Raisa Maximovna Gorbacheva (Gorbachev) (née Titorenko; born 1932) set a new style and tradition as first lady of the Soviet Union.
When Raisa Gorbacheva traveled she kept a busy schedule, often independent of her husband Mikhail Gorbachev. Unlike the wives of most former Soviet leaders, Raisa Gorbacheva accompanied her husband on official visits and often traveled with him on trips within the U.S.S.R. The grandmotherly Nina Khrushcheva sometimes accompanied her husband on trips abroad, but Raisa Gorbacheva was of a different generation and possessed her own unique style and demeanor, which captured the attention and interest of the world. She continued to travel with her husband following his ouster as head of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Raisa Gorbacheva was a trendsetter in Soviet society. Beautiful and youthful in appearance, she dressed distinctively and fashionably. She had a petite, attractive figure and a youthful face with short red hair and luminous brown eyes. She was articulate and well-educated. Her husband, Mikhail Gorbachev, once indicated in an interview with a Western journalist that he discussed all issues with her. Following official protocol, she always walked behind her husband on official visits but nonetheless was almost as well-known and admired abroad as he was. In the Soviet Union, her visibility was less appreciated. In Soviet custom it had been considered inappropriate for the wives of political leaders to play a prominent role. There was little or no tradition of "first lady," which was perhaps seen as a Western affectation. At a time of hardship in the U.S.S.R., her clothes and glamour sometimes occasioned negative sentiment at home.
Raisa Maximovna Gorbacheva, née Titorenko, was born on January 5, 1932, in Rubtsovsk, a town in Siberia. Her father was a railroad engineer who, when she was only three, was imprisoned for four years for criticizing collectivized agriculture. A grandfather had been executed under Stalin. She professed to be Russian by nationality, although her father's surname is Ukrainian. Within the U.S.S.R. at the time there were unsubstantiated, even conflicting, rumors about her nationality and family connections. The U.S.S.R. had well over 100 nationalities, and intermarriage among people of different ethnic backgrounds was fairly common. The child could choose to adopt the nationality of either parent. Family connections to powerful political figures were hard to trace, but rumors persisted that Raisa was connected through family ties to former political leaders who gave a boost to her husband's career.
She and Mikhail Gorbachev met at a dance at Moscow State University (MGU) where both were students. He was studying law, and she was studying Marxist-Leninist philosophy. It was love at first sight for him, but she, a beautiful, sophisticated, gold medal student, had numerous admirers. Eventually Gorbachev prevailed over the others, and they married in 1954. He was a country lad from a village in the south of Russia, and she was a sophisticated city girl. She was one of two women credited with teaching the brilliant young student Mikhail Sergeevich about art, culture, and the ballet during his university years in Moscow. In 1955, after graduation, Gorbacheva and her husband settled in Stavropol, the medium-sized city near his hometown. She taught and worked on her graduate degree. She was a lecturer in Marxist-Leninist philosophy at the Stavropol Agricultural Institute, from which Gorbachev himself later received a degree in agricultural science, in addition to his earlier law degree. Pictures of the young wife and mother at work in Stavropol reveal one who even then stood out from the crowd. She was helpful to her husband and credited with assisting him in the arduous climb up the Soviet ladder of political success.
In 1967 Gorbacheva completed her Candidate's degree (equivalent to a Ph.D.) at Moscow State Pedagogical Institute. Her dissertation dealt with the peasants and conditions on collective farms. Her thesis used sociological research methods, one of the first Soviet studies to do so. She sent questionnaires to thousands of collective farmers and then conducted follow-up interviews at five farms. Informed by the results of her research, Mikhail Gorbachev, as secretary of the Stavropol Kraikom (territory party committee), initiated successful agricultural reforms to solve some of the local problems of the area, thereby attracting the attention of national leaders to his work.
The Gorbachevs lived in Stavropol until 1978, when Mikhail Gorbachev was brought to Moscow to work in the Central Committee as secretary for agriculture. The Stavropol region contains several mineral spas and the Gorbachevs frequently met high-level Soviet leaders who visited the spas. These contacts, Gorbachev's record of achievement in Stavropol, and the good impression the young Gorbachevs made on the leadership led eventually to his appointment in the capital. In Moscow Raisa Gorbacheva worked as a lecturer in Marxist-Leninist philosophy at Moscow State University until her husband became first secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). She was an officer of the Soviet Culture Foundation, dedicated to the arts and national preservation, performing numerous ceremonial functions in this capacity.
Raisa and Mikhail Gorbachev had a daughter, Irina, who strongly resembled her mother. They were proud and devoted grandparents, and a number of public pictures show the Gorbachevs with their two grandchildren, daughter, and son-in-law.
On her numerous trips abroad, Gorbacheva impressed foreigners with the breadth of her knowledge and interests. At the same time, she was known for expressing her own strongly held views. It has been said that she sometimes gave little speeches instead of engaging in dialogue with foreign officials. Within the U.S.S.R. her role was more subdued and she was less likely to express her views publicly, but she was often present in the background or presiding at official ceremonies. Gorbachev has been quoted as saying: "My wife is a very independent lady." Whether that was husbandly rhetoric or reality is hard to say. On trips abroad, most of her wardrobe came from Soviet designers, although it is believed that she also patronized some of the Parisian designers. She favored classic styles such as well-tailored dark suits or slim, well-cut dresses and high heels which created an illusion that she was taller than her five feet three inches. She enjoyed visiting art galleries and historic sites, as well as child-oriented social projects.
