Raisa Gorbachev succumbs to cancer, aged 67

The body of Raisa Gorbachev, the wife of Mikhail Gorbachev who finally succumbed to cancer early yesterday, is to be flown to…

The body of Raisa Gorbachev, the wife of Mikhail Gorbachev who finally succumbed to cancer early yesterday, is to be flown to Moscow for a funeral ceremony that is likely to underscore an increasingly favourable reassessment of his period as leader of the Soviet Union.

Mrs Gorbachev (67) died in Munster, Germany, where she was being treated for a rare and acute form of leukaemia, cancer of the blood. Her physician at the Westfalische Wilhelm Universtat clinic, Dr Thomas Buchner, gave the cause of death as circulatory and organ failure.

Mr Gorbachev, who is known to have been deeply devoted to his wife, was at her side when she died. With her also was their only child, their daughter Irina. Later yesterday Mr Gorbachev was seen leaving the clinic but he did not speak.

ITAR-TASS, the semi-official Russian news agency, said the Russian President, Mr Boris Yeltsin, had ordered an aircraft sent to Germany to bring Mrs Gorbachev's body home. She is expected to be buried in the Novodevichy cemetery in Moscow, the resting place for many of Russia's most revered people.

Mr Yeltsin, Mr Gorbachev's political nemesis as the man who humiliated him on national TV in 1991 after the failed hardline communist coup against his reforms, sought to heal wounds between them, paying handsome tribute to Mrs Gorbachev and offering his personal support to Mr Gorbachev.

"You are missing your most faithful and committed friend," he said in a letter to Mr Gorbachev. "You lost a wonderful person, a beautiful woman, a loving wife and mother. For several months the world has been watching with hope how Raisa Maximovna courageously fought the illness. Today millions of Russians and people from other countries who knew and respected your spouse share your bitterness.

"Naina [Mr Yeltsin's wife] and I want you to know that you can rely on our help and support in these hard times."

Mrs Gorbachev surprised and delighted people when her husband became Soviet leader in 1985. The surprise was that she appeared in public, a practice hitherto unknown among Soviet wives. The delight - in the West, if less so in the Soviet Union itself - lay in her personal charm, good looks, fashionable dressing and the role she played as a spontaneous, confident, intelligent and active partner of her husband.

Her self-confidence famously irritated Mrs Nancy Reagan, who snapped on one occasion: "Who does that dame think she is?"

But in Russia people were less enamoured of Mrs Gorbachev, the daughter of a Siberian railway worker who studied philosophy and sociology in Moscow before marrying in 1953. In a country where grinding poverty and hardship were a way of life, her evident ease with western fashion went down badly. And Mr Gorbachev's admission that "I discuss everything with my wife, including Soviet affairs at the highest level" made him a weakling in the eyes of some in Russia.

Under her influence, 40 per cent of funds earmarked for health were reserved for maternal and childcare.

Yesterday, Mr Gorbachev received the sympathy of the German Chancellor, Mr Gerhard Schroder, President Chirac of France and Pope John Paul.

The former US first lady, Mrs Nancy Reagan, also sent condolences yesterday to Mr Gorbachev, calling Raisa "an important voice in the friendship" between Washington and Moscow. "Ronnie and I are shocked and deeply saddened by the news of Raisa Gorbachev's passing," the wife of the ailing former US president, Mr Ronald Reagan, said in a statement.