Margaret Thatcher's Moscow Memoir
In March 1985 MT went to the funeral of Soviet President Konstantin Chernenko, the second such event she had attended in thirteen months.
Fascinated by it all, at Chequers the next weekend she wrote down what she remembered, the memories so fresh she was clearly reliving it in her mind as she wrote, her prose slipping into the present tense.
Nature & origin of the memoir
Chernenko in the open coffin, Gorbachev on the left
The Moscow memoir was the third written by MT, and a little different from the others. The policy or political content is much smaller, the purely descriptive element more considerable. In fact describing what she had seen and how it felt seems to have been pretty much the point of this one, whereas at most it was a component of the earlier two.
The tell-it-as-it-was aspect of the Moscow memoir rather clinches the idea that by the middle of her second term as Prime Minister she was turning her mind to the book she would write when she left office. Ironically when she actually began writing The Downing Street Years a decade later, her papers had become so abundant that the memoir was lost among them and not found in time to be used. Consequently no part of it has been published before.
communism with a human face
The interest of the Chernenko memoir is not simply that MT describes, but that she does it from a surprisingly sympathetic perspective given that she was standing at the very walls of the Kremlin, the citadel of enemy power. One would have thought the treatment might have been quite different.
Probably a number of things pushed her this way. There is the basic fact of death and the near universal human tendency to honour the dead and sympathise with the grieving, which she certainly felt. MT was struck by Mrs Chernenko's suffering, and that of her family whom the widow did her best politely to introduce to MT when she attended the lying-in. Their apparently sincere family feeling lay in such strong contrast to the rather empty ceremony. Chernenko's death had been so long anticipated, the last and least significant of the trio of aged Soviet leaders, and there was impatience for the new era to begin. On this point MT echoed in her account comments from the British Ambassador in telegrams which she had read over the previous days.
Paradoxically here is reason for sympathy as well, because, of course, MT had recently met and been favourably impressed by the man designated Chernenko's successor, Mikhail Gorbachev. She shared the hopeful mood, save in one thing. It is striking that she has no expectation at all that Gorbachev will succeed in turning the Soviet Union round. Reading his acceptance speech on the plane over, she is clear already that he will not because someone so completely the creation of such a system cannot.
Finally she was clearly impressed by the ceremony itself, by the solemn grandeur, in fact enjoyed it after a fashion, for all the discomfort of standing for hours in the cold and her shudder at the goose-stepping Soviet military (though she admires their discipline, and smart uniforms.) She had discovered over the years that the Communists were capable of doing ceremonial quite impressively, and characteristically she turned that fact to her own advantage. Her visits to Budapest in February 1984 and Moscow again in March/April 1987 worked very well politically, domestically as well as overseas, partly because of the pomp. It is almost as if she felt the Communists owed her something for all the many hours of discomfort she endured on these trips over the years, not least the indignity of being spied on all the time, registered on this occasion when she uses hand gestures to ask the British Ambassador whether her car from the airport was bugged, knowing of course the answer.
From the publicity angle it helped surely that she was a woman, and by now an iconic figure on the right, rendering pictures of her at the funeral irresistible to the media. She always planned her clothes carefully and Communist state funerals took special thought. Photos show that she chose not to wear a fur hat, perhaps because it did not seem funereal enough (no scarf either), and in the memoir she makes a point of telling us she does not even own a fur coat, such an obvious emblem of wealth and power in the West however normal in the climate of the East. Conscious that she was going to be cold she had hand warmers in her pockets, and wore fur boots, safely out of sight.
Rank mattered in her mind at the funeral. She was conscious that she was the senior Western leader to attend measured by term of office and in a second sense by proximity as an ally to the key absent figure - President Reagan. We can be fairly sure it was not her only or even main reason for going, because she had already demonstrated by this stage her commitment to easing Cold War tension by personal contact of precisely this kind, but it is hard to believe the issue was not in her mind. She seems to have been quietly pleased, though slightly guilty also, to be invited to jump the queue to shake Gorbachev's hand in St. George's Hall after the ceremony, meeting on her way out Bush, Shultz and Kohl still waiting. An outbreak of gentlemanly good manners from the Communists was perfectly acceptable, even if it meant being bracketed briefly with Imelda Marcos.
In the Kremlin she has something of a tourist's eye, improbable details tumbling out. She admires a painting of Lenin on the staircase. She notices with housewifely approval that the endless rows of lights in the Hall itself are not marred by a single blown bulb. She will surely have checked that British standards matched those of the Russians when she got back to No.10.
The memoir is also available as a voiced over podcast: