Todor Todorov: The Lion in Winter — My Friend Zviad Gamsakhurdia

The Lion in Winter
My Friend Zviad Gamsakhurdia
by Todor Todorov
May 4, 2002

I EXPECTED THAT THE door to the prison would be more distinct. Heavy steel, painted brown, with some red slashes where paint had been skinned. I told myself that truth and righteousness would bear out and my fate would turn out different than the other men who had passed through. Yet it would be one and one-half years until I saw the front side of that door again.

There is no way to explain why I would volunteer as a target for a police state. Such a thing cannot be explained. If you don’t understand immediately, you will never understand.

In my heart I know that not everyone has it inside of them. In my mind I know that most would think I’m insane for refusing to live with the lies that they would accept. They feel I, or many of the others, didn’t accomplish anything by going to prison, receiving a beating, or losing our jobs or families for speaking out against a totalitarian system and demanding that it live to its own words, as it makes us live to them, too.

But there was no dissident who suffered so much, for so little accomplished, as my friend Zviad Gamsakhurdia.

WHO IS IT I should write about here? My friend Zviadi or the dissident, Zviad? President Gamsakhurdia or the poet Gamsakhurdia? The one who was living, strong as a bull, or the one wilting in a steel cage, prisoner of the state? or the one murdered on a mountain road? Which one or none at all?

I feel I should write about the man as I knew him, as much as I could from such a great physical and spiritual distance. Because if we disagree what kind of president or dissident he was, we can find common ground if we say that Zviad Gamsakhurdia was a great, if complicated, man. There has never been anyone like him, and even those who accept the slurs against his name made by his enemies would agree that no one, much less a dissident, deserved to die the way that he did. It is possibly true that he did not make the world a better place, but there is a dark fog lowering upon a world which forgets someone like Zviad Gamsakhurdia.

I call Zviadi my friend – and I call him Zviadi because that is how friends addressed him – because I loved him. I never did meet him. We were inmates together in a vast prison of lies, two misfits in the culture of conformity. But we were housed in different prison blocks, I in Sofiya, Zviadi in Soviet Georgia.

For many years I did not even have contact with Zviadi, though I corresponded with his friends, at least when the authorities would allow us to send letters. Of course we could not send letters when one or the other of us were in prison. Instead our friends passed on news of our health and conditions – topics sufficiently benign for a letter one knew would be read by other eyes.

I do not know very much about Georgian culture or its people, and my letters to Zviadi made that clear. I knew of course that Stalin was a Georgian, and Beria too. I knew that they were legendary drinkers but that was about all. I learned about the world of Georgian culture through Zviadi and his friends (though our letters were in Russian). Through them I learned how people talked, how they acted in this country of mountains and citrus groves on the other side of the Black Sea from me.

Though that sea separated us, there were parallels. We were both religious, and decried the sale of our churches’ artifacts by corrupt KGB agents. “There are no Marxists in Georgia,” Zviadi once wrote, “Just black marketers and thieves, power-mad leaders who hide their ideological nakedness.” And Bulgaria and Georgia were small countries ruled by leaders with a servile attitude toward Moscow and the policy of Russification that we protested.

ZVIADI’S “CAREER” AS A dissident began in 1955, on the eve of that epic year which saw a flight of freedom take wing in Hungary then crash to the earth. Zviad was only 16 years old. With an equally famous dissident, Merab Kostava, Zviad formed the Gorgasliani, a students club which circulated reports of human rights abuses in Georgia. Two years later the group was broken up by the KGB. Zviad and Merab were held in custody for six months, some of it in abusive psychiatric hospitals, before the two boys were released.

For years the police hounded Zviadi for things like this, but they rarely arrested him. For the reasons we turn to a trait of the Georgian people, that one does not easily turn away from the son of a friend. Zviadi was the son of every Georgian’s friend, the immortal Konstantin Gamsakhurdia, a famous novelist.

In the early 1970s Zviad and Merab collaborated as the “Georgian arm” of the large Soviet human rights movement. Both were frequent contributors to the Chronicle of Current Events, barely an issue of which did not make it to New York. In fact it was easier to read the Chronicle in New York than Moscow, but not Georgia. That’s because through contacts in the Writer’s Union, Zviad had gathered the parts to build an offset press. This machine, located “somewhere in Georgia”, printed so many of the declarations and documents that would let the world know of the abuses happening in Georgia and the rest of the Soviet Union. They also printed Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago and other illegal books and the samizdat papers Golden Fleece and Georgian Herald.

