greater impact on Mikhail Gorbachev than had his father. Despite the Stalinist persecution of religion in the 1930s, she retained a strong loyalty to the Russian Orthodox Church. The family hid their icons behind other pictures during the most difficult years. It was Mariya and her mother who insisted that the young Mikhail should be baptised. While Mariya's strong faith may have influenced Mikhail Gorbachev's decision to cease persecution of religious groups, her local anti-alcohol outbursts may also have laid the foundations for his unpopular anti-alcohol campaign. "Emotionally, my mother influenced me more," Mikhail Gorbachev once recalled. "Intellectually, my father."

Felix Corley

Mariya Panteleyevna Gopkalo: born 1911; married Sergei Gorbachev (died 1976; two sons); died Moscow 14 April 1995.