Loved by Russia at last, Raisa is buried

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The Independent Online
MIKHAIL GORBACHEV, the former Soviet leader who taught Russians to be true to themselves, wept openly yesterday at the funeral of his wife, Raisa.

Russian men, and especially politicians, are supposed to be stony-faced but Mr Gorbachev let his grief flow freely for the woman who broke a taboo by showing herself at his side when he ruled the Kremlin.

"The Gorbachevs were the nearest thing we had to a royal family," said Klara, a pensioner, also crying unrestrainedly. She was standing in a crowd of several hundred, kept back behind barriers from the burial in the cemetery of Novodevichy Convent in Moscow.

In life, the stylish and educated Raisa was not greatly loved by her compatriots. But after her death from leukaemia on Monday, Russia has witnessed, albeit on a far smaller scale, the equivalent of the Princess of Wales phenomenon. Suddenly, Raisa has become Russia's "Queen of Hearts".

Several thousand Muscovites turned out on Wednesday, when the public was allowed to file past her open coffin. The funeral yesterday was limited to a narrower group of dignitaries from Russia and abroad.

The service began with a civil ceremony of farewell at the Culture Fund, which Raisa founded. Then the cortege moved on to the medieval convent for a Russian Orthodox blessing and burial.

Mr Gorbachev, accompanied by his daughter Irina and two grand-daughters, whispered to his wife and stroked her hair before the coffin was closed and lowered into the grave.

Naina Yeltsin, wife of President Boris Yeltsin, represented the Kremlin leader who, after he replaced Mr Gorbachev in 1991, was so mean to his predecessor that he denied him the use of an official car. Times have changed and on Tuesday Mr Yeltsin sent an aircraft to bring home Raisa's body from Germany, where doctors had struggled to cure her.

The Russian media suggested that Baroness Thatcher, favourite sparring partner of Mr Gorbachev when he was working to end the Cold War, might attend the funeral but in the event she did not appear. The biggest foreign delegation came from Germany, still grateful to Mr Gorbachev for allowing the Berlin Wall to fall. Helmut Kohl, the former chancellor, embraced his old friend in a consoling bear hug.

In his grief, however, Mr Gorbachev might be even more comforted to know of the change of heart among ordinary Russians, who reviled him for breaking up the Soviet Union and scorned his wife for being elegant and clever.

Worn down by years of bungled reform, Russians these days are often sullen and indifferent. Yet behind the crowd barriers yesterday the lively spirit of glasnost (openness) returned. I did not need to interview people; they came up to talk to me.

"I admit," said Tatyana Knyazeva, an art historian, "that I used to find Raisa hard to take. But now I realise that Gorbachev could never have achieved what he did without a woman like her behind him. He gave us freedom. I went on holiday to America, which for a Soviet person was like going to the Moon. Today I have come to say `thank you'. I don't have much money but I have brought these garden marigolds to say `sorry' and `thank you'."

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