Doing Business With the Iron Lady

The news of Margaret Thatcher’s death is very sad news indeed. I was aware of her grave illness; the last time we met was several years ago. I offer my sincere condolences to her family and loved ones.

Mrs. Thatcher was a political leader whose words carried great weight. I was aware of this when I prepared for our meeting in 1984. This was the first step in the search for a common language — a most difficult search.

Our very first conversation, over lunch at Chequers, was very sharp at first, almost to the point of a breakdown. Raisa Maksimovna, sitting on the other side of the table, heard this and was very upset. I decided to relieve the tension.

“I know you as a person of conviction, committed to certain principles and values,” I told the “Iron Lady.” “This commands respect. But you should keep in mind that you are sitting next to a person of the same sort. And I must tell you that I have not been instructed by the Politburo to convince you to join the Communist Party.”

Mrs. Thatcher laughed, and the conversation became normal.

There were many meetings after that, many arguments. Often we disagreed. She, for example, was highly alarmed by the talks I had had with Ronald Reagan in Reykjavik about a world without nuclear weapons, about an agreement to eliminate medium-range missiles. “We will not survive another Reykjavik,” she would say. And I would ask, “Are you really so comfortable sitting on a nuclear powder keg?”

Why is it that we were able to reach an understanding in the end? I believe one reason is that we gradually developed a personal rapport that became increasingly friendly over the years. Eventually we reached a degree of mutual trust.

It was very important that Mrs. Thatcher never doubted our intentions, that she argued with those who would assert that perestroika was “an attempt to lower the vigilance of the West,” etc.

And at the critical stage of perestroika, when the need arose for concrete support for reforms in our country, it was Mrs. Thatcher who actively pushed the idea of our participation in the Group of 7 in London, and did a lot to prepare the meeting.

When the actual meeting took place in July 1991, however, she was no longer prime minister. Half a year before that the leadership of the Conservative party in Britain made the decision to replace her. So we met in the Soviet Embassy in London.

I remember our talk. Of course it is good, Mrs. Thatcher said, that your meeting with the G-7 came about; in fact, everything at the meeting was focused on your participation and on bringing the Soviet Union into the world economy. It is now accepted that the Soviet Union has irreversibly entered on the path of reform, and these reforms have the support of the people and deserve the support of the West. But — and here she literally choked up with emotion — she added:

“Why did the leaders of the Seven not go for concrete, practical measures of support? Where were the actual steps? They let you down. But now that they have declared their support and cooperation, they should be grasped. Don’t let them go, demand concrete action!”

The August putsch in 1991 interrupted our plans; perestroika was interrupted. It is interesting that Mrs. Thatcher, who always proclaimed her faith in the free market, was skeptical about “shock therapy,” about the approach chosen by our radical reformers.

We met more than once afterwards, and discussed this and many other things, and argued some more, but we always agreed that our generation of politicians was given a major mission: to put an end to the Cold War — and this mission we accomplished.

Margaret Thatcher was a great political leader and an extraordinary personality. She will remain in our memory and in history.

Mikhail Gorbachev was the last president of the Soviet Union. It was after the meeting at Chequers which he describes that Mrs. Thatcher said, “I like Mr. Gorbachev. We can do business together.” Translated from the Russian by Serge Schmemann.

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