The New Republic, Dec 28, 1987



Gregory Freidin


The most piquant, puzzling, and unrehearsed moment in the Brokaw-Gorbachev show came when the "conversation" turned to the subject of discussing politics with Raisa. All of a sudden, Gorbachev's voluminous didacticism, with its endless enumerations and detours, was replaced by a snappy three-word reply: "We discuss everything." And after Brokaw inquired further, asking whether "everything" included the "affairs at the highest level," Gorbachev, a man never at a loss for words, repeated himself and did so with some irritation.

The significance of Brokaw's query, which any American president would have welcomed as a respite from the pressure of a media interview, became magnified the following day when the Soviet television axed both Brokaw's follow-up question and Gorbachev's impatient answer. All the pre-summit euphoria notwithstanding, this confounding incident gives one a queasy feeling that except for the modest arms agreement, the Reagan-Gorbachev meeting may be no more than two ships passing in the night, and not so much for political reasons as because the two cultures remain, in large measure, mutually incomprehensible. The "Raisa factor" or, rather, the puzzlement over it in the media is a case in point.

The question whether Gorbachev discusses politics at the highest level with his wife has clearly a very different meaning in Russian from that in English. Not in the dictionary sense, but in the sense of the political and, even broader, general culture. That culture, when it comes to power, thrives on secrecy, and Mikhail Gorbachev, like any Party bureaucrat, has had many occasions to sign numerous affidavits binding him to silence regarding the "affairs of state." Such rules make no exceptions for one's wife or mother. Even in his retirement, the voluble Nikita Khrushchev ostensibly shied away from recalling the specifics of policy discussions (there are literally none in his memoirs) and the continuing unavailability of Yeltsin's fatal oratory indicates that now, as before, high-level policy debates are among the most jealously guarded secrets. By answering Brokaw's follow-up question in the affirmative, Gorbachev, in effect, confessed to a habitual violation of the criminal statute, not to mention the Party own rules which are meant to preserve the cherished appearance of unanimity in the councils of power. Seen through the Soviet eyes, Gorbachev's reply was hardly appropriate for the supreme leader, whose performance is assumed to be exemplary.

But there are more profound reasons for Gorbachev's discomfort with the question. These lie in the system of popular beliefs regarding the nature of government authority as well as the ceremonial language of state in which supreme power requests and receives the assent of the governed. As far as the popular imagination is concerned, the office of the head of state in Russia, whether the Tsar or the Party chief, is charismatic in character and command respect by virtue of its extraordinary nature. Paradoxically, while the charismatic appeal of Russia's last tsars was progressively on the wane during the last century of the old regime, dissipating entirely in the days before the abdication of Nicholas II, the modern Soviet state from the very beginning relied on and ceaselessly fostered the charismatic authority of its leaders. Then, as now, the quasi-religious aura of the head of state was supported by an elaborate ritual and myth with roots going back to the Byzantine imperial ideology and custom. According to this tradition (its echoes are discernible today in the debates on the ordination of women in the Catholic Church), the monarch represented a symbolic bridegroom of the country he ruled. In order to reconcile the need for orderly succession with the dictates of this political theology, the actual marriage was also surrounded by pomp and circumstance. An elaborate ritual integrated the mundane necessity of procreation into the master conjugal myth, emphasizing the queen's sole function: to produce a legitimate heir. A monarch in this tradition, as the historian Kantorowicz brilliantly demonstrated, had two bodies: one symbolic, for public display, and the other, actual, hidden from view and of no concern to the governed.

The ostensible asceticism of the Russian revolutionaries, who sacrificed their personal lives for the sake of their lofty mission, was assiduously cultivated and ultimately codified by the Bolshevik Party. After the revolution, blending with the popular expectations and the fashion for primitive revival, this style of leadership soon developed its own effective ceremonial and mythology in which the leader had to display an undivided devotion to the affairs of state -- his true spouse. The indeterminacy of tenure, not unlike that of a monarch, further reinforces the conjugal mythology of state. As a result, his lawful wife (and all Soviet leaders were married men) had to settle for the status of "the other woman," invisible in public and unnamed. Only in death, whether her husband's (Krupskaia) or her own (Allilueva), could her existence be acknowledged in the same ritual terms afforded to her spouse.

Apparently, neither Raisa Gorbachev nor her husband are satisfied with her playing the unenvious role. Quite as apparently, the majority of the Russian public are unwilling and unable to see her as anything but that and are understandably peaked at the sight of the supreme leader parading her in public. One solution to this problem would be to develop a state ceremonial that would acknowledge her ritually as a queen of sorts. Both Gorbachev and his country are too modern for that. The other would be to abandon the ascetic tradition of the early Bolsheviks that makes it impossible to establish an institution similar to that of the First Lady. But much of the Party's claim to legitimacy rests on the tales of self-sacrificial service in the people's cause, and Gorbachev is in no position to dispense with such an effective source of power. It would seem, then, that in this, as in so many other areas of Soviet life where the old has to be reconciled with the recent and both with the new, one should look forward to rough waters.

Copyright (c) 1987 by Gregory Freidin