The Original Inception: Margaret Thatcher and the USSR

Maxim Stolyarov is an undergraduate reading PPE at New College.

It is generally well-known that it was a Soviet journalist who first called Margaret Thatcher ‘the Iron Lady’. What is not very well known is the exact role Lady Thatcher played in bringing down the Soviet Union. One reads very often that her role was ‘central’, and yet her only widely recognised contribution is opening Gorbachev to the West with one phrase: ‘We could do business together’. That is it. That is as much as most know of Margaret Thatcher’s involvement. Even after hours of research, I still know surprisingly little about what exactly it is that Baroness Thatcher had done, although every author seems to be convinced that her figure was central to the fall of Communism. So I neither can, nor want to write a historic account of the involvement of Margaret Thatcher with the Soviet leadership. I shall only try to humbly present my own account of what Lady Thatcher’s role seems to have been.

While it is very often said that Thatcher has introduced Gorbachev to the West, I think her discovery went much deeper than a mere appreciation of the Soviet leader’s personality. What Thatcher did was to show that one can accept Soviet leaders into the ‘Gentlemens’ club’, while ideologically disagreeing with them. To an extent, this mirrored the way that Churchill dealt with Stalin during the Second World War. What Thatcher did was to turn the game around. Despite the wide recognition that Joseph Stalin was a mediocrity, he was extremely cunning, perhaps more cunning than the intellectually brilliant Churchill. With Gorbachev things were different. He was the first leader of the Union to be born after the revolution. He could not have been - and was not - a firm believer in Communism like Brezhnev. The break-up of the Union started with Gorbachev, because he harboured personal ambitions unlike previous Soviet leaders. Thatcher’s great merit was to recognise this and play on Gorbachev’s arrogance and ambition. She clearly was the more cunning of the two.

I assume - although I do not think we can ever know for sure - that here Thatcher somewhat cynically played on her gender. One shall not forget that it was Gorbachev’s wife, Raisa, who became the true ‘First Lady’ of the Union by becoming a fashion icon and leading a significant cultural campaign. There must have been something that Gorbachev admired or liked in strong and determined women, who placed themselves in the positions of power. Doubtless, Margaret Thatcher was just such a woman. Dale Carnegie’s 1930s classic ‘How to win friends & influence people’ states quite unambiguously that people in general want to conform to the good opinion they perceive others have of them. Thatcher might have, and probably did, play on this human trait. By telling Gorbachev both of her opposition to Communism and her personal liking of him, she ensured that he allowed Communism to fall, more or less peacefully, when the economy failed.

On the international arena, the Thatcher-Reagan duo has clearly raised the ideological aspect of the Cold War to a new level. However, Thatcher did something Reagan could not do: she got the Soviet people to respect her vigorous capitalist policies. The term the ‘Iron Lady’ is telling. There was a general tradition in Russia to appreciate strong and tough policies when the national interest demanded them. Thatcher’s drive to return Britain to its former international standing and prestige was intuitively understandable to an average person living in the Soviet Union. Reagan’s speeches about the ‘Empire of Evil’ encountered little but animosity. Without Thatcher’s antidote, it is hard to imagine Communism breaking down: little rallies Russians together better than the perception of a foreign threat.

It was Thatcher's perversely comforting opposition to Communism that showed the Soviet people that there was an alternative, and that such an alternative may well have been in their own national interest. It was this sudden realisation that sometimes ideology must give way to national or individual interest that was very important for the fall of the Union. While it probably would be too much to say that Thatcher is responsible for the greatest ‘Inception’ in human history, her, perhaps, somewhat instinctive analysis of the moment has proved correct. She worked laboriously to bring out the ideas and intuitions which Gorbachev, the government elite and the people as a whole have long harboured yet not dared to come out in the open about.