When Mikhail Gorbachev is buried Saturday at Moscow’s Novodevichy Cemetery, he will once again be next to his wife, Raisa, with whom he shared the world stage in a visibly close and loving marriage that was unprecedented for a Soviet leader.
“They were a true pair. She was a part of him, almost always at his side,” then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl of Germany said at Raisa’s funeral in 1999, where Gorbachev wept openly. “Much of what he achieved is simply unimaginable without his wife.”
Gorbachev’s very public devotion to his family broke the stuffy mold of previous Soviet leaders, just as his openness to political reform did.
“He loved a woman more than his work. I think he wouldn’t have been able to embrace her if his hands were stained with blood,” wrote Nobel Peace Prize winner Dmitry Muratov, editor of Russia’s leading independent newspaper, Novaya Gazeta. Co-owned by Gorbachev, it was forced to shut under official pressure after Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
“We should always remember,” Muratov continued, “he loved a woman more than his work, he placed human rights above the state and he valued peaceful skies more than personal power.”
Gorbachev’s open attachment to his family also stands in stark contrast to the secrecy that surrounds the private life of Russia’s current leader, President Vladimir Putin.
For her part, Raisa Gorbacheva cut a bold figure for Soviet first ladies — more visible, with a direct way of speaking, a polished manner and fashionable clothes. A sociologist by training, she had met Mikhail at a Moscow university where they both studied.
“One day we took each other by the hand and went for a walk in the evening. And we walked like that for our whole life,” Gorbachev told Vogue magazine in 2013. Raisa accompanied him on his travels, and they discussed policy and politics together.
Her confident demeanor and prominent public role didn’t sit well with many Russians, who had also soured on Gorbachev and blamed his policies for the subsequent breakup of the Soviet Union. The couple won sympathy, however, in 1999, when it was revealed that Raisa was dying of leukemia. Her husband spoke daily with television reporters, and the sometimes lofty-sounding politician of old was suddenly seen as an emotional, grieving family man.
For more than two decades after she was gone, Gorbachev kept Raisa’s memory alive and embraced his status as a lonely widower.
He released a CD of seven romantic songs, “Songs for Raisa,” in 2009 on which he sang along with well-known Russian musician and guitarist Andrei Makarevich. Sales went to the charities Raisa had founded. A few years later, he published a book dedicated to her, “Alone with Myself.”
Their marriage even became the subject of a popular play in Moscow in 2021, “Gorbachev.” Its point was one noteworthy for Russia: that the country’s leader was a human being who prioritized family, friends and personal obligations. One scene recounted a key moment in Gorbachev’s career when he returned to Moscow after the failed communist coup against him in 1991. Raisa had had a stroke, and instead of immediately stepping back onto the political stage, he went to the hospital to be with her.
“I was not married to the country — Russia or the Soviet Union,” Gorbachev wrote in his memoirs. “I was married to my wife, and that night I went with her to the hospital.”
At the Moscow cemetery, a life-size statue of Raisa has stood for many years now over the grave intended for them both.
The Gorbachevs had a daughter, Irina, two granddaughters and a great-granddaughter. Despite his attachment to family, Gorbachev lived out his life in Russia while they live in Germany.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a businessman in the early post-Soviet days who now lives in exile in London, tweeted this week that one of Gorbachev’s great strengths was his ability to wash away “awe of the person on the throne,” and that his attention to family was part of that.
“With this he changed my life. And also by his attitude toward Raisa Maximovna — a second important lesson,” Khodorkovsky said, using Gorbacheva’s patronymic. “He went to her. Rest in peace.”