Eduard Shevardnadze, the last Soviet Foreign Minister and the second president of post-Soviet Georgia, recently died at the age of 86. Obituaries devoted to his long political life have noted its seeming contradictions: his praiseworthy role in bringing the Cold War to a peaceful end succeeded by his problematic rule over his native country; his rise as a Soviet reformer followed by his popular ouster in the “Rose Revolution” in 2003. However, these are not inconsistencies but rather the logical results of a life and career forged in the late Soviet Union that never quite translated in the post-Soviet context.
Shevardnadze’s appointment as Foreign Minister in 1985 was arguably the most rapid ascent of a non-Russian in Soviet politics since the death of Stalin, another Georgian. If he was, in Gorbachev’s view, rather “atypical” for a Georgian, he came across to Western audiences as an unlikely Soviet: non-Slavic, witty, even colorful, especially in comparison to his predecessor, Andrei “Grim Grom” Gromyko. Shevardnadze was a master of working within the Soviet system while pushing its limits. As a leader of the Young Communist League, he flirted with the bohemian by embarking on a motorcycle trip across the Soviet Union; as Party chief of Soviet Georgia, he sometimes sheltered filmmakers from censorship; and as Foreign Minister, he overcame resistance within his own government to allow the reunification of Germany. At the same time, his affable demeanor masked ambition and a degree of ruthlessness. In his rise to power, he had his political rivals prosecuted on corruption charges and used lethal force to end a hijacking attempt by young Georgians seeking to flee the Soviet Union. In the final act of his political career, as president of post-Soviet Georgia, he brought stature and some sense of stability, but little else. The same practices that helped him succeed in the late Soviet Union—his ideological balancing act, the careful cultivation of patrons, his behind-the-scenes deal-making—were poorly suited for the demands and constraints of the post-Soviet period. The ups and downs of his foreign policy angered Moscow and frustrated Washington, while his effort to rule a fragmented country saw official ministries become personal fiefdoms. He remained a cunning survivor but never became a state builder. And yet, though he was defined by his time, he is also assured of his place in history.
—Erik R. Scott is Assistant Professor of Russian and Soviet History at the University of Kansas. His research explores migration, mobility, and diaspora within the imperial borders of Russia and Eurasia as well as in a broader global context. His manuscript, Familiar Strangers: The Georgian Diaspora and the Evolution of Soviet Empire is under contract at Oxford University Press.