Shevy and Me… The Passing of An Era: An Irreverent Look Back At Our First Meeting

Former Georgian president Eduard Shevardnadze, former

Soviet Leader who helped end Cold War, dead at 86

Expat Living: Meeting with the President, Eduard Shevardnadze

Eduard Shevardnadze

Updated Mon 7 Jul 2014, 7:43pm AEST (http://www.abc.net.au/)

Former Georgian president Eduard Shevardnadze, who helped end the Cold War in his capacity as the Soviet Union’s last foreign minister, has died at the age of 86.

“Mr Shevardnadze died today at noon,” his aide Marina Davitashvili said.

That’s the way life ends… a notice in the news.

I remember seeing him, with his successors, at the state funeral of his old comrade, President Heydar Aliyev of Azerbaijan just weeks after being deposed. He and I had met and talked just a month before.

I wonder who among his contemporaries is left to mourn this man now.

Some people writing the news today won’t have a clue who he was or what he meant to the history of the former Soviet Union. I do. I remember.

Let me tell you a story, a slightly irreverent story, about the day I first spoke to Eduard Shevardnadze face to face.

The white-haired elder statesman, more simply often referred to privately as Shevy, Georgian names being the tongue-twisters they are.

[NB: Thank goodness the global name hyphenation craze never really caught on there! Just imagine if (hypothetically) General John Shalikashvili had a daughter getting married to a (again, hypothetical) “Shevy, junior”? They might have been introduced as Eddie and Jane Shalikashvili-Shevardnadze!  Uh, yeah. Try that three times fast!]

But I digress.

I should tell you at the outset, this isn’t your usual eulogy for a fallen comrade.

No this is more likely to be a glimpse into the weird and wacky world that was post-Soviet dysfunctional politics in the chaos after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

I have to say, for me there is a soft mostly sentimental spot there. For the people, for the students and their families. I am thankful I had the opportunity to be involved with the Soviet Union, both before and during the 10 years just after the collapse felt ’round the world. It was a wild time- like the wild west really.

Not like a wild party though. No, it was more like a mad scramble- someone calls, says there is bread today; everyone runs, lines form, bread with sawdust runs out.

Shops sold whatever they could to survive- cheese and shoes; stockings and chocolate; old radio parts and light bulbs. USAID rice “Marked NOT for Re-Sale”- in English that no one can read, so it matters not.

Everyone learned to solve problems together. They taught me how to be tough in hard times. I learned how to shower- AND wash my hair- in 3 minimal litres of water. One bottle to wet down; lather up,  1/2 litre rinse; condition, 2nd half bottle rinse, wash, and rinse judiciously with the last precious pints of water.

I know how to find food and how to share with friends who have none. Maybe not resume skills, but being resourceful and solving problems? Yeah, I’m the one you want on your team, everyday. 10 years teaches a person a great deal.

Survival Meant Keeping Your Eyes Open, And Your Mouth Shut

One of the most important Life Lessons I learned after this meeting was when to speak and what to say, keeping my eyes open and my mouth shut. It was a matter of security and survival.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Eduard Shevardnadze became the Georgian head of state in 1992 and remained president of the country until 2003, when he was deposed in the mostly peaceful Rose Revolution. Mikhail Saakashvili was brought to power following widespread protests over rigged parliamentary elections, government corruption and a failing economy.

I’ve written before about those elections in Fear of Flying. But it wasn’t only the elections that had been tainted. Doing any business of any kind became a matter not of black and white, but a real life in 50 shades of grey. There were always traps, just waiting for you to step one inch either way out of line.

Our business group from the Chamber Business Alliance was meeting in Georgia- on sort of neutral territory since Azerbaijan and Armenia are still at war (since the early 90s).

Because the entire Caucasus region was represented while we were all there, we were housed in a secure location- the Ambassador told us, “You go in at 8:00pm and are not to leave until we pick you up in the morning after breakfast. Understood?”

The location the chose is described this way:

“The Krtsanisi Presidential Residence in Tbilisi  was the official Georgian Governmental and Presidential Residence including its Offices Hotels and Residences.

  Situated just above the main thoroughfare and the rehabilitated old town and city centre, it is fully enclosed by fortified security gates and less than 5 minutes from the main city square. The site is the most prestigious location in the country with wide recognition and the best development site.

   With its picturesque view of the historic city, its rolling grounds and flowing streams, the property was for almost a century the choice estate for the palatial residences of the Soviet elite, starting with Stalin’s deputy Lavrenty Beria, President Nikita Khrushchev and Russian Foreign Minister (later, the President of Georgia), Eduard Shevardnadze … who all lived or worked in their premises in the site.

Photo Image: Krtsanisi Palace Presidential Residence -Tbilisi, Georgia

Krtsanisi Palace Presidential Residence -Tbilisi, Georgia

 The Georgian government has installed infrastructure including electricity, water and sewage systems, which are second-to-none – in Tbilisi and throughout the country.”

I was told that I was sleeping in the “Madeleine Albright” suite.

That was a pretty impressive thing to me… until I heard the state of the art utilities in the night.

I actually went out on the balcony there on the left, to see who was playing ping-pong all night. (It turns out the water in the radiators had this slow knock-knock sound as it heated and cooled on its way through the system… all night long. Second to none, indeed!)

Madame Cajones, Madeline Albright First Female U.S. Secretary of State

Since we had high visibility, our host decided it was a perfect time for a meeting with the President to push the business case. (That’s code for “I have a problem in my local business, but since I have international guests, I can leverage this high-profile delegation to lodge a protection request.”)

That’s how we happened to be in a van, on the way to the presidential apparat (state building), with an actual honest-to-gosh RPG half hidden underneath the right passenger seat.

Like I said, weird and wild! I guess when there are death threats against you, you shoot first and ask questions later.

Arriving at the Apparat, we came in on the ground floor and passed the security checks. A group of guards told us to follow. We went up a flight of stairs, each of us looking over one shoulder making sure everyone was still together.

The waiting room was spartan to say the least- covered with the same green and black indoor-outdoor carpeting I had in my flat. But it was covered by the ubiquitous carpet runners the region was famous for.

When we were called in, I took note of the long conference table, a little wider than a normal door-width, but about 4 times as long. The wood was the same as the panelling in the room, plain varnished wood. More carpeting. Tea was brought in by a tea girl (the actual job title is tea girl). We waited.

All at once, a whoosh of activity and the man himself appeared. One body-guard with a neck like a tree barely constrained in its container and one studiously cautious translator.

That was it- three of them, three of us.

Wow, no cameras, no journalists- just half a dozen of us talking about business across the Caucasus. I was caught off guard thinking I would be a bit player in an entourage.

Our Georgian Chamber counterpart began an eloquent “thank you for seeing us speech”… here is all we have done for Georgia… and here’s what more we would like to do- except for, you know, that small problem we wrote to you about last month, the one of having someone shooting mortars through my business windows to kill me (BTW, would sure appreciate if you could look into that and see that they stop? Thanks, big guy.) 

And then, he turned…to me. I was sitting in the middle- the rose between two thorns is the joke someone always made- and that meant I was supposed to make nice on behalf of the United States.

Just as deer have no idea what they look like when caught in a car’s headlights, I have no idea what look crossed my face in those moments. I was busy thanking God that I had been in speech and drama classes all the way through high school. I was able to smile, and formulate my comments and then wing it on a level I had never contemplated before.

  • First, also thank the president for taking time to see us, on behalf of free business everywhere, and for being so gracious to accept our host’s request for this meeting…. (pause, take a breath).
    .
  • Talk about how wonderful Georgia has been as a country to tour- at least, what little we have seen so far. Mention how wonderful Georgian people are as hosts- gracious, warms, lively and engaging.
    .
  • (Note to self- Whatever you do, DO NOT mention the protestors or the journalists calling for action over the pipeline-American backed, no less- that they say will destroy their one natural national claim to fame, Borjomi water.)
    .
    Naturally, as I am carefully avoiding that land mine, I walk right into another one- apparently someone is despoiling the natural beauty of Gudauri, the one ski area left… He says, “Maybe you can have your next meeting there, before some foreigner spoils that too!”

And he is off, launching into a 20 minute lecture on how “foreigners” (which included all three business persons there in that room) were out to undo all the “positive progress” he had made in his country (really?) and that we (foreigners) should make more, ahem, “investments” to ensure good relations with Georgia.

Our third member, did get to speak, but not much. Shevy had spoken, and we would do well to listen closely.

That  was how I learned to keep my eyes open and my mouth shut.

We got out alive and lived to tell the tale.

But after that meandering rant, we all wondered how that man was still in power.

And… not long after, he wasn’t.

A Legend In Song

Now here’s the part of this visit you may not know (wink)..

Kris Kristofferson wrote a song about that visit. I’d like to share it with you.

You may have heard it before- but, of course, things being what they were, Kris had to change some of the words to protect the almost-innocent, though I can assure you ( and vould an old comrade lie?) this is the real story… of me and Shevy McNadze…

Me and Shevy McNadze

Busted flat in Georgia (Tbilisi, that is), wonderin’ bout my brains,

Feelin’ pretty jaded in my skin.

Fady thumbed his “muscle” down, just before it rained-

Drove us all the way to the Apparat (the President’s place, I mean).

I saw his harpoon (that ol’ RPG) sittin’ dirty ‘neath that red bandana

And he was blowin’ our minds, in just the way that only he could tell the news.

With them windshield wipers slappin’ bugs and

Fady clappin’ hands with us, we heard all the news

His driver knew…ooh, ooh.

 

The Cold War’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose

And nothin’ ain’t worth nothin’ but it’s free

Feelin’ good was easy, Lord, when Shevy shared his blues

And buddy, that was good enough for me

Good enough for me and Shevy McNadze.

 

From the coal mines of Tkvarcheli/ Тҟəарчал, ტყვარჩელი, Ткуарчал/Ткварчели

Tqwarchal, Tqvarcheli, Tkuarchal/Tkvarcheli to the Caucasian sun

Schevy shared the secrets of his soul

Sittin’ right across from me, through everythin’ I heard

And with every word he kept us from the guard.

Then somewhere near “Borjomi,” Lord, I let him slip away

He was lookin’ for the home I hope he’ll find

Well I’d trade all my tomorrows for a single yesterday

Knowing Shevy’s  body’s now in state, hmmhmm.

 

Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose

And nothin’ ain’t worth nothin’ but it’s free

Feelin’ good was easy, Lord, when Shevy shared his blues

And buddy, that was good enough for me

Good enough for me and Shevy McNadze.

 

* Names (ok, and some facts perhaps) have been changed to protect the barely innocent.

 

 

#Longreads

2 thoughts on “Shevy and Me… The Passing of An Era: An Irreverent Look Back At Our First Meeting

    • Well, you know, Margo, I didn’t want to take all the credit, of course… (wink, wink).

      Like all good “Tell All” stories, some facts only come out upon the demise of one of the characters, and since I am the last one standing, I get to tell my own version of the story. (So to speak!)

      Seriously though, it was an amazing thing to see someone so instrumental in history of the Soviet Union and the Cold War. He impressive when he got wound up about that ski resort.

      Come to think about it, what is it with these post-Soviet leaders and ski resorts?? There must be a connection there somewhere, but I think it will have to wait for another story, another time.

      Thanks for sharing my irreverent look back!

      Like

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