Classified documents made public Tuesday shed light on the political courtship between Britain’s Margaret Thatcher and Mikhail Gorbachev — whom she famously declared she could “do business” with.
After Gorbachev’s first official visit to Britain in 1984, four months before he became Soviet leader, Thatcher praised his “charm and humour” as both sides sought to improve East-West relations.
The warmth of their relationship even survived one of the most notorious defections of the Cold War — double agent Oleg Gordievsky, who had been head of the KGB’s London station, in 1985.
The documents were released by the National Archives in London under the 30-year rule, which allows previously secret government files to be made public three decades on.
Thatcher, who died in 2013, wrote to then US president Ronald Reagan following Gorbachev’s visit.
“He is relatively open in manner and intelligent. He is affable and has some charm and humor,” she wrote. “I certainly found him a man one could do business with. I actually rather liked him.”
Despite that positive impression, Gorbachev was also subjected to the “Iron Lady’s” legendary sharp tongue.
“He was clearly not used to the sort of rigorous questioning which he got from me on things like human rights in the Soviet Union,” she added.
British officials also were struck by his vivacious wife Raisa, who at one point on the trip dropped in to royal jeweller Mappin and Webb to buy some gold earrings set with diamonds and rubies.
Less glamorously, she also sent a book of 500 Belarusian potato recipes to Britain’s agriculture minister after the trip, following a conversation the pair had on the subject.
“If you have anyone who reads Russian and has a fondness for potatoes, we would be happy to lend it,” wrote senior agriculture ministry civil servant Ivor Llewellyn to Downing Street colleague Len Appleyard after receiving the book.
– ‘Values different from ours’ –
Gordievsky’s defection to Britain — he shook off KGB agents trailing him in Moscow and boarded a train to Finland before being taken over the border in the boot of an embassy car — threatened to cast a major shadow over improving East-West relations.
The files contain a string of documents about Gordievsky under the codename HETMAN — the title used for Cossack military commanders — including a letter from Thatcher to Reagan informing him of the defection on September 6, 1985.
Britain was concerned about Gordievsky’s welfare without his family and pushed for his wife and two daughters to be quietly allowed to leave the Soviet Union and join him.
The MI6 foreign intelligence agency even got word to their Soviet counterparts that there would be a high-profile mass expulsion of KGB agents from London identified by Gordievsky if they did not agree.
But Moscow did not budge.
On Sept. 7, amid a wave of tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions, Thatcher wrote to Gordievsky and told him that Britain would not be pushing Moscow for his family to be returned.
“We had to face up to the reality of the kind of people with whom we are dealing and the fact that their values are very different from ours,” she wrote.
“Please do not say that life has no meaning. There is always hope. And we shall do all we can to help you through these difficult days.”
Gordievsky’s family eventually joined him in 1991, but the years of separation had taken their toll and the marriage soon broke down.
The next recorded correspondence between Thatcher and Gorbachev after Gordievsky’s defection came when he sent her early birthday wishes on Oct. 12 and suggested that their cooperation should continue.