Shevardnadze's Journey

By Cohen, Ariel | Policy Review, April-May 2004 | Go to article overview

Shevardnadze's Journey

Cohen, Ariel, Policy Review

JUST AS A silverback is chased out from his leadership position by aggressive younger males, Eduard Shevardnadze, nicknamed in his country "Silver Fox"--Tetri Melia in Georgian--resigned his presidency on November 23, 2003. His last political gesture was a great boon to his nation: Shevardnadze refused to order his troops to shoot the opposition. Mindful of what the history books will say about him, the man who led Georgia, on and off, for 31 years decided to bow out gracefully. A wise man, he was not ready for the role of a Slobodan Milosevic or a Nicolae Ceausescu.

Shevardnadze's resignation brings the amazing yin and yang of his life and times closer to an end. In 1992, supported by Russia, he was hailed by his people as the savior of Georgia and was later bolstered by the United States. By November 2003, he was reviled by his countrymen and hung out to dry by his allies in Moscow and in Washington. After Leonid Kravchuk of Ukraine, Boris Yeltsin of Russia, and Heydar Aliyev of Azerbaijan, he is the fourth transitional post-Soviet leader to make way for a younger ruler.


EDUARD SHEVARDNADZE was born on January 25, 1928, in the village of Mamati in the western part of Georgia known as Guria. He was lucky to escape the draft: Youths born in 1927 and drafted into the Red Army were killed in droves in the last days of World War 11. A bright young man with an impeccable proletarian pedigree, he was noticed by the Komsomol (the communist youth league) and launched his career in 1946--the beginning of high Stalinism, a stark period in Soviet history. This was the time when Joseph Stalin, the Georgian-born communist dictator, set out to prove to the peoples of the Soviet Union that after the war his rule, empowered by victory against Hitler, would be as unassailable and intimidating as it was during the bloody purges of the late 1930s.

Stalin and his henchman Lavrenti Beria, another Georgian and the Politburo overseer of the USSR'S omnipotent secret police (the NKVD), did not trust their fellow Georgians. Tens of thousands were murdered in the NKVD/MVD/MGB prison cells, while others were sent to its frozen detention camps, the gulag. Young Shevardnadze got his political education while Stalin was trashing the hopes of the society for a relaxation of the Soviet nomenklatura's political controls. Stalin's "cult of personality" was ubiquitous and numbing. Repression was on the rise, with the secret police relentlessly cooking new "conspiracies" in which Georgia featured prominently. These included the Doctors' Plot--an allegation that a group of mostly Jewish doctors poisoned Ideology Secretary A.A. Zhdanov and planned to poison Stalin himself. Some prominent communist leaders, such as Nikolai Voznesensky, chairman of the State Planning Commission (Gosplan), were executed as part of an escalating power struggle to succeed Stalin. Stalin also ordered an investigation into a massive alleged conspiracy in Georgia--the so-called Mingrelian affair, which was supposed to bring down Beria and possibly Vyacheslav Molotov and other senior Soviet Communist Party leaders.

The Orwellian atmosphere of suspicion, terror, betrayal, and ubiquitous secret informants influenced Shevardnadze, despite his later rejection of Stalinism and communism. He learned to utter the required words and worship gods in which he did not believe. In this toxic environment he first became a Komsomol functionary and later a county (rayon) Communist Party first secretary--a typical career path for a Soviet politician.

During the relatively liberal era under Nikita Khrushchev, millions of gulag prisoners returned home, telling the truth about genocidal man-made hunger and the ethnic cleansing of entire nations, including the neighboring Chechens, Ingush, Mingrelian Turks, Black Sea Greeks, and others who were loaded in cargo trains and shipped to Siberia and the frozen steppes of Kazakhstan.

Regardless of what he truly thought, Shevardnadze had to publicly and enthusiastically support the Soviet party line: bread rationing; invasion and repression of the anti-communist revolution in Hungary, where thousands were shot; executions for "economic crimes"; wastefully expensive support of Third World dictators from Fidel Castro to Gamal Abdel Nasser; and massive aid to North Vietnam. …

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