My Years with Gorbachev and Shevardnadze: The Memoir of a Soviet Interpreter
On March 8, 1990, as I was leaving Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze’s office following a private meeting, he shocked me when he said, “Jack, I’ll tell you one thing. If I see a dictatorship coming, I’m going to resign. I’ll not be part of a government with blood on its hands.”
Having previously dealt with him for five years as White House staff member and US ambassador, I thought I knew him well enough to judge that his words were utterly sincere; what shocked me was the realization that he thought a coup against Gorbachev might be imminent.
We had been talking about Lithuania, and specifically about the prospect that the newly elected Lithuanian parliament would declare independence during the weekend of March 10 and 11. It was no coincidence that the Lithuanians were rushing to issue their declaration before the Soviet Congress of People’s Deputies convened on March 12 to consider Gorbachev’s proposal to establish a presidency for the Soviet Union. The Lithuanians felt that it was vital to issue their declaration before Gorbachev assumed the new office, since they believed he intended to use its powers to block their move to independence. For their part, both Gorbachev and Shevardnadze feared that hard-line Soviet military, police, and Party officials would use the Lithuanian declaration as a pretext to remove Gorbachev before he was able to establish a presidency independent of direct Party control. Ironically, Gorbachev’s putative enemies in Moscow viewed him as the ultimate barrier to using force against the Baltic independence movements.
The weekend passed without an attempted coup d’état, and for a time Shevardnadze’s alarm seemed misplaced. But when, in December of the same year, he suddenly announced his resignation with the statement “Adictatorship is coming!” his words of March came back to haunt me. Did he know of a specific plot, or was he simply giving voice to a hunch?
Questioned about this shortly after his resignation, Shevardnadze denied any knowledge of a specific conspiracy; he relied, he said, on his knowledge of how the Soviet system worked. As he put it later in his memoirs, “A dictator’s power has no face or domicile. It is a matter of methods and style.” In 1990, Shevardnadze already understood what Mikhail Gorbachev was to learn only in August 1991, when many of his handpicked associates tried to seize power from him.
In 1990 the opposition to perestroika and “the new thinking” in Soviet foreign policy grew rapidly and became more assertive in the higher reaches of the Soviet Communist Party and its two main instruments, the KGB and the military. The respective reactions of President Gorbachev and Foreign Minister Shevardnadze to this growing opposition brought to the surface a sharp difference in their characters, a contrast that had been obscured by the unwarranted presumption that they always worked in close harmony. Gorbachev tried to con and co-opt his opponents. Shevardnadze chose to confront them head-on, even …
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