LONDON — NOT SINCE Maksim Litvinov, Stalin's commissar for foreign affairs, vainly warned his own leader and the world against appeasing the dictator Hitler has a Soviet diplomat shown the vision of Eduard Shevardnadze in warning of the impending dictatorship of freedom's faithless friend, Mikhail Gorbachev.
Consider how this historic admonition reverberates around the globe:
rTC In the Soviet Union, people seeking religious toleration or fearful of ethnic persecution are in a panic to escape. Dissidents see the face of Stalin's secret police chief, Lavrenti Beria, in the bland features of Vladimir Kryuchkov of the KGB, who exhumes the politics of paranoia to rail at CIA subversion even in the corn being delivered by the West. The Red Army's colonels of crackdown go unrebuffed.
The occupied Baltic States brace for brutality from their quisling, the Latvian Boris Pugo, recently elevated by Gorbachev to head what is fast becoming a new version of the Ministry of Fear.
In the United States, the Gorby-at-any-price claque derogates the Shevardnadze warning, grimly sticking with its man as the bulwark against Stalinism even as his inner circle reveals the truth: The dictator has chosen to label freedom "chaos," and prettify repression as "order," for the purpose of holding a tight union and preventing the development of a free confederation.
America's doves are looking for a dividend in the resignation of the man who brought Soviet policy into the coalition against Saddam Hussein. They hope that KGB and Red Army elements that opposed the Shevardnadze line may now press for a deal that leaves the Iraqi dictator, a longtime Soviet client, in peace and in power; U.S. accommodationists, eager for delay in the Persian Gulf, would prefer the Arabist Boris Primakov or the anti-American Valentin Falin as Kremlin foreign minister.
Here in Britain, where the principled resignation of a key minister led to the toppling of Mrs. Thatcher, the resignation of Shevardnadze is seen as a harbinger of the downfall of Gorbachev, or at least the doom of the "good" Gorbachev.
Recent Red Army cheating on conventional disarmament agreements, tacitly approved by the "bad" Gorbachev, humiliated Shevardnadze. What now troubles Francois Heisbourg, who heads the Institute for Strategic Studies here, is a possible setback for the Start treaty, scheduled for completion at a Moscow summit in February.
Strategists are attracted to Start today for a reason that would have been considered bizarre a year ago: It may better enable both superpowers to count and control the Soviet Union's nuclear missiles in case of a union breakup; also, the missiles scheduled for retirement first are sited in the Ukraine, a fast-loosening republic.
How does the departing minister's cry for help in reform resonate in the minds of those who always believed Gorbachev to be a power-hungry opportunist, improvising glasnost as a means to jettison the burden of Eastern Europe and save the Soviet Union for Socialist central control?
We find it hard to comprehend how his apologists in the West can still cling to the notion that he is saving us all from sinister forces of repression, and that we should help him as he applies a little discipline -- some unavoidable skull-cracking -- to those irresponsible types whose calls for self-government cause "chaos." Even our secretary of state takes the moment of the Shevardnadze resignation, the first such political self-sacrifice in Kremlin history, to remind us of the dangers of "chaos."
The people closest to the Great Juggler know better. After five years of talk about restructuring, he has built only a new edifice of power for himself, the KGB and the Red Army generals, making the Soviet Union safe for dictatorship.
Some of his early followers attributed a dream to him -- a vision of a less regimented, more productive land. They have now been shunted aside, subjected to harassment and humiliation that leads to self-purge, by men with harder eyes and more brutal ways.
The Great Juggling Act is coming to an end. To an internal empire whose unity can be saved only by voluntary federalism, the juggler has dropped his pins on the side of inescapable union. To a command economy that can be rescued only by the profit motive, he comes down on the side of further control. To peoples who need the rule of law, he proclaims the law of the ruler -- "presidential rule," this millennium's final euphemism for tyranny.