It is becoming increasingly difficult not to allow the memories creeping up from the attic of my mind. The “First lady-style” — as Chinese newspaper Global Times titled the feature on Peng Liyuan, wife of China’s president Xi Jinping — was also a hot topic of conversation in Moscow during the latter half of the 1980s when I lived and worked there.
Raisa Gorbacheva, wife of the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, was strikingly the same as Peng — chic, stylishly attired, self-confident, charming.
But there are differences too. GT claims Chinese public warms up to her and wants to imitate her dress habits. The Russian public was, on the other hand, rather ‘unfriendly’ toward Raisa.
Peng apparently buys her designer clothes from a Chinese fashion house. Whereas, Raisa ordered them from Paris, disdainfully ignoring even the relatively well-stocked special shops earmarked for the family members of the Party bigwigs in Moscow in the 1980s.
The Chinese public can today aspire to buy the same dresses and hand bags and shoes that Peng wears. Just about everything under the sun is available in the shops in Beijing or Shanghai. But the Moscow shops were barren in the 1980s and the Muscovite anyway had little purchasing power.
Surely, there was a touch of envy in the strong dislike that Raisa provoked in the Russian mind. She had everything that Natasha, Tatyana and Olga wanted to wear but couldn’t afford.
There is another thing. Peng is a celebrity, a popular figure in the cultural scene — a gifted singer. Raisa, on the other hand, was a distant figure — a trained Marxist intellectual.
Peng sang patriotic songs that enthrall the Chinese public and the PLA soldiers, while Raisa taught philosophy in the cloistered chambers of Moscow State University.
What is common, of course, is that Raisa also was a hugely attractive woman whose presence in the room no man could easily ignore. Peng is some way off, yet.
What we do not know yet is how much of an influence Peng is on Xi when they are alone together. To be sure, Raisa dominated her husband.
And the unkindest things were said about her influence on Gorbachev’s reform program of perestroika and glasnost. Rumours were galore not only in the embassy parties but also during the Bacchanalian sessions with the brooding Russian intelligentsia.
The Soviets were unused to this phenomenon of the ‘First Lady’. They didn’t approve of the idea. Raisa accompanied Gorbachev on official visits abroad, which was a break from Soviet tradition. No doubt, she was an instant hit in the West. Let us see how Peng fares in Paris.
Gorbachev vigorously denied that he ever discussed state affairs with Raisa but no one believes him. But he admitted that she was an overpowering influence on him and during the dark days of the abortive coup in 1991 she saw him through. After her death, Gorbachev shrank to a pale shadow of what he used to be — solitary, rudderless, gloomy, lost in memories of Raisa.
Indeed, Raisa was made of steel, but the coup in 1991 broke her. She felt humiliated and she never recovered.
The Xi-Peng saga is just beginning. We have ten full years ahead to watch and enjoy its beauty and elegance before concluding anything. For the present, Peng too can savor the public adoration — and Xi can benefit from its afterglow as he proceeds to interpret the Chinese Dream.
– March 26, 2013