Glamorous Soviet First Lady Is Admired in West, Envied at Home

Times Staff Writer

Viewers of “Vremya,” the Soviet Union’s main evening television news show, are used to her now--the short, smartly coiffed, auburn-haired woman in elegant clothes.

But when she first began accompanying Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev on his working trips across the nation, it caused some confusion. Soviet citizens wondered: Could she be a senior Communist Party official? Exactly what position did she hold?

Now everyone knows she is Raisa Maximovna Gorbacheva, the wife of the party general secretary, his confidante and probably one of his most influential advisers, the first First Lady the Kremlin has ever known. But not everyone here endorses the strange notion of a Soviet wife’s stepping out of the shadows and into the limelight.


Political Liability for Husband?

In fact, judging by conversations with dozens of ordinary citizens here, Raisa Gorbachev is far more popular and admired in the capitalist West than she is in her own more conservative homeland.

Some Kremlin watchers, in fact, regard her frequent appearances as a political liability for Gorbachev rather than an asset, as they might be considered elsewhere. “It’s possible that Gorbachev’s opponents might use her high profile against him,” one Western analyst said. “She’s very controversial.”

Abroad, she has received raves. In Britain, France and Italy, on her husband’s official visits, Raisa has been widely applauded for her fashion sense and her knowledgeable interest in literature, history and the arts. She apparently has some following in the United States too: Several Americans have invited the Gorbachevs to their homes, with some enclosing front-door keys, as a prelude to their Dec. 7 visit to Washington.

Among her own compatriots, however, Raisa Gorbachev rarely hears an encouraging word and, if she could hear what Western correspondents are told, her ears would be burning.

Expensive Fur Coats

“What is she doing there?” is the typical question posed by Soviet television viewers, who are not used to the wives of their leaders being seen in public. Unless she has business of her own to conduct on these trips, her critics often complain, she should stay at home or at her own workplace (although she has not worked since her husband was named to the top Communist Party post in March, 1985).

Another cause of widespread resentment is Raisa Gorbachev’s wardrobe, with her obviously expensive full-length fur coats and hats, her fashionable boots and shoes. Her jewelry--especially the over-size earrings she favors--also attracts envious attention.


Sharp-eyed Raisa watchers have noticed that, on some trips abroad, she often changes her outfits once or twice a day, adding to their annoyance and offending their Soviet sense of egalitarianism.

“Of course, Mikhail Sergee’ich (Gorbachev) probably wears very expensive suits, but you can’t tell about that from their looks,” a young Soviet woman noted. “With a woman’s clothes, it’s more obvious how much they cost.”

Such envy is understandable. In the Soviet Union, even finding attractive, stylish clothing in the shops is a major problem for women. Clothes are also expensive here, with prices running up to $100 for a good woolen skirt. A high-quality fur hat costs $300--or about a month’s pay.

“My mother is Raisa’s age and she has been working all her life and she still can’t afford a good fur hat,” a Moscow student said indignantly.

“How can she afford that jewelry she’s wearing when her husband has been a party official all his life?” complained another Muscovite, perhaps unfairly, since Raisa also worked as a lecturer in Marxism-Leninism at Moscow State University before her husband’s promotion.

Part of the resentment springs from the knowledge that Raisa Gorbachev, like the wives of other senior party leaders, has access to special stores with luxury goods not available to the Soviet rank-and-file.


And some hostility stems from a deeply ingrained attitude, in striking contrast to the American spirit of “keeping up with the Joneses,” of “bringing the Joneses down to us.” A well-known Russian fable, for example, describes a peasant who envied his neighbor’s cow. When he is granted any wish, the peasant asks not for his own cow, only that his neighbor’s cow be killed.

Visibility Taboo

Raisa Gorbachev is also breaking a strong taboo by being so visible. The public did not even know if one of Gorbachev’s predecessors, Yuri V. Andropov, was married until his funeral--when his widow showed up at the grave.

Perhaps the most admired wife of a Soviet leader was Nina Petrovna Khrushcheva, the plump, matronly spouse of the globe-trotting Nikita S. Khruschev who stayed behind the scenes except for mandatory appearances during Khrushchev’s trip to the United States in 1959. Abroad, she was often ridiculed for her dowdiness but here she inspired genuine warmth; years after her death, Soviet citizens still express their affection for her.

The wife of Soviet leader Leonid I. Brezhnev was little known during his 18 years in power and is barely remembered five years after his death.

Raisa Gorbachev, however, has been different from the beginning. She has taken an interest in her husband’s career since he became an official of the Young Communist League in Stavropol, in the north Caucasus, shortly after their marriage in the mid-1950s.

Gorbachev’s college roommate, a Czech by the name of Zdrenek Mylnar, has credited Raisa Gorbachev’s advice and influence for her husband’s rapid rise in party ranks, culminating with his promotion to the Politburo at the age of 49. She is reported by other sources to be a strong supporter of Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign as well as the drive to publish books and show films that once were withheld by the censors.


The Gorbachevs met at Moscow State University where she was studying philosophy and he was in law school. Raisa, who is believed to be several years younger than her 56-year-old husband, was graduated a year after he was.


After graduation, she taught school, and later she became a sociologist at a teachers’ training institute in Stavropol, her hometown. Later, she spent four years collecting information about the lives of workers on collective farms for a dissertation.

Party Work

Her data on incomes, education, buying habits, attitudes and life styles would have been invaluable for Gorbachev in his party work.

In 1967, she was awarded a candidate’s degree in philosophical sciences--the equivalent of a doctor of philosophy degree in the United States--from the Moscow Pedagogical Institute.

Despite her scholarly accomplishments, she is still widely viewed as a wife who doesn’t know her place, or worse, is trying to interfere in her husband’s work.

That is a much more damaging allegation in a country where male chauvinism is unchallenged by any feminist movement and where middle-age women are still addressed as “girls” by men and women.


While she must be aware of the drawbacks to her prominent role, Gorbachev shows no signs of withdrawing from public view. She has taken an active role in a new cultural foundation, lending her support to artistic life.

But, except for newspaper photographs and television shots that invariably show her walking or standing close to Gorbachev, she is rarely mentioned in Pravda or the other official Soviet media. Soviet newspapers do not identify her in photo captions--though, at this point, most people know who she is anyway--and there has never been any discussion of her public role in any of the media.

Privacy for Family

Unlike the first ladies in other lands, she has kept her family life almost completely private. The Gorbachevs have one daughter, Irina, 31, a doctor, who is the mother of their two grandchildren. Their son-in-law is also a doctor, but it says something about the privacy granted to leading officials that his name is not widely known.

Irina has been seen in public with her older daughter, Oksana, but the name and sex of her newborn are not known to the public.

Gorbachev has told an Italian journalist that he, his wife and Irina traveled through France and Italy by private car--an unusual privilege even for a party official--in the 1960s.

He and Raisa, in fact, seem to be inseparable fellow-travelers. Besides a 1984 trip to Britain before Gorbachev moved into the top job, they have gone to Paris on a state visit, to Geneva for the November, 1985, summit with President Reagan, to Reykjavik, Iceland for the October, 1986, summit and to India two months later.


Although she does not give formal interviews, Gorbachev has spoken several times to Western correspondents in recent weeks.

“She’s utterly charming,” said a U.S. wire-service reporter after talking with her on Red Square during the Nov. 7 parade celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution.

Possibly in preparation for her American visit next month, Gorbachev has taught herself some English. She certainly wouldn’t miss the trip to Washington and, at the opening of an exhibition of American paintings at the state-operated Tretyakov Gallery here, she said: “Let’s hope there will be other visits (to the United States).”