BOSTON — EDUARD Shevardnadze's resignation recalls us to our sense of proportion in world affairs. It makes us realize that while we have been preoccupied with the Persian Gulf, life and politics in the Soviet Union have been deteriorating to a point of menace.
Shevardnadze was Mikhail Gorbachev's closest ally in the opening up of Soviet society. According to Gorbachev, the whole idea of glasnost and perestroika -- opening and restructuring -- arose from a conversation between the two men as they walked on a Black Sea beach.
The resignation was a thunderclap not only because of who he was but because of how he went. Shevardnadze gave as his reason that the Soviet Union was moving in the direction of "dictatorship."
It was as if James Baker had told a congressional committee that he was resigning as his friend George Bush's secretary of state because the American political system was headed for disaster.
Why did Shevardnadze resign? An immediate cause was that he was tired of being hounded by conservative critics. In recent months he has been savagely attacked for allowing the reunification of Germany on Western terms and "begging" for American food aid.
That criticism reflected a division in Russian thought going back a century and more, between those who favor Westernization and Slavophiles who want the country to look inward to a mystic Slavic tradition. Shevardnadze is a Westernizer through and through.
The anti-Western tradition is joined now by Communist Party bureaucrats opposed to the loss of their privileges. And lately a ,, third powerful element has joined the resistance to change: those who call for a forceful restoration of order in the Soviet Union as the answer to economic and political strains.
The day before Shevardnadze's announcement, a coalition of military, religious and literary figures called for direct rule by the Kremlin in turbulent areas of the country. The 53 signers of an open letter included the chief of the Armed Forces General Staff.
The letter called on Gorbachev to "put an end to the chaos" and suggested "instituting a state of emergency and presidential rule in zones of major conflicts."
Gorbachev said he was ready to do that where there was "a serious threat to the state."
Against the background of such talk, Shevardnadze's warning of dictatorship looks extremely serious. Is it possible that Mikhail Gorbachev, the man who so courageously moved the Soviet Union out of its paralyzing fear, is now prepared to go backward? It is certainly true that he is relying increasingly on the military and the KGB in internal affairs.
The other day Gorbachev was surrounded by reporters at the Congress of People's Deputies. He said:
"Unfortunately our society is not ready for the procedures of a law-based state. We don't have that level of political culture, those traditions. All that will come in the future, but the important thing in the meantime is not to smash each other's bones."