Gorbacheva, Raisa (1932–1999)

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Gorbacheva, Raisa (1932–1999)

Russian sociologist, educator, and wife of the former president of the Soviet Union. Name variations: Raisa Maximovna; Raisa Gorbachev. Pronunciation: Gorba-CHOFF-a. Born Raisa Maksimovna Titarenko in Rubtsovsk, USSR, on January 5, 1932; died of leukemia on September 20, 1999, at the Muenster University Clinic in Muenster, Germany; daughter of Maksim Andreevich Titarenko, sometimes rendered Titorenko (a railway construction engineer) and Aleksandra (or Shura) Petrovna Paradina Titarenko; attended Moscow State University, 1949–54; Lenin Pedagogical Institute (Moscow), 1964–67; married Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev (a lawyer and future head of the Communist Party and the Soviet state), on September 25, 1953; children: Irina Gorbacheva Virganskaya (b. 1957).

Was a lecturer (dotsent), Stavropol Agricultural Institute (1959–78) and Moscow State University (1979–85); served as vice-president, Soviet Cultural Foundation (1986–91); granted an honorary degree from Northeastern University in Boston (1989).


I Hope: Reminiscences and Reflections (New York, 1991); Peasant Life on the Collective Farm: A Social Summary (in Russian; Stavropol, 1969); and numerous articles on academic and cultural topics.

On June 6, 1988, Raisa Gorbacheva appeared on the cover of Time magazine—the first Russian woman to be so honored. While this distinction was in part a result of her marriage to the leader of the Soviet Union, she also deserved recognition in her own right. Raised in humble surroundings during the worst period of Soviet history, she had become an articulate, resourceful professional woman with a Ph.D. in sociology and a successful career as a lecturer at two Soviet universities. She also played an important role in her husband's more renowned career. It would be a mistake, however, to view Raisa Gorbacheva, as Time did, as Russia's "First Lady" or as a true symbol of the "new Soviet woman."

There are "blank spots" in Gorbacheva's early biography which even her husband's later policy of glasnost (openness) failed to illumine. She was born on January 5, 1932, in Rubtsovsk, a remote town in the Altai region of Siberia. Soviet reticence about the background of its political leaders and especially of their wives has led to considerable speculation about Raisa's origins. Some have claimed, perhaps because of her facial features, that she was of Crimean Tatar descent; others have suggested that she was related to key figures in the early Soviet hierarchy. Gorbacheva herself was adamant that she was ethnically Russian and that her parents were of peasant stock. Her father Maksim Titarenko (sometimes rendered Titorenko) was a railway construction engineer who moved from his native Ukraine to Siberia in 1929 in search of work. Her mother Aleksandra Titarenko was apparently a Russian brought up in Siberia. The turbulent period of Raisa's childhood witnessed the hardships of forced collectivization, widespread famine and total war. She acknowledged in her reminiscences that her maternal grandfather, who acquired a farm during the more relaxed atmosphere of the 1920s, was arrested under Stalin on charges of being a kulak or rich peasant and a follower of Leon Trotsky. He disappeared during the Great Purges of the 1930s. Her only biographer, Urda Jürgens , claims the same fate almost befell Maksim Titarenko who allegedly was arrested in 1935 for criticizing collectivization and sentenced to four years in a northern labor camp. Jürgens produces no evidence to support this assertion which may in fact be contradicted by the birth of Raisa's younger sister Liudmilla Titarenko in 1938.

Gorbacheva said little about her father other than that she was the favorite of his three children and that he was frequently absent because of his employment. He died in 1986. Aleksandra Titarenko was a more formative influence. Uneducated and religious, she made sure her eldest daughter was christened in the Orthodox faith and that all her children received a good education. To supplement the family's meager income, she often kept a cow or goat for milk, tended a vegetable garden, and made most of her children's clothing. Raisa's abiding memory of these difficult years was of moving "from nest to nest"—sometimes a converted railway car, once a "beautiful large wooden house in the Urals," another time an apartment in a former monastery—as her father was transferred from one place to another in Ukraine and Siberia. She was "always the new girl" in each village school, and she also was always at the top of her class. In 1949, she graduated from tenth grade with a gold medal—an honor given to only one student in every hundred—which allowed her to attend a university of her choice.

