‘I like Mr Gorbachev. We can do business together.’ This famous endorsement of the Soviet leader, from Mrs Thatcher, convinced the world that he was a fundamentally different figure from his predecessors. But did she really see in him a kindred spirit? In her memoirs Margaret Thatcher was equally generous about the Soviet leader — magnanimity in victory perhaps. The official Kremlin records, which preserve almost every word the two leaders said to each other, paint a very different picture. The Soviets, like the Nazis, were meticulous note-keepers, and the notes I have seen (and had the chance to copy) show the true nature of the Thatcher–Gorby relationship.
Four years ago I wrote for this publication about the Soviet elite’s cosy relationship with the Labour party. With Mrs Thatcher, it was the opposite. This transcript, never before translated, offers a striking insight into the spirit of the woman who helped end the Cold War.
Mission to Moscow, 1987
During Thatcher’s visit to Moscow the two leaders discussed competing world views, and Mrs T made her feelings clear about the Kremlin’s foreign policy.
m. thatcher The Soviet Union is committed to the doctrine of world domination of communism, the Brezhnev doctrine… Of course, it is only natural that we should have ideological battles, but that should be done in a proper way. What we see is communism seeking to dominate everywhere. Look at Yemen, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Angola, Nicaragua, Cuban forces in some African states. And what about Vietnam? As soon as they got rid of the American troops, they would not turn to their domestic problems, but instead invaded Cambodia. And what about Afghanistan? That is why we say that the communist foreign policy is aimed at world domination.
There have been impressive developments in the Soviet Union recently. It is interesting to see whether those developments will affect the foreign policy. If not, we will have to take this into account… I very much hope that if you succeed [in your reforms], that would also change your approach to the idea of world domination of communism…
Gorbachev hotly denied that the Soviet Union sought world domination and attacked Thatcher’s ‘way of thinking’ as belonging to the 1940s and 1950s.
Thatcher protested that all her examples of communist wars and revolutions were recent. She attacked the Soviets for their arms supplies to the Sandinista dictatorship in Nicaragua (who used them for the civil war), to Gaddafi (who then resold those weapons to Iran) and to Syria (who ‘supported terrorism all over the world’). She was quite open with Gorbachev about her distrust:
m. thatcher It is only natural for us to be suspicious about a system which restricts the freedom of its own people… The Soviet troops had no hesitation before invading Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, and now Afghanistan. So why would you hesitate before invading anywhere else?
m. gorbachev So that is what the ‘bloody Russian bear’ is up to!
m. thatcher I simply want you to know how we feel. We were once mistaken about your plans in Czechoslovakia. We thought you would not invade because that would damage your prestige in the world. Yet we were mistaken. We do not want to repeat that mistake.
m. gorbachev And what about your actions in the Falklands? What about the French actions in Chad?
m. thatcher The Falklands are a British land populated by the British. It was invaded, and we removed the invaders…I have given you more recent examples which make us mistrust communism. Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1979. You sent troops to Afghanistan and this wrecked the ratification of the START-2 treaty.
Gorbachev defended the continuing Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and attacked the anti-communist Mujahidin, to which Thatcher replied: ‘Afghanistan is under occupation. If my country was occupied, I would join the guerrillas and fight for its liberation.’
Later, Thatcher became more conciliatory as Gorbachev turned defensive:
m. thatcher Now that you have become the Soviet leader, I view your country with much greater optimism… You are successfully solving the problems in your own society, have freed many prisoners, and you are building a more open society.
m. gorbachev Perhaps you think that we’ve got the whole country imprisoned. If so, you have been well brainwashed back there in Britain… You have asked me whether the Soviet leadership and the Communist party have now rejected the doctrine of imposing a socialist revolution upon the whole world. But we have never had any such doctrine, at no time. All we say in theory, in what we call scientific socialism, is that the human society goes through certain stages in its development. The system of slave ownership is replaced by feudalism, then capitalism, and then socialism. We are convinced this is an inevitable global process, whereas you are convinced that capitalism is the highest achievement of civilisation. It is up to you to think so. We do not condemn you for your theoretical views. We simply disagree with you.
You should not accuse us of any conspiracies, we are not trying to disrupt the links between the West and the developing countries or to deprive you of resources. We have no cunning plans. You should not search for ‘the hand of Moscow’ in regional conflicts. They grow out of the local soil, not because of Soviet incitement. Where the people live in decent conditions, there are no conflicts.
Telephone diplomacy, 1990
After the first democratically elected parliament of Lithuania declared independence from the Soviet Union, Thatcher telephoned Gorbachev to discuss the situation and to warn him against using force to keep Lithuania in the USSR:
m. thatcher We hope you will manage to avoid any use of force, which would be a big mistake…
m. gorbachev You see, the starting point is that we consider Lithuania as one of our Soviet republics. We will approach this problem in this context. And they are trying to impose the idea that Lithuania is not a part of the Soviet Union, and to impose ‘international negotiations’. This is absurd. The Western leaders must not fall into this trap.
m. thatcher Western countries have a different view of Lithuania and Latvia, in the light of historic circumstances resulting in their occupation by Hitler and Stalin. We do not recognise their annexation by the Soviet Union de jure, although the Helsinki Final Act recognised it de facto. Therefore, the status of Lithuania is considered to be different from that of other Soviet republics.
To understand Thatcher’s courage here, it’s necessary to compare her attitude to that of other world leaders who dealt with Gorbachev at the time. Few of them ever referred to international law at all, and some (such as US Senator Ted Kennedy) actually encouraged the Soviets to use force.
Two faces of Gorbachev
If Thatcher was candid in private and loyal in public, Gorbachev was not. The Kremlin files reveal how he spoke about her behind her back.
From the transcript of the meeting with Prime Minister Mugabe of Zimbabwe, 27 June 1987:
m. gorbachev When I discussed Afghanistan with Mrs. Thatcher, she referred to giving independence to Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, as an example of how to solve that problem. Apparently, they simply cannot part with their imperial ambitions, the chauvinist view of other nations. Both France and Britain believe they introduced the Africans into the modern world, and without them, Africa would have never come out of tropical jungles. This demonstrates their racism. This is why they support all racists. […] So Mrs Thatcher is the vanguard of the imperialist policy, a diehard conservative who believes capitalism to be the highest achievement of human civilisation […]
r. mugabe Yes, she is a difficult woman.
From the transcript of negotiations with President Hafez Assad of Syria, 24 April 1987:
m. gorbachev […] Thatcher thinks she now has a real chance to raise her prestige as a leader of the Western world. At the same time, she remains the most vehement and sophisticated advocate of the US administration and its policies. Suffice it to say that throughout our talks she would not say a word of criticism about President Reagan, while the people of the world have many grievances against the Americans. So, the whole world is supposed to be wrong, and only Thatcher right.
The problem with the politicians of the West is that they don’t want to see the changes in the world and the urgency of problems facing humankind. They want to undertake a social revenge and restore the positions they’ve lost. They are not concerned with the questions of peace, development, resolution of conflicts. […] Any concessions can be dragged out of imperialists only by united efforts of all the nations, by pressure of broad people’s masses.
Gorbachev was all things to all men. His talks with Mitterrand were conspiracies between cunning plotters, his talks with George Bush Sr were pragmatic and businesslike, and with Kohl he was warm and sentimental. Not so with Mrs Thatcher. The more we learn about her time in office, the more honest and fearless a figure she seems to have been.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 20 April 2013