Zviadi’s Union contacts were also responsible for obtaining his first meeting with the Georgian Interior Minister and, later, party chief: Edvard Shevardnadze. Zviad and Merab, like most of us, often addressed their complaints to Party leaders in open letters. Zviad handed this letter to Shevardnadze. Audaciousness does not explain where his bravery came from, because in the same room, Shevardnadze had invited a man that Zviad and Merab knew personally as one of the foul assassins who took care of dissidents in prison in the 1950s and who had shown an unnatural interest in the two boys when they were arrested in 1958.

WHEN YOU CONFRONT THE Door, it is difficult not to lower your eyes. This is the position for criminals. No matter what you have told yourself, what people in faraway places say of you (they are always just out of reach of helping), you are now in that position. A criminal. You are led through the Door in handcuffs. You hesitate, unsure. To enjoy your last few moments of free, flowing air, or brace yourself for what is coming? Before you decide, it’s over, and you are no longer a person but Penal Subject 442195-0880.

No one can help you. The friends who did not turn against you will be harassed by the KGB, fired from their jobs for not denouncing you until they do denounce you. Relatives will be given blunt messages to pass along, promises of “deals should you start talking” or safe passage if you want it. Sharper messages are relayed through fellow inmates, who tell you to be careful, to never leave yourself alone, to prepare to have your ribs broken or a black eye next Tuesday.

Because there is no practical difference between a political prisoner and a man arrested for stealing cabbage or falsifying accounting reports, you will be treated with the same mercy and given less peace. You can think yourself the nemesis of a First Secretary but he wants little to do with you, if he knows who you are at all. He certainly doesn’t fear you, though as you are strapped to a chair for questioning you may fear his picture which is on the wall. You see him, he does not see you.

To find yourself in the role of the criminal and treated as one has a strange effect on your character. It breaks some men. And I’m not speaking of the torture at all but the actual acknowledgment of being a reprobate.

IN MAY OF 1977, the KGB arrested all members of the Soviet Helsinki Human Rights lobby, including Merab Kostava and Zviad Gamsakhurdia. They were jailed in Lefortovo, and then another psychiatric prison with other dissidents.

Something happened. I cannot entirely explain how and why in July of 1979, Gamsakhurdia perjured himself.

He was broadcast on nationwide television with Georgian Party Secretary, Edvard Shevardnadze looking on. He took back everything. He abjured his essays about the suffering of the Georgian people under favorite son Stalin, the theft of national treasures and their sale abroad by the party elite, the failure of the Soviet Union to live up to its laws and obligations to citizen rights. It was devastating.

His wife Manana was nearby. The microphones picked up her cry:
“Zviadi, come to your senses. What are you talking about? You don’t know what you’re saying, do you?”
“No,” Zviad answered her harshly, “it’s you who don’t know what you’re saying.”

Zviad’s recantation shocked us. We immediately thought of poison, drugs, or the Soviet show trials of the 1930s, when witnesses claimed knowledge of lurid crimes under the glowering light of the NKVD prosecutor. Certainly he would have to be beaten into saying these things. He would not say them without coaching. But he did not look beaten. He did not looked drugged or upset.

What happened to Zviad to make him say these things? we asked ourselves. What would have to be done to us to make us recant after more than 20 years in dissent? Blackmail?

No one has ever found out. Kostava did not recant and was sent away to serve his sentence in Siberia. Many years later Merab published a letter he wrote at the time in the journal Glasnost. He had no words of rage for Zviad. In fact, he said that Gamsakhurdia’s retraction was a profound necessity to keep the dissident movement in Georgia alive. A copy had been sent to Yelena Bonner, wife of Andrei Sakharov, from prison.

