MOSCOW (AP) _ With tears in his eyes, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev on Tuesday opened a museum exhibit about his wife, Raisa, calling her a willful and intelligent companion who struggled for women's rights.

Shortly before touring the exhibit, which opened just before the anniversary of Raisa Gorbachev's death from leukemia last year, Gorbachev said he appreciated the sympathy he received during his wife's illness, despite Russia's turmoil and the suspicion with which she was regarded by many Russians.

``I understand how hard it is for people now, and in this situation people found the strength, the moral strength, to pay so much attention to Raisa, and I'm thankful for that,'' he said tearfully.

The small exhibit emphasized how Gorbachev's wife broke the mold in Soviet society, where leaders' wives had stuck to the background, and public elegance was considered an extravagance.

She adopted Western fashion and played a prominent role next to her husband, even though many Soviet citizens disliked her for it. On display were pictures of her with Nancy Reagan, both in fur coats, and next to her husband consoling survivors from a devastating 1988 earthquake in Armenia.

``You could say that only with the arrival of (Raisa Gorbachev) was the idea of a first lady created in the Soviet Union,'' said Tamara Shumnaya, director of the Museum of Contemporary Russian History, which is holding the exhibit.

The exhibit featured a few pictures from Raisa Gorbachev's early life and highlighted the work she did as first lady, when she helped establish a cultural fund and raised money for sick children.

There were also curious pieces, like a giant music box the size of a suitcase given to her during a visit to Japan, and portraits of her and her husband painted on two dried leaves _ a gift from India.

The elegance and style that brought her the suspicion of many in her country won Raisa Gorbachev admiration in the West, and she helped bring a human face to the people living on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

``She was a breakthrough for our society,'' said First Deputy Minister of Culture Natalya Dementyeva. ``We were the Evil Empire, and she brought that image down.''

At home, resentment toward Gorbachev's wife waned once she was hospitalized in Germany last July. The exhibit displayed a few of the letters that poured in from Russians around the country, as well as get-well cards from children in Germany.

``After she died, people understood her contribution to history,'' said Nina Fetisova, a museum visitor. ``It is unfortunate it didn't happen during her lifetime.''