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Margaret Thatcher was both trailblazer and sounding board

Convince the Iron Lady, the Kremlin’s reasoning went, and they could convince anyone

Fittingly, and presciently, Margaret Thatcher’s most famous nickname was coined not by political friend or foe at home, but by a headline in a Soviet newspaper three years before she even entered Downing Street.

The “iron woman”, Krasnaya Svezda, the newspaper of the Red Army, called her in January 1976, a phrase swiftly translated back in Britain as “Iron Lady”. To her enduring delight, the sobriquet stuck.

Over the next dozen years her unrelenting anti-Communism and sheer force of personality would make her a leading actor in the last stages of the Cold War. Not the most important actor of course. That role was shared by Mikhail Gorbachev and two American presidents, first Ronald Reagan and then George H W  Bush.

But she was both trailblazer and sounding board. She was on the same wavelength as Mr Reagan. As for the Soviets, if there was one thing they respected it was strength. Mrs Thatcher projected that quality by the bucketload, and the Soviets respected – indeed admired – her for it. Convince the Iron Lady, their arch ideological critic, the Kremlin’s reasoning went, and they could convince anyone, Americans included.

If the Russians instinctively understood Mrs Thatcher before she became Prime Minister, she similarly “got” Mr Gorbachev when he was not even Soviet leader. In December 1984, when still a Politburo member, he visited London. “I like Mr Gorbachev, we can do business together,” she said. Three months later he was elected General Secretary of the Soviet Communist party, a young and vigorous new leader about to embarking on perestroika, no less than a second Soviet revolution, albeit this time peaceful.

That Downing Street meeting was followed in November 1985 by an even more important ice-breaker, the first Reagan-Gorbachev summit in Geneva, and a year later by the Reykjavik summit when the US and the Soviet Union came close to a historic agreement to scrap all nuclear weapons.

Mrs Thatcher was ambivalent about that idea because it meant that Britain would have to give up its nuclear deterrent, too. But the deal foundered on Reagan’s insistence on going ahead with his “Star Wars”, his orbiting anti-missile system. Three months later however, she went to Moscow on a visit that would be one of her greatest foreign triumphs.

As with the 1984 meeting with Mr Gorbachev in London, her March 1987 foray into the lion’s den was something of a warm-up act. It produced no breakthrough on the burning East-West issue of the hour, a deal to rid Europe of intermediate range nuclear weapons. That would only be signed at the third Reagan-Gorbachev summit, in Washington in December 1987, while Reagan himself went to Moscow in May 1988 at what in retrospect would be the high-water mark of perestroika.

But Mrs Thatcher’s trip in March 1987 was a tour de force. She held a dozen hours of talks with Mr Gorbachev of an openness and frankness that few Cold War meetings ever attained, not least because they were similar in one important respect – they both loved a good argument.

She had a splendid photo-op visit to the monastery at Sergei Posad (then known as Zagorsk), the spiritual home of Russian orthodox Christianity. She became the first Western leader to meet the dissident Andrei Sakharov, whose recent release from internal exile was one of the first signs that Gorbachev was serious about liberalising the Soviet system. But its high-spot, surely, was a remarkable TV interview in which she answered questions from a panel of critical Soviet journalists, and by common consent took them to the cleaners – above all on nuclear policy, exposing the hypocrisy and double-think that underlay long-standing Soviet doctrine on the issue.

“There are more nuclear weapons in the Soviet Union than any other country in the world,” she lectured. “You have more intercontinental ballistic missiles and warheads than the West. You started intermediate weapons; we did not have any. You have more short-range ones than we have. You have more than anyone else and you say there is a risk of a nuclear accident. One moment!”

It quickly emerged that she knew the intricacies of nuclear policy even better than her interlocutors. The demolition job was all the more powerful in that she argued her case not as an abolitionist, but as a deep believer in deterrence, that only the threat of mutual Armageddon had kept the Cold War cold.

The interview was a sensation, watched by millions. Home truths like those were never mentioned by the Soviet press as it promoted the Kremlin’s “peace-loving” policies. The mere fact it was broadcast in full was another sign of the Gorbachev wind of change.

As 1988 wore on, perestroika started to lose its initial lustre, as deep economic problems, stirrings of independence in the non-Russian republics and ever more visible splits in the ruling Communist Party eroded Mr Gorbachev’s authority. 

The Cold War was effectively laid to rest at the storm-tossed Malta summit of December 1989 between presidents Gorbachev and George H W Bush. In fact, even that momentous occasion was overshadowed by the simultaneous unravelling of the former Soviet empire in Eastern Europe. But both events vindicated the gut feeling she shared with Mr Reagan, that Communism would end up “on the ash heap of history”. Not as a result of military defeat, but because of its inherent weakness, as a contradiction of basic human nature.

Her relations with Mr Reagan’s successor were less close, while at home her political position was weakening. She was unconvinced of Bush Sr’s mettle. “Don’t go wobbly, George,” she urged as he searched for a response to Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait. He didn’t, but well before his coalition routed the Iraqis, she herself had been ousted. In the US, where she was regarded as a reincarnation of Winston Churchill, her star did not dim.  Her foreign policy was what most concerned Americans. And like Churchill and Reagan, she had been on the right side of history.