In the first few Gorbachev-Reagan summits that Raisa Gorbacheva attended, rumors circulated of ill feelings between her and Nancy Reagan. The media followed them with careful attention, noting every gesture and expression of either woman when they met. Whatever de facto rivalry might have existed during the Reagan-Gorbachev summit conferences, Nancy Reagan and Raisa Gorbacheva met cordially and privately, together with their husbands, in San Francisco during Gorbachev's 1990 visit to the United States. The next American first lady, Barbara Bush, a stylish grandmother with little aspiration to be the center of attention, seemed comfortable with Gorbacheva, who accompanied Bush to the latter's controversial, but successful, commencement address at Wellesley College.
Raisa Gorbacheva received flattering attention in the West. From the cover of TIME to being named one of the "world's ten most important women" in 1987 in a survey of international newspaper editors conducted by the Ladies' Home Journal, Raisa Gorbacheva became a popular figure in the West. In the U.S.S.R. she was admired, envied, and even resented as she sought to carve out the position of "first lady" in Soviet society. She was sometimes compared with Nadezhda Krupskaya, V.I. Lenin's wife, a revolutionary and political leader in the field of education during the early Soviet period. But Krupskaya was never stylish and, although a political activist, was shy and retiring. Gorbacheva changed the world's image of the wives of Soviet and, subsequently, Russian political leaders and broke new ground in Soviet society itself.
A Tumultuous 1991
Life for Raisa Gorbacheva, her husband, and all of Soviet society in 1991 was chaotic. The nation had begun to disintegrate and questions were raised about her health. Coincidentally two books were published about her life that year. Raisa: The 1st First Lady of the Soviet Union, authored by Urda Jurgens but reportedly without the participation of the subject herself, was complimented by Kirkus Reviews for its "admirable legwork," but criticized as including only "a minimum of anecdotes that might shed color or psychological insight." In September 1991, Gorbecheva's autobiography, I Hope: Reminiscences and Reflections went on sale. The book was characterized by TIME as "an extended interview with Soviet writer Georgi Pryakhin." In its preface, the work was described by Gorbecheva herself as "probably … inconsistent, emotional and patchy," but it was her personal response to the events that were happening around her. It was also the first autobiographical publication by the wife of a Soviet leader since 1957 when Krupskaya's Reminiscences of Lenin was released.
I Hope was completed four months prior to the abortive coup that sought to unseat Mikhail Gorbachev and had held his wife and family captive at its Crimea villa for three days in August. However, Raisa Gorbacheva foreshadowed in her book the turmoil that was rampant in the country when she referred to the "fierce struggle now going on between loyalty and treachery." It was in I Hope that Gorbacheva first revealed that her grandfather had been executed during the Stalin era, which TIME wrote had left her "both fearful and contemptuous of apparatchiks who act one way 'when it is to their advantage' and another when it is not." News reports of the family's ordeal at the Crimea portrayed Raisa Gorbacheva as a stroke or heart attack victim, though she later explained that she "had developed an acute hypertensive crisis that was accompanied by a speech disorder." Mikhail Gorbachev acknowledged that the attempt to overthrow him was "very hard" on his wife.
Following 1991 Raisa Gorbacheva maintained a relatively low profile. She accompanied her husband on visits to the United States, Britain, Germany, Italy, Japan and South Korea, often in relation to activities of his think-tank, the Gorbachev Foundation, or the ecology lobbying organization, the International Green Cross Society. Speculation surfaced about her health again in 1993 after she checked into a hospital in Richmond, Virginia, during one of the couple's visits to the U.S.
In 1995 Raisa Gorbacheva campaigned alongside her husband during his ill-fated effort to seek the Russian presidency. When asked about his return to politics, however, she pulled no punches. "I'm against it," she said on Russian television.
Further Reading on Raisa Maximovna Titorenko Gorbachev
The personal history as well as an account of the political scene is told by Raisa Gorbacheva in I Hope: Reminiscences and Reflections (1991), a series of conversations with the Soviet writer Georgi Pryakhin. A biography, Raisa: The 1st First Lady of the Soviet Union, by Urda Jurgens also is available. A number of interesting articles have appeared on Raisa Gorbacheva and on her marriage to Mikhail Gorbachev. Soviet Life featured an article, "Raisa Gorbacheva: the first Soviet First Lady," by Swedish journalist Kerstin Gustafsson (June 1990). Gail Sheehy has written an in-depth analysis of Gorbachev, including discussion of his marriage to Raisa, in Vanity Fair (February 1990). TIME featured Raisa Gorbacheva in a story on Soviet women (June 6, 1988). The editors of TIME put together a portrait of Raisa in their MS. Gorbachev: An Intimate Biography (1988).