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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Women Who Changed the Course of History

The first three months of 2006 have been studded with major anniversaries of events that altered the course of history. Last Sunday was the 60th anniversary of Winston Churchill's famous "Iron Curtain" speech, which set the tone for the Cold War. Last month we marked the 50th anniversary of the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party, where Nikita Khrushchev delivered the "secret speech" in which he denounced Stalin's crimes and the cult of personality. Boris Yeltsin, the first president of post-Soviet Russia, celebrated his 75th birthday on Feb. 1, and Mikhail Gorbachev, the first and only president of the Soviet Union, reached the same milestone last Thursday.

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And that's not all. March 17 is the 15th anniversary of the 1991 nationwide referendum in which an overwhelming majority of voters supported the preservation of the Soviet Union "as a renewed federation of equal, sovereign republics." Six of the 15 Soviet republics -- Armenia, Georgia, Moldova, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia -- did not take part. In the Russian republic, voters also approved direct presidential elections. On that day two leaders, Gorbachev and Yeltsin, received two mutually exclusive mandates from the voters: to preserve the Soviet Union and to tear it down.

Of all these events, perhaps only the Cold War was truly inevitable. It's hard to imagine that a reasonable level of trust and respect could have been maintained between Stalin's Soviet Union and the democratic West without the looming threat of mutually assured destruction. Everything else I've mentioned could easily have gone the other way.

There's an old joke about a platoon of soldiers that stops next to a big pile of bricks. "Private Ivanov!" the commander barks. "What do these bricks make you think of?" "Sir, that I'll be working on a construction site when I get out of the army, sir!" "Excellent. And what about you, Private Petrov?" "Sir, they make me think of women, sir!" "Why does a pile of bricks make you think about women?" the commander asks. "I always think about women, sir!" Ivanov replies.

As I watched the news coverage of Yeltsin and Gorbachev, two men who changed the course of the 20th century, turning 75 within a month of one another, I found myself thinking about women, too.

You've probably noticed that although Gorbachev and Yeltsin retired from politics long ago, they retain an intense dislike for one another. When his birthday rolled around, Yeltsin made a point of accusing Gorbachev of organizing the failed putsch in August 1991. Gorbachev in turn said that his biggest mistake was not dispatching Yeltsin as ambassador to some distant country back in 1987 when he had the chance.

What set these two great men at each other's throats? A woman! In his speech at the plenary session of the Communist Party's Central Committee in October 1987, Yeltsin criticized Gorbachev's wife, Raisa, for meddling in the affairs of state. What loving husband could tolerate that?

I have no doubt that the desire to defend his wife led to Gorbachev's disproportionate response to Yeltsin's relatively minor transgression. First at the Central Committee plenum, and again at a meeting of the Moscow party committee a few days later, Yeltsin was subjected to a torrent of abuse. I believe that from that moment on, Yeltsin was bent on taking revenge for all the humiliation he had suffered, with all the attendant consequences for the country, Gorbachev and the first lady.

The course of more recent history was also determined by a woman, by the way. Insiders say that it was Yeltsin's daughter Tatyana Dyachenko who convinced him to step down at the end of 1999. Otherwise he'd still be running the country today.

This may strike you as a one-sided view of history, but it also seems a very fitting view on the eve of International Women's Day.

Alexei Pankin is a freelance journalist based in Moscow.