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Shevardnadze's baptism began in history's fires.

While the world stands at a precarious crossroads, Eduard Schevardnadze, president of Georgia, recently took a less-traveled road full of possibilities, including hope, not only for him but for the rest of the watching world.

Schevardnadze was baptized at Tbilisi into the Georgian Orthodox Church, which since the fourth century has kept the faith alive on this frontier land between Europe and Asia. His odyssey was along an uncertain route without maps. Only with hindsight does it gain any clarity.

Schevardnadze had to struggle with the Marxist, or Soviet, concept that all morality was class-morality. As he grew up in the 1930s, he saw the divisions running through his own family. Was Uncle Akaky, a fierce opponent of Stalin, a class enemy? Schevardnadze's own father, a teacher of Russian literature, took to the woods in 1937 when there was a drive against "Trotskyite deviationists and class enemies."

His wife, Nanuli, at first turned him down on the grounds that marriage to her would ruin his career: Her father had been arrested and executed as an enemy of the state." But he took the risk of marrying an "orphan of the state" with the comment, "Why must I sacrifice love to hatred?"

He was not yet ready to build on that insight. The Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union simplified matters: The fascists were attacking communism and, he adds, "communism was my religion." Joseph Stalin, once a seminarian in Ceorgia, made his fellow-Georgians suffer: 700,000 men were in arms out of a total population of three and a half million; only half of them returned.

In 1956, Schevardnadze learned another lesson. While the Hungarian revolution captured the headlines, a demonstration on Rustaveni Avenue, Tbilisi, was bloodily put down and 22 people killed. This event gave Schevardnadze what he calls his "1956 complex" - the "rejection of force both as a method and a principle of politics."

What made 1956 worse was that the Marxist "theologians" (as he calls them) came down from Moscow to explain that the uprising was the result of "bourgeois nationalism." It was, in other words, the victims' own fault: They got themselves killed. Schevardnadze knew this was nonsense.

The roots of Georgian nationalism were Christian. The first serious work of Georgian literature was The Martyrdom of St. Shushanik, a tale of heroic fifth-century exploits. Georgia was annexed to Russia only in 1799. It had a brief burst of independence in 1917-21.

Yet, knowing all this, Schevardnadze still became party secretary of Georgia - which is why some Georgians learned to mistrust him. Outwardly conformist, he was trapped within the career structure, tried to humanize it from within, but does not claim to have succeeded.

Schevardnadze and his friend Mikhail Gorbachev were typical of the younger generation that was appalled by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979.

In 1985, Gorbachev called Schevardnadze to Moscow to head the Foreign Ministry and put perestroika into practice. Immediately, he set about bringing an end to the war in Afghanistan and dumping allies like Fidel Castro. The real enemies to be overcome were not "class" enemies but thermonuclear war, ecological catastrophe and the collapse of the world economic system.

Establish those priorities, and then one could declare an end to the Cold War and set about building the "common European home."

This was far from easy. For the first time, Schevardnadze started to use religious imagery, quoting "a German thinker" who said that "Calvary is the place where great thoughts are articulated." The heaviest cross he had to bear, especially in 1989-90, was his growing alienation from Gorbachev.

Yet they seemed to share a great deal, including a moral vision. If the defense of supposed class-interests is not the basis of morality, then what is? Schevardnadze was quite clear that one must be guided by "the criteria of universal morality," asserting "the primacy of the force of politics over the politics of force."

But Schevardnadze differed from Gorbachev on the role of the Communist Party. Gorbachev believed it could be reformed; Schevardnadze thought it was the obstacle to reform and democracy. He resigned, warning against the threat of military dictatorship. The coup of August 1991 proved him right.

But there was a second and even more decisive difference with Gorbachev, whose universal moral values were unfounded, reflecting broadly the humanism of the Enlightenment and optimistically overconfident that human beings would behave rationally.

All Schevardnadze's experience suggested that social morality required a deeper foundation than the Enlightenment. It could only be religious.

As first secretary of the Communist Party in Georgia, he bad done one thing that would have gotten him into heaven anyway. He authorized the making and showing of Tenghhiz Abuladze's film "Repentance," which had "languished in the can since 1984."

This film went further even than Alexander Solzhenitsyn's A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in telling of "the tyranny, lawlessness and persecution to which millions of people in our country had been subjected."

He had to fight for "Repentance" - for the film and the reality. Here is how he describes the final scene: An old woman asks the film's heroine whether or not the road she has chosen leads to the cathedral. No, the heroine replies, this street bears the name of the tyrant, and therefore does not lead to the cathedral. That's strange, remarks the old lady. What good is a road if it does not lead to the cathedral?"

Rustaveli Avenue, Tblisi, scene of the 1956 and 1989 massacres, is named after the greatest Georgian poet. It does lead to the cathedral. Schevardnadze has now taken that road, renewing the question he put to his wife: "Why should I sacrifice love to hatred?"

One aspect of "the collapse of Marxism" that has not been sufficiently noted is that it means the end of historical determinism. No one is going to shed tears about the demise of its alleged "laws of history."

But it does mean that the adventure of freedom has to be played out with responsibility and in lucidity about oneself. Gaudium et Spes got it prophetically right: "Today we are witnesses of a new humanism in which the human person is defined by his responsibilities for his fellow-persons and before history."

Schevardnadze met Pope John Paul earlier this year when he was unemployed. An invitation for the pope to visit Georgia can be expected.

The Georgian church is auto-cephalous and in no way dependent either on Moscow or Constantinople. The prospects for ecumenism are good, provided Rome recognizes the difference and pride of this small church that has survived one of the worst persecutions in history.

When the world's cameras eventually turn away from ravaged Somalia, we hope they will be looking for answers to our recent travails. They will not find all the answers in Georgia, but they might see signposts.
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Title Annotation:Eduard Schevardnadze
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Dec 18, 1992
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