10 January 2008

Eduard Shevardnadze of Georgia

During much of the Soviet era, the Republic of Georgia enjoyed prosperity unknown to the rest of the Eastern Bloc, due first to the richness of the farmland and abundance of its produce; second to the region’s strategic importance; and finally to the preferential benevolence of certain Soviet leaders who happened to be Georgians themselves. Josef Stalin was Georgian; so was Eduard Shevardnadze, the Soviet Union’s last foreign minister.

By the time we got to Tbilisi, in winter 1994, Shevardnadze was president of the independent Republic. Ever keen for good press in the West, he granted us a lengthy interview. I’ve seldom seen anyone so depressed.

“He’s always like that,” said Mila Taubkina, the brilliant “fixer” from the CBS bureau in Moscow. Yet as Shevardnadze listed his woes (the war in Chechnya on his northern border; a civil war led by his predecessor, the nationalist Zvlad Gamsakhurdia; separatist uprisings in Ossetia and Abkhazia; interference by the Russians almost everywhere), I could understand that he might be discouraged, specifically and not merely habitually.

Reaching out to the American television audience was an uphill climb. Who the hell ever heard of Abkhazia? He patiently explained the background “for the viewers back home,” but I wonder whether the lesson took, whether the interview did him any good at all. When it came time to pose with us for a group picture, you could almost hear the creaking of his disused facial muscles, valiantly but vainly trying to force themselves into a smile.

Though officially outside the war zone, Tbilisi was far from peace. There was no customs official, no passport control at the airport. We’d arrived in a shuddering old Aeroflot plane that, I was certain, had carried Stalin himself and not been renovated, repaired, or even cleaned since. I guess folks figured that if we were willing to take our lives in our hands by flying in that bucket, they might as well let us into the country without obstacle. But there were checkpoints all over town: little groups of soldiers would stop us at intersections and ask to see our papers. In the evenings, they may have been vigilantes, the “neighborhood watch” and not soldiers, but it amounted to the same thing. They’d point their Kalashnikovs into the car and sniff, as if they could smell an insurgent. The streets were lined with bullet holes and burned-out cars.

When we got to the hotel, we had to step over a chalk outline at the front door. Was there an accident, Dan wanted to know.

“No, sir,” said the desk clerk, “there was merely a disagreement. The man left the bar without paying his bill.” The hotel was owned by an Austrian company; the clerk was at some pains to explain that it was not a representative of the hotel staff who had killed the customer.

Dan nodded thoughtfully and pulled out his wallet. He extracted a considerable wad of cash and said, “We’ll pay now, thank you.”

The lobby was a sort of atrium that rose up several stories to a skylight. Men sat in club chairs all afternoon, smoking cigars and drinking vodka, and fondling their Kalashnikovs. For several hours every day, a pianist would come in and play Broadway show tunes, even when the electricity went out, as it did every afternoon. We’d open our hotel room doors to catch the light from the atrium, and “What I Did for Love” would waft up to us, the cigar smoke not far behind.

In these surroundings, I said, “Don’t shoot the piano player” took on special resonance; if some drunk came up and said, “Play ‘Melancholy Baby’,” he’d damned well better. We tipped the poor guy. We tipped everybody.

We went to an outdoor market to see what was left of Georgia’s prosperity. Not much. Vendors lined up in front of little brown shacks and squatted in front of a few dirty sacks of dubious legumes. You could buy a couple of chicken feet, but the rest of the chicken was nowhere to be seen; the head of a calf drew flies but no buyers.

Some of the team remembered the golden days, before the Soviet Union dissolved. There were memories of a bountiful feast that our Tbilisi fixer, Manana, set out for a 60 Minutes crew, so lavish and so photogenic that it became an integral part of the report that Lesley Stahl broadcast from New York. This kind of hospitality was a tradition in Georgia, and it would have been sacrilege to offer his guests anything less: twenty courses or more, plates piled high with delicacies, and countless bottles of wine to wash it all down. You’d start in the afternoon and you’d still be going strong at midnight. Looking around the market, it was clear that the beautiful tradition of Georgian hospitality was gone with the wind.

But Manana invited us to dinner.

His apartment building was in a state of advanced decay; I couldn’t tell if it had been shelled or just neglected. Chunks of plaster and concrete blocked my way. But when we reached Manana’s apartment, everything was all right. Warm and clean, with more furnishings than the rooms could hold. (I gathered their previous apartment had been larger.) And above all — hospitable.

To this day I don’t know how he and his wife did it. There were indeed twenty courses, a staggering variety of foods that, we knew perfectly well, couldn’t be found at the market. Granted, these rich viands were served on very tiny plates — but everything was delicious, and we did not lack for wine. The red was sweet, almost syrupy, and robust; the white was close to turpentine. People kept filling my glass with white wine. I’d drink it up, the quicker to get back to the red. And then they’d fill my glass with white again. Generously. So I’d drink, and they’d refill. And so on.

By the third bottle, I spoke fluent Russian. Never mind that I was the worst student in the history of Brown University, and that the administrators asked me never to tell anyone I took Russian there. It is an official secret, guarded in a vault in the Hay Library. Despite the best efforts of Prof. Barbara Monahan, the most I could say that Sleeping Beauty was my favorite ballet. Suddenly I was a second Yevtushenko. Mila was delighted: from that moment, she resolved to salvage my study of her native tongue. “No more English!” she crowed. “Tolko po-russky!”

There was music, too. Manana’s youngest sons, little Bibi and his even littler brother, came out and sang for us, while their teenaged sister played piano. The little one, Lesley Stahl’s godson, three years old or so, so shy that he hid his face in his brother’s arm — all the while singing in the purest, sweetest voice I’d ever heard.

Then the knock came at the front door.

Manana’s eyes grew wide; his wife looked concerned. The rest of us fell silent, or dropped our voices to a whisper. Nobody knew who was at the door — but very few of the possibilities could bode well.

Manana went to answer.

We tried to hear what was said. Nothing.

Then Manana returned, grinning, with several bottles of wine. “From the president!” he said. “A gift to us for our party!”

The curious thing was that Manana didn’t remember telling Shevardnadze — or anybody from the government — that he was throwing a party.

The later years of Shevardnadze’s administration were not a success, and he was forced from office in the Rose Revolution, in 2003. He had become less democratic and more dictatorial with each year; his family and his cronies profited handsomely from their privileges (though Shevardnadze himself was not implicated in the corruption). Georgia was in a mess, and the mess got mostly worse. He never did find much to smile about.

But if he’d come to dinner at Manana’s house — who knows what might have been?