Editor’s Note: Jill Dougherty is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and a former CNN Moscow Bureau Chief. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
The funeral of former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev on Saturday will take place in Moscow’s famous Hall of Columns, where Russians have said farewell to other Soviet leaders – some revered, some reviled – like Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin and Leonid Brezhnev.
But Gorbachev, the first – and last – to bear the title of Soviet president, was unlike any of these other men. After him, the Cold War, and the Soviet Union, were no more. And, unlike those hard men, buried in their own tomb or in the Kremlin Wall necropolis, Gorbachev will be laid to rest in Novodevichy Cemetery next to his wife, Raisa Gorbacheva, the woman with whom he shared an unending love affair.
Just as Gorbachev, with his “glasnost” and “perestroika,” flung open the windows of the Soviet Union to “new thinking” that brought freedom and hope to his fellow citizens, Raisa Gorbachev transformed the image of Soviet womanhood with her intellect, engagement in society, beauty and style. But most revolutionary of all, in the twilight of the gray, oppressive Soviet Union, was their enduring love affair.
Who knew a Soviet leader could be passionately in love? And he didn’t hide it. In a 2012 documentary, Gorbachev reminisced about Raisa, who passed away in 1999: “We walked through our whole life holding hands, she had something magnificent about her… she was like a princess.”
Until Raisa came on the world stage, most wives of Soviet leaders were dowdy matrons, confined to the shadows of public life. Suddenly, there she was, a self-assured, highly-educated woman who shared in the transformation of Soviet society that was her husband’s mission, making her a heroine to some of her fellow citizens and an object of scorn to others.
“There are people, I know, who are interested in the external side of my life,” she once conceded in an interview. “They even envy me – for the clothes I wear and my ‘apparel’ on formal occasions… But I value something quite different – my participation in the tremendous undertakings that have fallen to the lot of someone close to me – my husband.”
Raisa’s own upbringing amidst the political and societal turmoil of Stalin’s USSR gave her valuable insight into the challenges her husband faced trying to reform the country. She met him at the prestigious Moscow State University where she was studying philosophy and he was studying law. They married in September 1953, the same year Joseph Stalin died.
Raisa earned a doctorate in sociology and wrote her thesis on peasants on collective farms, trudging around in her boots, she said, to interview people. That research gave her vivid pictures of the realities of life in the Soviet countryside, she said. She called it “sociology with a human face.”
“It was in the course of meetings with real people, not from books and newspapers, not from plays or films,” she said, “that I came to understand many of our misfortunes and the questionable nature of many undisputed assertions and established concepts.”
As Gorbachev rose in the ranks of the Soviet leadership, he always put Raisa first, talking to her by phone, he said, several times a day. The most traumatic moment in their public – and personal – lives came in August 1991, when hard-liners launched a coup against Gorbachev and his reforms, holding the couple in isolation at their Crimea residence. They were freed after three days, but Raisa suffered a stroke. In July 1999, she was diagnosed with leukemia and flew to Germany for treatment. Two months later, she died at the age of 67, just days before their 46th wedding anniversary.
I reported on the memorial service, for Raisa, held at the Russian Cultural Foundation, just one of the many civic institutions she supported. Sitting sadly by her coffin were her husband, their only child, Irina, and Raisa’s sister, Tatyana
That day, I spoke with several people who came to pay tribute to Raisa, including a woman close to Raisa’s age who told me: “She was born at a difficult time, and she accomplished everything thanks to her own efforts, with her own intelligence. Thank God we have women like her!”
In the fall of 2020 a play called “Gorbachev,” a very human portrayal of the Soviet president and his wife, opened in Moscow. The role of Raisa was played by the Russian actress Chulpan Khamatova, who fled Moscow after Russia invaded Ukraine. When news broke of Gorbachev’s death, Khamatova, speaking from Riga, Latvia, told the independent Russian television channel TV Rain about Gorbachev’s “eternal love” for Raisa.
She was asked how she would describe the former president. “Romantic, very human, naïve, a sense of humor about himself, a pacifist, modest - all characteristics not needed in politics.”
“Thanks to him,” she said, “there is immunity against non-freedom.”
One of Mikhail Gorbachev’s greatest gifts to his fellow Russians was inspiring them to break free from the shackles of Soviet uniformity, to be individuals who live their lives based on personal freedom – freedom to make their own choices, read what they wanted to read, discuss what they wanted to discuss.
He himself was a real person, a “chelovek,” as the Russians say, and so was his partner in life, Raisa.
After she died, he said: “I had never felt so lonely in my life… I hope that we will meet again.”