Zviad categorized his recantation as a “tactical retreat”. I am skeptical of these kinds of alibis, but against the words of Kostava, who knew Zviadi best, who can argue? I am not sure myself what to think, but instead I place the facts, both of the broadcast itself and of Kostava’s letter, before the reader. No enemy of Gamsakhurdia – including his former jailers – has failed to mention the abjuration and insinuated some betrayal of Kostava’s memory. No one but his friends bothers to mention the late, beloved Kostava’s own opinion on the matter.

ZVIAD WAS PARDONED AFTER spending several months at hard labor outside of Georgia. But Zviad returned, and within six months he was back, working to try to free his friend Merab Kostava. In 1981 he was recognized as spokesman by students holding strikes in Tbilisi. As the 1980s rolled on and he was joined by Kostava (who later died in a car accident), the human rights and national liberation movement that Gamsakhurdia led in Georgia was as large as the movement in the Baltics.

In 1988, Zviad founded the Brothers of St. Iliya the Righteous, a combination of a religious society and a political party. In November, he was instrumental in leading massive protests – the largest in the Soviet Union – against the ratification of the new Union treaty which encouraged continued centralism in Moscow. This treaty was the last “legal” attempt by Gorbachev and the so-called “reformers” to keep alive their conglomerate monster, a state which had enslaved hundreds of millions of people and coerced millions of others around the world to follow its “fraternal advice”. It had the firm backing of Gorbachev’s Foreign Minister, Edvard Shevardnadze.

Finally, the situation reached a critical mass. On 7 April, 1989, Zviad Gamsakhurdia was arrested. Two days later, martial law in Georgia was declared, and the Red Army mowed down protesters. Nineteen were killed in Tbilisi.

But Gorbachev couldn’t hold a state together with tanks and crucifying weapons of war. After more crackdowns in Baku and the Crimea, the ethnic leaders who favored a loose union of republics were hated by their people. Some republics, like Ukraine and Belarus, had small national movements. Georgia and the Baltic states had only national liberation movements. They were not interested in “reform” which would leave their monies flowing to Moscow and the KGB looking through the keyhole, but national liberation. Dissidents from these peoples are more familiar, and friendly, to us radicals in Bulgaria, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia than Russian dissidents whose demands were only for “democracy”, come what may.

In the Summer of 2000 there were devastating strikes in Georgia. Gamsakhurdia was at the center of activity, leading a railway blockade that brought the loyalist government to its knees. They agreed to hold elections. They held to their word: these were free and fair. Gamsakhurdia’s coalition “Round Table for Free Georgia” won 155 of 250 seats in parliament and elected Gamsakhurdia their chairman.

An avalanche had fallen. Gamsakhurdia, together with Lithuanian President Vytautas Landsbergis, were the only two of the Soviet Republican presidents that were not members of the Communist Party. Every other leader – Boris Yeltsin, Leonid Kravchuk, Nursultan Nazarbayev, and so on – were “reformers”.

On March 31, 1991, Georgians voted overwhelmingly for the restoration of independence. Nine days later Gamsakhurdia himself wrote the act of independence that was issued, and on May 26 Georgians ventured to the polls once again and elected former dissident Zviad Gamsakhurdia their president.

THE POLITICAL ELITE IN Moscow, of course, were against Gamsakhurdia from the start. Men who had spent their lives torturing Andrei Sakharov reminded others of his famous description of Georgia as a “little empire”. Its true that Gamsakhurdia was not the most gentle man when it came to handling the ethnic leaders of the formerly autonomous ethnic republics in Georgia. Yet it is also true that his successors have not done any better. In fact, it is the complete opposite. They have not done any better because the situation is not as simple as it seemed (civil wars typically are not) to those who blamed Zviad for the troubles in Abkhazia and the territory of the South Ossetians. If this was his sin, it is difficult to imagine he could have done worse than those who followed.

Immediately after the Moscow coup on 20 August, 1991, Gamsakhurdia called on the leaders of the world to recognize the successor states, at least those asking for it – Georgia and the Baltic Republics. The Russian “democrats” called this opportunism, when in fact, what else could the leader of an occupied country do but call for world opinion to rally to his side? There were bases scattered through the whole of Georgia and the autonomous republics, and the mighty Russian Black Sea fleet just a few hours away.

