The iron curtain first lady

Laughed at, unable to answer back, constrained in private life but derided for political involvement: the modern political spouse can’t do right for doing wrong.

Was it the same behind the Iron Curtain?


Margot and Erich Honecker

In 1989, three striking political wives stood next to their husbands amid the earthquakes of the disintegrating Eastern Bloc. Margot Honecker, who has recently died in exile in Chile, was a politician in her own right: she had been the East German Minister of Education since 1963. In 1971, the year when he became General Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party, Erich Honecker married her. Scarcely popular — ‘ice cold’ and a ‘purple witch’ to many in the population — she was powerful and sinister, a passionate proponent of the Berlin Wall. ‘Margot Honecker may not have killed anyone,’ unpromisingly ran her obituary in the Financial Times, ‘but she went all out to warp the minds of her young compatriots.’ Not exactly Norma Major.


Elena and Nicolae Ceaușescu shortly before their execution

Elena Ceaușescu was also a leading political figure — deputy Prime Minister of Romania since 1980 — but, unlike Margot, she held high office only because she was her husband’s wife. She designed an improbable public image for herself. A trained chemist, she assumed the status of ‘a scholar of world-renown’, one who was forever photographed in smiling proximity to the leader. As corruption infested the regime more deeply, she became ever more distant from real life. This was the Warsaw Pact country that did not de-Stalinize, with Nicolae Ceaușescu its most unreconstructed late socialist dictator,  so it was perhaps no accident that its revolution was the violent one. Elena was executed next to her husband on Christmas Day, 1989, forever after demonized.

By contrast, Raisa Gorbachev really was a First Lady. She was self-consciously the partner of her husband, accompanying him on domestic and foreign trips, offering him advice. When he made the decision to accept the role of General Secretary in 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev only did so after a long and secret walk with her, away from any microphone. They met at Moscow State University: both were intelligent and ambitious provincials from modest backgrounds. By all accounts, their marriage was a love match. Raisa never recovered her health after the August Coup of 1991 and died in 1999. Her husband was devastated.


Mikhail and Raisa Gorbachev

In a late Soviet world of increasing openness, Raisa invented the role of Russian first lady as a public figure (perhaps Lenin’s wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, was her closest comparator). As such, she suffered from the problem of always offending at least two-thirds of the population by her choice of clothes, her haughty air, her alleged Lady Macbeth tendencies. She sometimes confused foreign dignitaries with her Soviet schoolmistress ways, immodestly outstripping them in knowledge of their native literatures or rigidly insisting on proper hygiene after shaking the hands of a crowd.

Distance no doubt lends enchantment, but at the remove of nearly thirty years, Raisa Gorbacheva’s anxious resolve, unbending culturedness, and iron loyalty to her husband have a seriousness and solidity about them, a fixed point of late Soviet life that would soon be washed away forever.


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