A Real-Life Tale of (Formerly Soviet) Georgia

December 29, 1991|By HAL PIPER | HAL PIPER,Hal Piper is editor of The Sun's Opinion-Commentary page and a former Moscow correspondent.

LONG AGO AND FAR AWAY, in an exotic land at the eastern edge of the Black Sea, there lived a wicked dictator and a brave dissident.

This being real life, and not a fairy tale, the wicked dictator imprisoned the brave dissident. Sixteen months he spent in durance vile, and at last the brave dissident broke and gave confession. Yes, he was guilty. Guilty of slandering the government and working to undermine it. Guilty of falsely preaching that the Russian and Georgian peoples lived in enmity, whereas their friendship in truth was unbreakable, not to mention politically correct. May the court have mercy on me, concluded the once-upon-a-time brave dissident.

And the court had mercy. For copping a plea, the brave dissident got off with a couple of years of enforced idleness, not a lifetime in a Siberian labor camp.

You might have guessed by now that the brave dissident was Zviad Gamsakhurdia, the beleaguered first president of independent Georgia, who spent Christmas Day hunkered down the presidential palace under shell fire from rebellious countrymen whom he was elected to lead.

But did you guess that the wicked dictator was Eduard Shevardnadze, latterly known to Americans as Mikhail Gorbachev's wise, principled foreign minister, a chief euthanasist of the Cold War?

This is a story about the perfidy of answered prayers, and about the strange turns human lives take. But first it is a story about Georgia.

After God made the earth, the Georgians like to say, He invited all the peoples choose their favorite dwelling places. The Arabs chose the desert, the Finns the northern woods, and so on, until the entire earth was shared out. At last, tardily, came the Georgians, flushed and laughing, and explained that they had partied right through roll-call, toasting God's health. God was so charmed that He granted the Georgians the little piece of land He had reserved for His own garden.

The story might be true. Georgia is a blessed patch of ground, mountainous as West Virginia (about that size, too), yet with Black Sea vistas rivaling rockbound Maine or Carmel, California.

In Greek legend it was Colchis, whither Jason and his Argonauts quested for the Golden Fleece. When the Dark Ages were upon Europe and the Slavic tribes were pagan forest dwellers, Georgia (named for its patron, St. George) was a flourishing Christian kingdom producing art of beauty and sophistication.

Georgia's fertile soil grows the best fruits and vegetables and wines in the erstwhile Soviet Union. Its people have strong entrepreneurial traditions and enjoyed relative prosperity under Soviet rule. The sun shines, the gentle breezes blow, and there is a recipe for a sublime, waterless chicken stew (juicy plums provide the liquid, and bulbs of garlic the pungency).

Georgia ought to be a pretty good place to live. It might even be able, unlike the other former Soviet republics, to survive on its own, for though it is small (population 5.3 million) and remote, Georgia has natural resources and cultural cohesion. Unfortunately, Georgians seem to be trying to destroy one other. The crux of fratricide is one man, Zviad Gamsakhurdia.

Superficially, his story resembles those of Czechoslovakia's Vaclav Havel or Hungary's Arpad Goncz. All three were men of letters -- Mr. Gamsakhurdia's father was Georgia's most famous writer -- who embodied their peoples' hopes for national self-expression during the dark days of repression. All suffered persecution and criminal confinement. All survived to see the national spirit triumph, and all were rewarded with the presidential palace.

But even in the days of martyrdom, Mr. Gamsakhurdia never belonged in the company of the other two. The light in his eye was not the glow of unquenchable human dignity, but the gleam of fanaticism. He once called on President Jimmy Carter to send U.S. air strikes and Marine landings, promising that Georgians would respond with an armed uprising to throw off Soviet rule.

Thus when Mr. Gamsakhurdia suddenly appeared on prime-time television in May of 1978, apologizing for his crimes as a dissident and denouncing Georgian nationalism as American-inspired subversion, U.S. correspondents in Moscow were skeptical. Mr. Gamsakhurdia was not the man to cop a plea. Was there to be a quid pro quo? Had 16 months of imprisonment without trial crushed him?

By coincidence, another reporter and I were traveling to Georgia at the time, and we asked Mr. Gamsakhurdia's wife what she made of his confession. She said he repudiated it; he had told her he was not conscious of making such a statement, so it must have been either drug-induced or a "montage" pieced together from snippets of things he had said during 16 months of filmed interrogation.

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