Raisa Gorbacheva: Paul Starobin is the former Moscow bureau chief for Business Week and is currently writing a book about Russia.
Mikhail Gorbachev was the party leader of southern Russia’s Stavropol region when he found himself stuck at an seemingly endless liquid lunch. His colleagues begged him to stay for just one more round, but Gorbachev replied “no.” Raisa Maksimovna would let me have it; she’s the boss.”
William Taubman remarked about Gorbachev’s spouse-retort in his 2017 biography that it was “a joke,” but one with more than a grain of truth.”
On August 30, the death of Mikhail Gorbachev, the last head of the USSR, prompted obituaries in Western media that celebrated him as “reformist Soviet leader who lifted the Iron Curtain,” per The New York Times. It wasn’t until the 38th paragraph that they finally mentioned his wife Raisa.
Raisa was instrumental in her husband’s ascension to the top spot in Soviet society and efforts to remake Soviet society and improve relations with the West. If anything, Raisa was smarter and steelier — not to mention more ambitious!
Years after Raisa’s passing from leukemia in 1999, Mikhail wrote of their relationship: “We are engaged in an ongoing dialogue.” As Raisa once put it: “We are really friends or if you prefer, we have great complicity.”
Raisa was born in 1932 to an uneducated couple in a Siberian village. Her father worked as a railway worker but never joined the party, while her mother labored endlessly with household tasks like sewing, cooking and cleaning. Despite these difficult conditions, Raisa found time for creative endeavors such as reading aloud to family members – something which still brings her joy today.
After placing first in her high-school class, she met Mikhail in the early 1950s at Moscow State University. Although one year younger than him, she had earned more honors and distinctions in philosophy than law – earning herself a gold medal upon graduation from high school instead of his silver.
Mikhail remembered Raisa as “elegant, very slender with light brown hair,” and how she “bewitched me.”
In the Soviet ideal, women were considered equal to men. But within Russian patriarchal tradition – still deeply embedded in Soviet life – women were expected to take a backseat in any public setting; wives of Soviet leaders rarely appeared publicly.
Raisa defied this tradition. She accompanied Mikhail on global summits and once even appeared with him aboard a Soviet submarine during an inspection – with sailors saying that women on board would bring bad luck. For her defiance of custom, Raisa paid the price: social disapproval from many Russian men as well as many female Russians alike.
Her husband, who began his role as Soviet leader with a ban on alcohol sales, faced his own popularity issues. It could be said that his unapologetic treatment of Raisa as an “implicit” partner contributed to his poor public image; some Russians derisively labeled him a podkabluchnik — a husband under the heel of his wife.
A writer to the party Central Committee asked, in an unkind tone, “Who does she think she is, a member of the Politburo?” An underground video shot by Soviet intelligence agents at that time showed Raisa purchasing fashionable clothing not available to average Soviet women.
But Gorbachev never stopped relying on Raisa. As part of her husband’s glasnost initiative — designed to loosen restrictions on what could be discussed, debated and published in Soviet public life — Raisa served as an ambassador to the Russian intellectual elite.
He took advantage of her “natural curiosity” and willingness to travel throughout the USSR on her own, keeping him informed about conditions on the ground. “She went to new and old neighborhoods, learning how medical institutions, household services, shops operated and how the municipal and rural markets worked,” he later wrote about this period.
Raisa suffered physical and psychological trauma following the 1991 coup against her husband by the Soviet old guard. Fearing their private correspondence would fall into the wrong hands, she burned a cache of their letters – “I can’t imagine someone reading them,” she confided to him. In solidarity, he also set fire to 25 of his notebooks in protest.
Russian attitudes toward Raisa began to soften when it was revealed, in the late 1990s, that she was hospitalized in Germany with leukemia. Nowadays, both of them rest together at Moscow’s Novadevichy cemetery beneath a life-sized statue of her.
What legacy has she left us and what does the future hold for her?
I put that question to a Russian scholar who lived in Moscow during Gorbachev’s tenure at the Kremlin. While willing to speak, he asked not to be identified due to current fears in Russia under President Vladimir Putin.
He noted that Raisa’s inspiring public image as a woman who was “absolutely equal to her husband” — intellectually and otherwise — had “contributed immensely” to the gradual shift in Russia’s perception of what role an educated, determined woman can play in society.