Margaret Thatcher Understood Russia

It has often been said that Margaret Thatcher was more popular in Russia than she was in her own country. This was especially true in the late 1980s, when she, together with Ronald Reagan, played an instrumental role in the weakening of Soviet Communism, helping Russians liberate themselves from totalitarian rule. Having forced the Kremlin into an “arms race” it could not win, Thatcher and Reagan accelerated the demise of the Soviet system, making its political and economic bankruptcy evident to the entire world, including, not least, to the Russian people.

Thatcher was enchanted with Mikhail Gorbachev—“the man I can do business with,” as she famously referred to him—much to the displeasure of her longtime friend Vladimir Bukovsky, a legendary Soviet-era dissident who often acted as the British prime minister’s unofficial adviser on Russian matters. Gorbachev wanted to preserve the system by reforming it, Bukovsky explained to her, whereas what the Russian people (and the world) needed was to be free of that system altogether. Countering Thatcher’s argument that Gorbachev was a “pragmatic” leader, Bukovsky affirmed that “a pragmatic Communist is a Communist who has run out of money.”

“We argued [about Gorbachev], it came to shouting and banging of the fists on the table,” Bukovsky recalls. Finally, in 1992, when the Soviet Union was gone, and Thatcher was in retirement, Bukovsky brought her a piece of paper he had copied at the former Communist Party Central Committee Archive in Moscow. It showed Gorbachev’s signature on the 1984 authorization to transfer $1 million from Soviet funds to the striking British miners led by socialist firebrand Arthur Scargill who were trying to bring down Thatcher’s government.

In April 1990, Margaret Thatcher became one of the first Western leaders to welcome Boris Yeltsin to the world stage, inviting him to Downing Street. The British prime minister was gradually but surely shifting her support from Gorbachev to Yeltsin, the rising star in the Russian democratic movement, who would soon forever lower the red flag over the Kremlin.

Thatcher’s interest in Russia—and her support for the cause of freedom in Russia—did not wane after her own retirement and the demise of the Soviet system. “I had heard back in London that the Governor of the [Nizhny Novgorod] province, Boris Nemtsov, was … committed to a radical programme of what some call Thatcherism but what I had always regarded as commonsense,” she wrote in her seminal book Statecraft, recalling her 1993 visit to Nizhny Novgorod. Having become governor in 1991, Nemtsov embarked on an ambitious program of free market reforms that would propel his region from 70th to 7th place in the country in terms of socioeconomic development. Political leaders from around the world—including Newt Gingrich and Alain Juppé —came to Nizhny Novgorod to witness its “economic miracle.” “The Governor and I took a walk down Bolshaya Pokrovskaya street,” Thatcher continued. “All the stores here were privately owned. Every few yards we stopped to talk to the shopkeepers and see what they had to sell. No greater contrast with the drab uniformity of Moscow could be imagined … A combination of excellent local products, talented entrepreneurs and laws favourable to enterprise applied by honest and capable political leadership could generate prosperity and progress.”

Thatcher would continue to support Boris Nemtsov when he became leader of the democratic opposition to Vladimir Putin, sending personal greetings to the conventions of Nemtsov’s SPS party in 2001 and 2003. “The last time I saw her was at her 80th birthday party [in 2005],” Nemtsov recalls. “She approached me and asked me just one question: ‘When will he [Putin] leave?’” “She clearly understood what is Putin and what is Putinism,” concurs Vladimir Bukovsky, “She would say [to me] with great regret, ‘Why is your country so unlucky?’ … She was upset about what was going on [in Russia].”

The world was fortunate to have Margaret Thatcher as one of its leading statesmen at such a pivotal time in history. It is to be hoped that someone, one day, will be able to match her foresight and determination, and her caliber of personality and leadership.


Photo Credit: Courtesy Ronald Reagan Library

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