Raisa Titarenko chose to go to Moscow State University, the nation's premier institution of higher learning. She enrolled in the Philosophy Faculty and took courses primarily in psychology, sociology and Marxism-Leninism. The subject matter was constrained by the dictates of high Stalinism, but in her words "the teaching and social activities… contained more radicalism, more excitement and more creativity." "We were happy. Happy in our youth and in our hopes for the future." At first, she lived in a dormitory room with 11 other young women and existed on a minimal diet cooked in a communal kitchen. Much of her time outside the classroom was spent in Moscow's theaters, museums, and art galleries, experiencing a culture unavailable in Siberia. She spent enough time studying, however, to graduate in 1954 with top marks and an offer of a research fellowship to continue postgraduate studies in Moscow.

After a year of further work, she gave up a prized life in the capital to move to the south of Russia with her new husband, Mikhail Gorbachev. She had met Gorbachev, who was a year older and studying law in Moscow, at a dance in 1951. She was impressed by "his lack of vulgarity" and his willingness to take her ideas seriously. Indeed, she introduced him to the new world of art and culture which she had found in Moscow. They were married in September 1953 and two years later, after he had finished his degree, moved 800 miles to Stavropol which was to be their home for the next 23 years.

Stavropol, with a population of only 100,000, was a world apart from cosmopolitan Moscow. To be sure, it had a temperate climate and an attractive setting on the northern slopes of the Caucasus but, as Raisa acknowledged, it was "excessively provincial." Cultural possibilities were limited to three movie houses, a local history museum, a regional library, and a theater company and orchestra of dubious quality. Few of the streets were paved, and there was little central heating. Their first apartment consisted of one room, no running water, and a paraffin stove in the corridor. What irritated Raisa the most was her inability to find suitable employment which she needed to satisfy her own ambitions as well as to supplement her husband's modest salary as he worked his way up the ladder of the local party organization. At first, she could find no work at all despite her excellent education; then she was hired by a medical institute to do a "job I was not trained for"; and, when she finally found a part-time position which allowed her to teach philosophy, she had "no real rights" and had to accept lower pay than her less qualified male colleagues. These problems, not unknown to female academics elsewhere, were accentuated by the fact that she was seen as a well-educated Muscovite and an outsider. It was only in 1959 that Gorbacheva was able to overcome these obstacles and was given a full-time appointment as dotsent or lecturer in philosophy at the Stavropol Agricultural Institute.

In January 1957, with the birth of her daughter Irina Gorbacheva , Gorbacheva had to come to grips with another problem common to professional women in the West. Taking care of a child, standing in endless lines to buy supplies, and cooking meals for her family made it difficult to prepare lectures. Sometimes she had to stay home with her sick child or she left Irina in the faculty common room while she met her classes. "It is not easy to combine professional and public obligations with family duties, with the role of mother and wife," she wrote many years later. In 1964, after her daughter had entered school, Gorbacheva decided to resume her graduate training while continuing as a full-time teacher. She was accepted by the Lenin Pedagogical Institute in Moscow to do a kandidat degree (roughly equivalent to a North American Ph.D.) in sociology. Her choice of discipline is interesting since sociology was only starting to gain respectability in the Soviet Union after years of abuse and distortion under Stalin. Her dissertation—"The Emergence of New Characteristics in the Daily Lives of the Collective Farmers (Derived from Sociological Investigations in the Stavropol Region)"—was based on 3,000 questionnaires and countless follow-up interviews with farmers. Her methodology, which was virtually unknown in the Soviet Union of the 1960s, is in retrospect more interesting than her somewhat predictable conclusions. She successfully defended her thesis in 1967 and published a popularized summary of it two years later.

It is significant that Gorbacheva's husband, who in 1970 was given the very important position of first secretary of the Communist Party organization in the Stavropol region, was interested in agricultural problems and was later to make his reputation in this field. During their long walks in the surrounding countryside, husband and wife discussed the findings of her research as well as the difficulties of professional women in Soviet society. Raisa also helped her husband entertain party dignitaries who often visited the hot springs near Stavropol. Her self-confidence and wide-ranging interests, which

rarely were found in party wives of this period, particularly impressed Yuri Andropov, the head of the KGB and future general secretary of the Communist Party, who became Mikhail Gorbachev's mentor and protector in the often cutthroat world of higher Soviet politics. Despite her own early difficulties, this was probably the happiest period of Raisa's marriage. "It was there in the Stavropol region," she later wrote, "that we spent the years of our youth and it was there that our daughter was born and grew up. It was there that we had close friends and family. And it was there, in Stavropol, that we were given the opportunity to realize ourselves."

In November 1978, Gorbachev was called to Moscow to be a member of the party's powerful Secretariat and shortly thereafter of its ruling Politburo. Life in the nation's capital was different for Raisa. She found few friends among the much older and less educated wives of her husband's geriatric associates. To be sure, there were special perquisites that went with his job: a large apartment with servants, a country dacha, access to special stores, and travel abroad. One senses, however, that she derived more satisfaction out of resuming her career at Moscow State University. She started work on a doktorskii degree, which is more advanced than a North American Ph.D., and in 1979 was given a lectureship in Marxist philosophy at her alma mater. Six years later, after her husband was named general secretary of the Communist Party and subsequently president of the Soviet Union, she reluctantly gave up her own career to help his.

The "Raisa factor" burst on the Western media when Gorbachev made a state visit to England in December 1984. In the past, wives of Soviet leaders stayed at home. Not this time. Raisa got off the plane at her husband's side, not three steps behind. She was stylishly attired, well coiffured and (unlike her predecessors) thinner than her husband. She confounded her hosts by showing more interest in going to Stratford than in visiting Karl Marx' grave. The tabloids loved it when she pulled out her American Express Gold Card to pay for earrings at Cartier's. It was evident that she was well read in English and willing to try out her few phrases in that language or in French when the occasion presented itself. In public, she expressed her opinions freely to the press; and in private, she was known to correct statements made by her husband. During the next six years, she accompanied Mikhail on over 30 trips abroad. She invariably came informed about museums and galleries she wanted to visit, and she charmed the media and most of her hosts. The one exception was Nancy Reagan who was unable to answer Raisa's persistent questions about the history of the White House and perhaps felt upstaged by Russia's version of Jacqueline Kennedy . It is no wonder that in 1987 a British magazine chose her "woman of the year," and that a year later she was the subject of Time's cover story. In the West at least, she was quite prepared and able to play the role of Russia's "first lady."

The situation was very much different in her homeland where the concept of a "first lady" was foreign and an anathema to a resolutely paternalistic population. It is symptomatic of the difference that when Tom Brokaw's interview with Mikhail Gorbachev was televised in the Soviet Union, the section where the general secretary acknowledged discussing matters of state with his wife was deleted. Raisa, recognizing the difference, declined to give interviews in Moscow and deferred to her husband more than in the West. She still accompanied him on his unusual and well-televised "walk arounds" when he talked to ordinary Russian citizens. She also tried to contribute to his policy of perestroika (restructuring) by serving as vice-president of the Soviet Cultural Foundation, a new non-governmental agency which sought to protect, preserve, and promote Russian cultural interests. In private, she remained Gorbachev's alter ego. Despite her own doctrinaire views, there is evidence that she sought to develop his new democratic image. She took it as her personal duty to watch her husband's performances on television or before the Duma (parliament) and to suggest ways in which he might project himself more effectively.

Despite her cautious public approach, jokes were prevalent in Moscow about "the Red tsarina" or about the Napoleonic Gorbachev's "Josephine." She was attacked in the Duma for accepting a salary for her valuable work as vice-president of the Cultural Foundation. Chauvinistic Russian men did not like the idea of any woman, much less a "first lady," advising and shaping state policy. They particularly did not like the widespread rumor that the teetotaling Gorbacheva was behind her husband's much-needed but detested anti-alcohol campaign. Contrary to foreign expectations, few of her own sex saw her as a "new Soviet woman." Her frequent image on television was too remote from their own reality to be credible. Women who owned only two dresses objected when Raisa changed her foreign-designed clothes twice daily when visiting sick children near Chernobyl or wore a fur coat when viewing the devastation caused by the Armenian earthquake. Women who had never visited a hairdresser simply could not relate to the well-combed Raisa. As Norma Noonan has noted, "Gorbacheva projected glamour and affluence in an increasingly impoverished Soviet Union." It was commonly believed that she was putting on airs and dipping into the same trough that had kept the Soviet elite well supplied during the Brezhnev years. Raisa Gorbacheva, just like her husband, was far less popular at home than she was abroad and indirectly this contributed to his downfall.

In August 1991, the president of the Soviet Union, his attractive 59-year-old wife, their only daughter and her husband, as well as two grandchildren were vacationing in the Crimea when Gorbachev's opponents in the party struck. The entire family was arrested and for 72 hours held hostage. Raisa, in particular, feared for their lives and thought that an attempt would be made to poison her husband. She apparently suffered a stroke or a nervous breakdown as a result of the ordeal. While the coup itself failed, the Communist Party which Gorbachev headed was outlawed, and in December he resigned as the president of a Soviet Union which no longer existed.

Little is known about Raisa's activity since then. She did not resume her public or academic work, and she still did not grant interviews. While she occasionally accompanied her husband on trips abroad, she adamantly opposed his seeking the presidency again in 1996. That year, when pressed by reporters to comment on her tendency to accompany her husband on trips, she replied, "You all wrote about how I was always by his side when he was in power. But why don't you write that I never left his side after all of you forgot about him."

The story of an intelligent, articulate woman who gave up her own career to help her husband, only to be ridiculed for her efforts, was not dissimilar to that of another first lady—Hillary Rodham Clinton . But the Russian climate changed. In August 1999, with her sister as donor, Raisa was to receive a bone marrow transplant for leukemia at the University Clinic in Muenster, Germany. Tens of thousands of letters and telegrams poured into the Gorbachev Foundation office in Moscow from Russian well-wishers. On hearing about it, "Raisa Maximovna even cried," said an aide. But the transplant had to be postponed because of complications caused by chemotherapy and infection. Raisa Gorbacheva died on September 20, 1999, with her husband and her daughter by her side. Only then was the world apprised that Raisa had donated much of her wealth to charity and had raised more than $8 million for children's leukemia hospitals.


Gorbachev, Raisa. I Hope: Reminiscences and Reflections. Translated from the Russian by David Floyd. NY: HarperCollins. 1991.

Dolgov, Anna. "An Ailing Raisa Gorbachev finally wins affection from Russian public," in The Day [New London]. September 11, 1999.

Jürgens, Urda. Raisa. Translated from the German by Sylvia Clayton. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1990.

Noonan, Norma C. "Gorbacheva, Raisa Maksimovna" in The Gorbachev Encyclopedia. Salt Lake City: Schlacks, 1993, pp. 186–193.

Whitmore, Brian. "Raisa Gorbachev, who broke mold for Kremlin wives, dies," in The Boston Globe. September 21, 1999.

suggested reading:

"My Wife is a Very Independent Lady," in Time. June 6, 1988, pp. 32–35.

Sheehy, Gail. The Man Who Changed the World: The Lives of Mikhail S. Gorbachev. NY: HarperCollins, 1990.

R. C. Elwood , Professor of History, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada