MOSCOW -- The night before Mikhail S. Gorbachev came to power in March 1985, he strolled with Eduard A. Shevardnadze at a Black Sea resort in Mr. Shevardnadze's native Georgia.
The two men were friends and colleagues, having joined the country's ruling Politburo at the same time seven years earlier. Both enjoyed the enormous power and privilege reserved for leaders at the top of a totalitarian superpower.
But their conversation that night was about deep dissatisfaction with the state of the Soviet Union.
"I had arrived at the profound conviction that we could not live like this," Mr. Gorbachev recalled in a recent speech to Soviet writers and artists. Mr. Shevardnadze, he remembered, "used the phrase, 'Everything is rotten.' "
From such vague, shared bitterness would grow a revolution. Four months after that evening stroll, Mr. Gorbachev raised ambassadors' eyebrows by suddenly replacing Foreign Minister Andrei A. Gromyko, the crusty hard-liner who had overseen Soviet diplomacy for 28 years, with the little-known Mr. Shevardnadze.
True, they said, he seemed more open, personable, flexible and unideological than did Mr. Gromyko. But Mr. Shevardnadze nonetheless was a provincial Communist Party boss who had traveled abroad only a half dozen times, mainly to party functions. Many foreign diplomats thought of him as an interim appointee, until someone more appropriate came along.
Now, as Mr. Shevardnadze resigns five years later, there are few doubters left on the world diplomatic scene. Mr. Shevardnadze is widelycredited not with being just a faithful implementer of Mr. Gorbachev's policies but as a creative thinker who made his own contribution to what is by far the greatest success of the Gorbachev reforms: the turnaround in Soviet foreign policy known here as the "new political thinking," which has left little unchanged in world politics.
Slowly at first, then more and more quickly, the Gorbachev-Shevardnadze team persuaded the West that the Soviet Union had changed. His friendly, pragmatic manner, his brains and his calm, thoughtful, Georgian-accented Russian gave him the reputation of a reliable, trustworthy negotiating partner.
The U.S.-Soviet relationship swiftly improved, as then-President Ronald Reagan found himself touring Red Square in 1988 and praising changes in the country he had once called an "evil empire." Major arms control treaties followed, with the nuclear arms race turned around for the first time in history and with massive cuts in troops and weaponry agreed to in Europe.
In 1989, the Soviet Union withdrew its troops from Afghanistan, ending a 10-year debacle that had cost 15,000 Soviet lives. It settled its decades-old feud with China. It declined to intervene as Communist regimes toppled across Eastern Europe.
This year, the Soviet Union gradually gave its blessing to the unification of the two Germanys.
The deft diplomacy carried out by Mr. Shevardnadze can be measured by the outpouring of foreign food aid at the first signs of severe shortages in the Soviet Union this winter -- and by the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to his boss.
Such is the unlikely record of Eduard Amvrosievich Shevardnadze, born in 1928 into a teacher's family in the western Georgian village of Mamati.
He finished a teacher's college before following the route to power taken by Mr. Gorbachev: through the Komsomol, the Communist youth organization. At 27 he was head of the Georgian Komsomol, and a year later was a member of the Central Committee of the U.S.S.R. Komsomol.
By the early 1960s he had switched to Communist Party work, and from 1965 to 1972 he was head of the Georgian police, earning a reputation as a tough policeman with a campaign against bribery, extortion, black marketeering and nepotism.
From 1972 to 1985 he was first secretary of the Georgian Communist Party, the top post in the republic. He kept up the anti-corruption drive and attracted the attention of Mr. Gorbachev, among others, with some agricultural experiments and with relative economic successes.
As Mr. Shevardnadze's profile as foreign minister has risen, he has gradually become the lightning rod for critics of Mr. Gorbachev's foreign policy, who are numerous in the Communist Party bureaucracy and the army.
Former Politburo conservative Yegor K. Ligachev often clashed with Mr. Shevardnadze, including one time in public, over Mr. Ligachev's alleged involvement in the decision to use force to crush a peaceful demonstration in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, in April 1989.
Over the past year Mr. Ligachev and many others have blamed Mr. Shevardnadze as well as his boss for "losing" Eastern Europe and for permitting the reunification of Germany, whose division they considered to be protection for the Soviet Union.
Lately, a pair of obscure army colonels in the parliament, Nikolai Petrushenko and Viktor Alksnis, have led the charge against Mr. Shevardnadze. They have repeatedly alleged that the foreign minister promised to send Soviet troops to the Persian Gulf, although Mr. Shevardnadze says he always meant that any involvement of Soviet troops would have to be approved by the parliament.
Colonel Petrushenko, like several other deputies, hinted yesterday that Mr. Shevardnadze's resignation was partly a result of the awkward situation he is in as the independence movement comes to power in Georgia.
As a top Soviet official, Mr. Shevardnadze is viewed with suspicion by Georgian nationalists who favor independence. As a Georgian, he is viewed with the same suspicion by the Abkhazian and Ossetian minorities there.
Mr. Shevardnadze is married, has a grown son and daughter, and in his years in Georgia was reported to have kept bees and made his own wine.