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Gorbachevs Swamped With Sympathy

September 10, 1999

MOSCOW (AP) _ Once among the most reviled couples in Russia, Mikhail and Raisa Gorbachev have been inundated with sympathy and admiration from thousands of ordinary Russians as the wife of the former Soviet leader battles acute leukemia.

Deeply admired in the West, the Gorbachevs were equally despised by most Russians, who blamed him for the country’s problems and ridiculed his wife as a showoff.

The sudden, unexpected wave of support has made Mrs. Gorbachev cry, aides said.

``It must be in the Russian character _ to run somebody into the mud, and them laud them to high heavens after a tragedy strikes,″ said Vladimir Polyakov, a spokesman for Gorbachev in Moscow.

Mrs. Gorbachev, 67, was admitted to the Muenster University Clinic in Germany on July 25. Her husband has been at her bedside nearly around the clock.

News of the illness brought a huge and unexpected flood of support and sympathy back home. Tens of thousands of letters and telegrams lie in piles at the Gorbachev Foundation office in the Russian capital.

Anxious people have written to share their experiences with the disease or to suggest special diets and folk remedies. Others telephone to say they are praying for Mrs. Gorbachev’s recovery. Herbal medicines have arrived from Siberia. The rich and the poor have offered to help with money and blood and bone marrow transplants.

Many letters are from the same elderly people who had long resented Gorbachev for his role in the events leading to the 1991 Soviet collapse and the subsequent economic and political turmoil that seized Russia.

A Soviet general’s widow called to offer $25,000 she had left after selling her apartment. Another woman offered to go to Germany to cook for Gorbachev, saying he must be tired of German cuisine.

``For Mikhail Sergeyevich (Gorbachev), after all the mud that had been poured on him, it was very unexpected,″ Polyakov said.

``And Raisa Maximovna even cried,″ he said.

Mrs. Gorbachev is admired in the West, where her intellect, style and outspoken manner _ together with the glasnost and perestroika reforms of her husband _ helped demolish the image of the Soviet Union as an evil empire.

But her poise, and the love and support she so clearly showed for her husband, created resentment at home.

Mrs. Gorbachev’s sophisticated designer clothes and jewelry were derided as ostentatious displays of wealth and elite status in a country where much of the population lived in poverty.

It went largely unnoticed that Mrs. Gorbachev donated much of her personal income and helped raise more than $8 million over the past few years for children’s leukemia hospitals in Russia, according to foundation figures.

Soviet women ``resented her simply because she is different,″ the daily Izvestia wrote recently, after Mrs. Gorbachev was hospitalized.

``She is not like the others: Fragile, graceful, with a sophisticated taste for beautiful clothes, she became a symbol of a country struggling to shake off its drabness.″

``People didn’t understand her. Maybe they didn’t want to understand,″ the newspaper said.

But most of all she was resented for even daring to appear in public with her husband.

``Who does she think she is, a member of the Politburo?″ people would ask, according to Gorbachev’s memoirs.

Previous Soviet leaders were assumed to have wives _ but they were rarely seen or mentioned. A Communist leader’s wife making repeated public appearances was too much of a shock for most Russians.

``Maybe the very notion of the family, it was distorted here,″ Polyakov, the Gorbachev spokesman, said. ``It turns out (the Gorbachevs) were ahead of their time.″

Many letters received by the foundation now praise the Gorbachevs for things they were once derided for, especially their love and unashamed devotion to each other.

``We know that you are a loving and brave couple ... If the Lord is with you, nothing and nobody can come against you,″ said a letter signed by the Boldyrev family from Moscow.

Leading Russian newspapers have run stories titled ``First Family,″ and ``He and She,″ along with pictures of Gorbachev with his arms around his wife or kissing her hair.

``Someday, a great saga will be written about Raisa and Mikhail _ a saga of love,″ the daily Izvestia wrote.

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