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from the September 2018 issue

Shevardnadze and Me: The Beginning

Georgian writer Gela Charkviani describes his early days as an aide to then-President Eduard Shevardnadze.
 


Listen to Gela Charkviani read "Shevardnadze and Me" in the original Georgian
 

My relationship with Eduard Shevardnadze developed slowly and painfully, and our first business meeting ended in complete failure. An overseas delegation was due to arrive in Georgia, and I had brought for his approval a plan for the visit, which had been prepared at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He looked over the plan, grumbled, “I shouldn’t have to do this,” and then went on reading. I could not understand what he meant by “I shouldn’t have to do this.” Did he mean I was not to bring him this type of plan from now on? Or was it that the project had been poorly conceived? He found fault with every step of the plan, crossed entire lines out, and declared that the document was completely unfit for the purpose. His reaction was so unexpected and so confusing that I was unable to defend myself. I didn’t even manage to tell him that the project had been developed at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, though even if I had, I don’t think it would have made any difference; it was I who had taken the paper to him, and that meant it was I who was responsible for its quality. The shock of that first meeting stayed with me for a long time. From then on, even when I was certain I had dealt with a problem thoroughly, I found myself incapable of explaining my reasoning to him without becoming flustered. Another difficulty was Shevardnadze’s way of listening: for the entire time you spoke, he would offer no indications whatsoever—no gestures, no words, and no interjections—as to whether or not he agreed with what you were saying. I don’t know if this was a deliberate tactic or his natural manner, but I’m sure it had helped him to defeat a few rivals and climb a few rungs of the ladder in his time.

One more thing that shocked me is that he never mentioned my father. Not once did he ask how he was or what he’d been up to. They had both been First Secretary of the Communist Party of Georgia, and one would have thought Shevardnadze might naturally wish to demonstrate solidarity with a fellow member of the club. Another reason this hurt me is that my father had fallen on hard times, and not long before, I had helped him to sell one of his three Orders of Lenin. Later, when his application for a military pension as a former member of the Transcaucasian Military Council was turned down, he was obliged to sell the other two.

During those early days, I felt a similar sense of awkwardness in my dealings with Shevardnadze’s entourage—the men who had followed him from Moscow and were now managing Georgia’s foreign affairs. Two of them made a particularly strong impression on me: Temur Stepanov and Sergei Tarasenko. I already knew Temur from afar, but over time we grew closer in spite of his short temper, and today I recall with great fondness the hours we spent in debate. I will also never forget the sunny day when they brought back his ashes from Moscow, and how we buried them in the soil of his native Tbilisi after delivering the eulogy. Sergei, meanwhile, had worked under Shevardnadze for many years as a diplomatic counsel. He was born into an average family in the Donbass, if I recall correctly, and at a young age had been recognized as a child genius. He was accepted into the elite Moscow State Institute of International Relations despite a lack of personal connections and quickly mastered both English and the art of diplomacy. He worked in the Soviet Embassy in America and in the 1980s allied himself with the reformists in the new Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In Tbilisi, prior to my appearance and for quite some time afterward, Tarasenko was responsible for setting up meetings between Shevardnadze and various accredited diplomats and foreign delegations visiting Georgia. He also acted as interpreter. I was never told anything about what went on at these meetings. The foreign visitors would occasionally go in to see Stepanov, but more often they were taken into Tarasenko’s office first, and then went with him to meet Shevardnadze.

One day in May 1992, I went in to see Shevardnadze and saw Mzia Chanturia sitting there. I knew her from Boris Dzneladze Komsomol City, just outside Tbilisi, where she had worked as director. Mzia told me the good news that James Baker was coming to Georgia. A visit by the U.S. Secretary of State was of the greatest political importance: it was a show of support for the de facto legitimization of the leadership, which was still considered to have usurped power illegally while the country was plunged into chaos. This process had begun with the arrival in Georgia of Hans-Dietrich Genscher from Germany and would continue after Baker’s visit with a visit by the prime minister of Turkey at that time, Süleyman Demirel.

Aware as I was of the importance of Baker’s visit, I also knew that tough times lay ahead—I could all too easily imagine the trouble Shevardnadze would give me as I tried to get him to agree on a program for the visit. I was not wrong. As soon as he finished looking over my proposal, he turned to me and said coldly, “Bring me Tarasenko. He’s a man of experience.” True, he was tough on Tarasenko, too, but not quite as tough. After making several remarks, he asked Tarasenko a question I had not been expecting: “What do you think, Sergei? Is it appropriate to have a joint press conference? After all, he’s still just a minister, whereas I’m the de facto head of state.” Tarasenko was accustomed to Shevardnadze’s jokes, which is probably why he simply smiled rather than offering a reply.

