Raisa Gorbachev gains respect in death at 67

Last Soviet leader was at his wife's side as always

September 21, 1999|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- In the days leading to her death yesterday, the Russian people finally granted Raisa Maximova Gorbachev what they had long denied her in life: their respect, their admiration, their sympathy.

Raisa Gorbachev, who once annoyed the citizens of the Soviet Union as much as she charmed those of the West, died at 3 a.m. in a hospital in Muenster, Germany, where she was being treated for acute leukemia. She was 67.

Her husband, Mikhail S. Gorbachev, who opened the Soviet Union to the rest of the world, was at her side -- as always.

Mrs. Gorbachev entered the hospital July 25, and at first her illness responded to chemotherapy. Doctors planned further treatment with a bone marrow transplant, but her condition deteriorated before they were able to undertake the procedure.

Mr. Gorbachev was so grief-stricken that he required medical assistance, according to Russian television reports from Germany. Their daughter, Irina, was with him.

"What kind of a woman she must have been that he had lived with her and had been so devoted only to her for almost 50 years," said Svetlana Aivazova, a Moscow political scientist who got to know Mrs. Gorbachev earlier this year. "He adored her."

Mr. Gorbachev, 68, and his wife would have celebrated their 46th wedding anniversary Saturday.

When her husband took over leadership of the Soviet Union in 1985, the stylish, informed and opinionated Mrs. Gorbachev was as shocking to the nation as the new policies of glasnost and perestroika -- openness and restructuring.

But if the Soviet people warmed to their increasing freedoms, they cooled to the ever-present Mrs. Gorbachev. Until then, the wives of Soviet leaders stayed in the shadows. If they were seen, they were not heard; and when they were seen, they had the air of having stepped out of the kitchen, certainly not out of the White House or Buckingham Palace.

Much as Hillary Rodham Clinton was disliked for influencing her husband, so was Mrs. Gorbachev resented for advising hers. "I discuss everything with my wife," Mr. Gorbachev once said, "including Soviet affairs at the highest level."

In an era when the privileges and luxuries of the political elite were hidden away and when the average person was respectably poor, waiting days for a new pair of shoes or years for a car, Mrs. Gorbachev's fashionable clothes and sophisticated manners were deeply resented.

Rumors that she had a credit card, and charged clothes and jewelry, provoked suspicion and even hatred. Today, Russians have grown more world-weary. Accusations that the Russian president has a credit card courtesy of a construction company that is paying the bills are met by sighs and little else.

By the time he presided over the dissolution of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991, Mr. Gorbachev was almost universally reviled by his countrymen. To them, the last leader of the Soviet Union had destroyed everything and created nothing in its place.

He left many bitter enemies, among them Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin, who humiliated Mr. Gorbachev as soon as he was able, taking away the country home and the official car. The Nobel Peace Prize winner was left with a monthly pension of $25 that inflation reduced to $2.28 by 1994.

While much of the world admired him for ending the Cold War peaceably and gracefully, Mr. Gorbachev's own people could not forgive him. In a television interview broadcast Dec. 26, the couple said they hoped that someday history would prove more appreciative.

Mrs. Gorbachev's illness accomplished that.

"She was not understood," the newspaper Izvestia wrote recently. "Probably no one wanted to understand her. We have changed. We have become humans."

Yesterday, Yeltsin said he was sending a government plane for Mrs. Gorbachev's body. He called Mrs. Gorbachev "a wonderful person, a beautiful woman." Earlier, he had sent messages offering help and support.

"I believe he's sincere," Mr. Gorbachev had said in a television interview broadcast Saturday, "and I thank him."

Ms. Aivazova, the political scientist, said Russians were moved by Mr. Gorbachev's behavior as his wife lay ill.

"The way Gorbachev has demonstrated his love and devotion to his wife is completely untypical of family culture in Russia," she said. "Very little attention is paid to beautiful relations in the family. He could do it.

"They had no scandals or mud, and against the background of terrible scandals and mud of the current leaders, the Gorbachevs are worthy of sympathy."

Yelena Zhukova, a 39-year-old housewife, said many people disliked the Gorbachevs simply because they were a happy couple who clearly depended on each other.

"In this country they like miserable people," she said. "They like failures. They take pity on them. The moment the Gorbachevs got into trouble with this illness, people changed and started to like them and sympathize with them."

Mrs. Gorbachev will be buried Thursday, in a place of honor in Moscow's Novodevichy cemetery.

"This grief has made many people change their attitude toward her," said Mikhail Men, a liberal member of the Russian parliament. "That proves she acted in the right way. And as for Gorbachev staying at her side, that can be explained in a simple way.

"That's what we call love."

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