A visit from the Iron Lady

April 13 1987

A visit from the Iron Lady

April 13 1987

A visit from the Iron Lady


For the eight million people who inhabit the Soviet capital, city life in Moscow is often monotonous and predictable. As a result, the residents of Krylatskoye, a drab apartment complex on the western edge of the city, responded enthusiastically last week when a Soviet official announced that a high-level foreign delegation was about to visit the five-year-old suburb. Two hours later a long line of polished black limousines pulled into the community, followed by three busloads of foreign journalists and scores of KGB security men. The doors to one of the limousines swung open and out stepped British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, waving cheerily to a crowd of several thousand people. Then, after plunging into the crowd to shake hands and exchange good wishes, Thatcher visited a typical apartment in the complex and met Anna Yegorova, 55, a smiling and bubbly Soviet housewife. Kissing Thatcher heartily on the cheek, Yegorova exclaimed: “I would very

much like to buy a ticket and go to your country. There should be much

more contact between our people.”

Throughout her five-day visit to the Soviet Union last week, Thatcher delivered a similar message. It was only by loosening the strict controls on Soviet society, she said, that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev could hope to strengthen trust and confidence between East and West. Coming from such an outspoken advocate of Western political and economic values as Thatcher, that advice was not in itself unusual. More remarkable was Gorbachev’s willingness to allow the prime minister to deliver her message directly to the Soviet people. Indeed, Soviet journalists recorded a 50-minute interview with the prime minister in which she strongly condemned the Soviet Union’s record on nuclear arms control. To the astonishment of Western diplomats in the capital, the interview was broadcast in its entirety that night on state-run television, to an audience estimated by the Soviets at 100 million.

Thatcher’s experiences in Moscow clearly left her in no doubt that Gorbachev was serious about pursuing his policy of glasnost, or openness. “I think it will take time for this to work

through the Soviet system,” the prime minister said at a news conference on the day before she left Moscow, “but change is afoot.” She added: “The exciting thing is the much, much wider discussion of the future that is taking place at the moment.”

But although Thatcher was clearly impressed by the new spirit of candor in the Kremlin, she did not find that Gorbachev was any less committed than his predecessors to the Soviet system. At a state banquet held in Moscow’s glittering Palace of Facets, a 15th-century hall lined with murals depicting medieval Russian peasant life, the two leaders exchanged hard-hitting speeches setting forth their position on arms control and other East-West issues.

Gorbachev, speaking first, said that Western leaders were suffering from a “gross delusion” if they thought that the newfound willingness of Soviet officials to discuss their country’s economic problems was a sign of potential weakness and vulnerability at the bargaining table. For her part, Thatcher began by praising her host’s direct approach to issues, adding: “I have a modest reputation in that way myself.”

Then, speaking coolly but firmly, she listed Western grievances against the Soviet Union, including its seven-year occupation of Afghanistan and the continuing failure of Soviet leaders to enact human-rights reforms.

The prime minister also expressed skepticism about Gorbachev’s declared goal of eliminating all nuclear weapons

from the world by the year 2000. “The fact is that nuclear weapons exist and the knowledge of how to make them cannot be erased,” she said. “A world without nuclear weapons may be a dream, but you cannot base a sure defence on dreams.”

Thatcher warned her Soviet counterpart that it was futile to try to make reductions in the nuclear arsenal conditional on halting research into the U.S. administration’s Strategic Defence Initiative, commonly known as Star Wars. And in a direct contradiction of Gorbachev’s claim that the Soviet Union was not conducting its own research on space weapons, she added: “We know that similar work is being undertaken in the Soviet Union.”

Despite such blunt language, Thatcher’s stay in the Soviet Union was marked by warmth and cordiality. The organizers of the bilateral summit—the first official visit by a British prime minister to the country since 1975—had originally scheduled SV2 hours of private talks between the two leaders. That was to be followed by wider discussions including Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze and British

Foreign Secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe. In the end, Thatcher and Gorbachev met for two formal sessions lasting a total of seven hours—forcing Howe and Shevardnadze to hold separate talks elsewhere in the Grand Kremlin Palace, an imposing yellow-and-white 19th-century building that is the headquarters of the Supreme Soviet of the

U.S.S.R. Briefing reporters later, a British official described the atmosphere between the two leaders as “combative but not hostile.” The official added: “I suspect they both like having a good argument together.”

Thatcher appeared to make an equally favorable impression on the Soviet people. Before departing for Moscow, she had asked the Soviets to include on her itinerary a visit to the Trinity-St. Sergius Monastery, a collection of onion-domed churches that for 500 years has been a centre of pilgrimage for the Russian Orthodox church. The whitewalled complex, 71 km northwest of Moscow, was already packed with worshippers and sightseers when Thatcher’s motorcade arrived on a cold and windy March 29 Sunday morning.

To the obvious consternation of more than a dozen stocky KGB men in brown fur hats and grey woollen overcoats, the prime minister waded into the crowd to chat with the hundreds of Soviet citizens who lined the route. When several elderly women shouted out “peace” and “friendship” in Russian as a greeting, Thatcher’s Soviet translator could not resist injecting a political note. “They want

to tell you how important it is to rid the world of nuclear weapons, to save mankind from catastrophe,” he told her. Thatcher smiled diplomatically but did not reply. Her host for the day, a bearded Russian Orthodox priest named Father Alexei, later delivered a similar anti-nuclear lecture, to which Thatcher responded: “People everywhere want

peace with freedom and justice.”

As is customary when a high-powered foreign guest is in town, Thatcher’s hosts tried to portray Soviet life in the best possible light. Soviets themselves describe such attempts to gloss over shortcomings in the Soviet system as pokazukha—a Russian word that translates as “just for show.” During a tour of suburban Moscow, the prime minister was taken to a supermarket which contained supplies of bread, cheese, tinned goods and fresh vegetables. As soon as she left, local residents rushed in to buy everything, telling reporters that they had never seen the supermarket so wellstocked.

In an effort to gain a more balanced picture of Soviet society, Thatcher met separately with two leading members of the country’s human rights movement. Both men—dissident physicist Andrei Sakharov, 66, and Jewish activist Josef Begun, 54—were released from detention recently as part of what many analysts interpreted as a campaign to allow a limited degree of political tolerance. The two men praised Gorbachev’s glasnost campaign but said that much remained to be done. “The changes so far do not address the problems faced by people who want to emigrate,” Begun said later. “Only a very brave person could hope that the future will bring a great improvement for Jews in this country.”

Together with other Jewish activists in Moscow, Begun said that he was skeptical about claims by North American Jewish leaders that the Kremlin would soon permit direct flights to Israel for thousands of so-called refuseniks— Jews who have been denied permission to leave the Soviet Union. “We have heard this many times in the past,” one refusenik said.

Still, for Thatcher, last week’s visit marked an important change in AngloSoviet relations. In the past, Soviet newspapers have characterized the British prime minister either as a cold-war aggressor or as a lapdog of the United States. Indeed, it was the Soviet press that first coined the phrase Iron Lady, or Zheleznaya Dama. Her unyielding stance with Gorbachev last week may not have led to a breakthrough in arms negotiations, but by rubbing shoulders with ordinary Soviets, Thatcher has at least shown that the Soviet leader is not the only one who is skilled in superpower public relations. □