“Where’s the press conference going to be held, anyway? There’s nothing about that in the program,” he then asked irritably, looking over at me.

“I don’t know,” I answered calmly. By that point I didn’t really care, either. Sensing my mood, Shevardnadze changed the topic, which showed me that he was not entirely insensitive to my feelings.

I now believe that Shevardnadze’s unfriendly attitude toward me was due partly, if not wholly, to my stubborn refusal to work as an interpreter and my insistence on carrying out only those tasks I felt were suited to the head of the Department of Foreign Relations. I had told him directly on several occasions I would not interpret for him. I was fifty-three years old, and in view of my international contacts and theoretical knowledge, I felt I deserved a more serious role in the process of creating a foreign policy for independent Georgia. Interpreting was a young person’s job.

Baker’s visit finally convinced me I needed to change something—either find a suitable interpreter or stop being so stubborn and do it myself.

During the weekly meeting of the administration following Baker’s visit, Shevardnadze declared that the interpreting had not been of a sufficiently high standard and that this was all the fault of Gela Charkviani. Prior to this, Stepanov had let me know tacitly that if I continued to refuse to interpret, I would not be allowed to accompany upcoming delegations to Istanbul and Helsinki. Later, Shevardnadze took me to one side and told me he couldn’t care less who interpreted, but that I, as head of department, was responsible for ensuring that the quality of the interpreting was high. His words gave me food for thought.

I remembered there had been a young man of about thirty, a lawyer by profession, in the simultaneous interpretation course at the Foreign Languages Institute where I gave lectures on sociology during the 1980s. He had played an active part in class and asked questions in well-formulated English. Although I had forgotten his name, I managed to track him down. I called him up and he came to see me on June 17. We talked for a long time, and he agreed to my proposal; he even seemed rather happy about it. I told him I would be in touch and jotted down his telephone number. I still have his name in my address book, but now it is bordered in black. Dato Nadiradze was killed in front of the State Television Center in Tbilisi on June 24, 1992, one week after our meeting. As far as I know, he was the only victim of that particular clash. After that, I took on the role of interpreter alongside my other duties as head of department.

Tarasenko did not greet my arrival in the administration with a great deal of enthusiasm. He was a high-ranking bureaucrat from Moscow, and true to the stereotype, he had decided that we “local cadres” were a bunch of incompetent fools. But what did he know about me? He might have heard one or two kind words from my fellow Tbilisian Temur Stepanov, or even Shevardnadze himself, but they had evidently not changed his opinion of me as a “thick-headed hick.” Once again, I found myself in a situation I had faced several times already in my career. In the super-centralized Soviet Union, where nothing and nobody was allowed to leave the country without first passing through Moscow, a bureaucrat dispatched from the capital would never have contemplated the possibility that someone from the provinces might know more than he about Western culture. This was especially true when it involved an eminent diplomat who had spent years in Washington, D.C., and still saw Georgia as a province of Russia, even after our declaration of independence.

I knew it was only a matter of time before his arrogance would bring him down a notch or two. I had seen it happen hundreds of times before. All I had to do was wait for the right circumstances. And I did not have to wait long.

During James Baker’s visit, Tarasenko and I shared a limousine with the American diplomat Dennis Ross. Ross was around my age, highly educated, with an academic outlook on diplomacy. He had played a key role in the erosion of the Soviet regime, and, as a result, the Russians were less than well disposed toward him. He was aware of this fact, and took some pleasure in it, so much so, in fact, that he introduced himself to me as “the notorious Ross.” As we talked, we gradualy switched from Russian to English. He told me he felt he had come of age with his involvement in the student movement on the campuses of the University of California in the 1960s. Having learned this, I shifted the conversation around to the issues of those days, and started inserting in my speech the student vocabulary of the 1960s, including rare shibboleths—the identifying code words of the period. When I looked up at Tarasenko, he seemed confused. He tried to join the conversation once or twice, but ended up stuttering and mumbling. Although he never mentioned this episode to me afterward, his attitude toward me changed noticeably. A few years later, as I was chatting to Temur Stepanov—about what I can no longer remember—he told me that after James Baker’s visit, Tarasenko had said to him, “Your man Gela speaks English like a native.”
 

© Gela Charkviani. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Philip Price. All rights reserved.

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