Still the Iron Lady

Communism’s Defeat, 20 Years Later
Have we learned the right lessons?
6 November 2009


Several weeks ago, the British press, led by the Times of London, reported “explosive” evidence from Soviet archives indicating that Margaret Thatcher—of all people!—had tried to keep the Berlin Wall from falling. Indeed, said the paper, she secretly urged Mikhail Gorbachev to “do what he could to stop it.” The Times based this revelation on Kremlin notes, still officially classified, of a Moscow meeting between Thatcher and Gorbachev in September 1989. These and many other documents were spirited out of Russia in 2003 by Pavel Stroilov, a researcher at the Gorbachev Foundation.

MARGARET THATCHER WANTED BERLIN WALL TO STAY, reported the Australian. MR. GORBACHEV, KEEP THIS WALL UP! marveled The Economist, leading the article with a breathless “WHOA.” Andrew Sullivan titled his blog entry MARGARET THATCHER, SECRET DEFENDER OF SOVIET SECURITY, declaring the news “staggering.” But these are all mischaracterizations and misunderstandings of the Kremlin document; nothing about it is shocking in the least.

First of all, it is not clear that the document is an accurate record. I have spoken with Stroilov and believe that he is telling the truth—that he did indeed steal these papers from the Gorbachev Foundation, and that they are indeed classified Kremlin records. I am especially inclined to believe him because he is supported in this contention by the Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky and by the great Cold War spy Oleg Gordievsky, both of whom would be in a good position to recognize a fraud or a fantasist.

But the document itself stresses that at Thatcher’s request, the conversation in question was not recorded. It thus contains nothing more than a Kremlin apparatchik’s recollection of what she said. The Kremlin is not generally considered an unimpeachable source. As one commenter on the Times’s website remarked, “Please remember that manipulating transcripts is an old trick that got Stalin to power. Soviet records are about as accurate as a drunk man aiming at the toilet in the dark.” The Times also assumes that the Kremlin amanuensis correctly remembered Thatcher’s every word, that his translation preserved every nuance of her meaning, and that the document’s retranslation into English has done the same. There is no reason to accept all this uncritically.

But let’s say we do accept it. According to the transcript, Thatcher said two supposedly shocking things. One of them was, “The reunification of Germany is not in the interests of Britain and Western Europe.” (This is the translation from Russian offered by the Times; Stroilov endorses its accuracy.) But this isn’t news. We know very well that the last thing Thatcher wanted to see was a bigger, stronger Germany; even a divided Germany was about twice as much Germany as she would have liked. Her opinions on the subject contributed to her political downfall. She said so at the time, she said so in her memoirs, her friends have said so, her enemies have said so, and no one has ever suggested anything else.

The second thing Thatcher told Gorbachev, according to the transcript, was: “A destabilization of Eastern Europe and breakdown of the Warsaw Pact are also not in our interests.” Why might she have said this? Why would not say instead, “We are fomenting the destruction of the Warsaw Pact in the hope of swiftly burying you?”

For the answer, recall that in September 1989, no one imagined that within two months, the Iron Curtain would dissolve without a drop of blood. Much more easily envisioned was a Soviet crackdown and a brutal bloodletting, which had happened, within living memory, in Czechoslovakia and Hungary, and which the Chinese had just perpetrated months before in Tiananmen Square. Reasonable observers were worried that East German leader Erich Honecker was about to massacre thousands of people on the streets of Leipzig and Dresden—a step for which Honecker was preparing by stockpiling body bags. It was equally reasonable to fear that Gorbachev was on the verge of sending in Soviet troops.

The transcript suggests that Thatcher’s goal was to reassure. A cop facing a panicked criminal with a loaded gun and a room full of hostages is surely better off saying, “We do not plan to kill you, so stay calm” than “We want you dead, so you better shoot your way out of here.” Thatcher’s goal, at such a meeting, would have been to buy time and do what she could to keep the Soviets from panicking. No responsible politician would have told Gorbachev that she was praying for the destruction of the Warsaw Pact, particularly at a private, high-level diplomatic meeting. It would have been an idiotic provocation.

The document in question is not difficult to consult: Stroilov is eager to share it with anyone who asks. Feel free to e-mail him, he says, at I did, and found him a fascinating correspondent, not least because it appears that he is sitting on some 50,000 stolen, unpublished, untranslated, top secret Kremlin papers that should be of considerable interest to the world. But the Thatcher document is not one of them. Nothing about it should change anyone’s views of Thatcher or of her role in the Cold War.

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