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First lady Russia finally learnt to love dies at 67

RUSSIANS WOULD be the first to admit their strange national propensity for envying others their success, yet pitying them in misfortune. That was how they treated Raisa Gorbachev, who died of leukaemia in a German hospital yesterday.

When she was the first Soviet President's glittering first lady, they detested her. When she fell ill, Russians gave her their hearts. The news that she had succumbed to an infection before she could receive a transplant of bone marrow from her sister was the first item on the television news in Moscow yesterday. "Raisa Maximovna suffered very much in the past few weeks but her death was peaceful," NTV's correspondent in Germany assured viewers. She was 67.

Mikhail Gorbachev, who helped to end the Cold War with his policies of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness), would bring his wife home to be buried in Novodevichy cemetery, Mos-cow, he said. President Boris Yeltsin had sent his condolences and promised a charter plane to fly the body to Russia.

Throughout Raisa Gorbachev's last weeks, not only did her husband keep a vigil at the Muenster clinic that tried to save her but also the whole of Russia followed her saga, as if she were a soap opera star. Thousands of ordinary Russians sent letters, recipes for herbal medicines and even offers of money to the couple they once reviled.

"That's just the way we are," said Olga Podolskaya, a secretary. "We used to find Raisa extremely irritating. But at the end, we felt sorry for her and even more sorry for him, the loyal and loving husband, constantly at her bedside."

Raisa Gorbachev herself knew how the Russian public felt about her. In an interview for the television show Hero With His Tie Off, recorded when she was well, she recounted how hard it had been to be the first first lady in a society that hid its political wives.

Russians almost never saw Viktoria, wife of the late Communist leader, Leonid Brezhnev, and as for one of his successors, Yuri Andropov, they were not sure whether he had a wife at all. Raisa broke a taboo by appearing in public with her husband. For him, admitting that he had a partner and that she played an important role in his life was a personal act of glasnost, an extension of his policy of openness. Like all pioneers, the Gorbachevs paid for being ahead of their time. Raisa was a clever, educated woman, a species that many Russians still have trouble in accepting.

She was born Raisa Maximovna Titorenko in the Siberian region of Altai in 1932. Her father, Maxim Titorenko, had gone out to Siberia to help build the railways. The young Raisa was bright enough to go all the way from this provincial backwater to Moscow State University (MGU), where she studied philosophy.

There she met Mikhail, a promising law student, whom she married in 1953. In her last years, she devoted herself to fund-raising for cancer research - even before she knew she had leukaemia herself.

Obituary, Review, page 6