The Soviet Union was liquidated three months after the coup failure. The republics announced they were joining a “Commonwealth of Independent States” which was to be the successor to the USSR. Obviously it has not become one, but the West was eager for weapons, especially nuclear weapons, to remain under central control, and that meant under Moscow’s control. So the only republics which did not join the CIS – again, the Baltics and Georgia – were chastised. US Secretary of State James Baker singled out Georgia as a country which would not receive aid because its government was “authoritarian”. President George Bush called Gamsakhurdia “a man who has been going against the tide”. He was speaking of the same man that the United States Congress in 1978 proposed a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Already in Georgia several groups were taking advantage of the chaos of the hasty independence to seize local control. Gamsakhurdia sacked some local leaders who he said were leading mutinies. But it all escaped his grasp so quickly. Within weeks of the coup a religious group, the Mkhedrioni had turned into a paramilitary formation led by a convicted murderer. How did they acquire weapons so quickly? It took the Croatians and Slovenes months of planning to arm themselves covertly for war against Serbia, but the Mkhedrioni and other groups appeared fully armed overnight.

On 22 December, 1991, Gamsakhurdia was facing an insurrection. The Mkhedrioni leader was freed from prison where he had been waiting for trial. Gamsakhurdia and his cabinet hid in a bunker beneath parliament, defended by loyalist troops. In the battle the city of Tbilisi was damaged, and the war continued in the capital until Gamsakhurdia and his followers fled on 6 January, 1992. The putsch was successful, and Gamsakhurdia’s term of office lasted only seven months.

With their leader too unsavory to become president, the Mkhedrioni invited the most famous Georgian besides Gamsakhurdia, Edvard Shevardnadze, to lead the country. We in Europe watched in dismay as the former Communist boss replaced the man he had jailed, whose friends he had beaten and murdered for more than twenty years in power. It worked, though, because Shevardnadze was recognized, even after a Bolshevik style ballot on which he ran without opposition, as the one and only choice of the narod.
ZVIAD FLED, FIRST TO Armenia and then to Chechnya. He became a guest of Chechnya’s rebel president Dzhokhar Dudayev, who was not yet facing Russian tanks himself. He was unable to travel anywhere else.

If he wanted to get away with everything, if he wanted to put a legitimate gloss on seizing power in a coup, Shevardnadze only had one option, which was to portray his predecessor as a dangerous man, possibly even a disciple of Hitler. So the myth of “Gamsakhurdia the Tyrant” spread. Western as well as Russian newspapers called Zviad an “ultranationalist” (Zviad certainly escalated war in South Ossetia, but Shevardnadze lost both Ossetia and Abkhazia, possibly forever, and the latter was entirely his own doing). They also disgustingly questioned whether or not he had been given secret psychiatric operations in Moscow when a prisoner. It was an outrageous provocation. Shevardnadze said that Gamsakhurdia was funding an insurrection in Georgia, though not even gullible journalists bought that. Shevardnadze’s friends called him a “democrat” though he was a convinced communist who had overthrown a democrat.

Everyone saw who Zviad’s main supporters were, and they were peasants, people with pride. These were quickly sized up as the new regime’s enemies. The Mkhedrioni unleashed a firestorm in the west of Georgia, so brutal that the people finally rose up and threw them out. In September of 1993, Gamsakhurdia left Chechnya for Georgia. He set up in the west of Georgia among his supporters, but he had nothing like a real army to defend his old/new regime. When the Mkhedrioni entered Zugdudi, Gamsakhurdia was on the run again. He was hunted, by an enemy more fearsome than the communists.

He was hunted by ex-communists.

On New Years Eve, 1993, the body of Zviad Gamsakhurdia was found on a roadside in Tsalenjikha, western Georgia. He had suffered a bullet hole to the head. And though Shevardnadze could not conceal his excitement, he said that it was “obviously a self-inflicted end” for Zviad Gamsakhurdia. Just recently, his top security advisor was implicated in the assassination of several opponents, including Gamsakhurdia, and in turn killed himself.

There were no witnesses to the death of Zviad Gamsakhurdia. This was a poet who had given everything, who had dedicated his life to free Georgia since he was a boy, who could have gone on to a good life as the son of a famous man without lifting a finger, but who had to, in the end, try to live with himself – the struggle for the creature known as man, who can dull but not deaden his gift of conscience.

No poet, no dissident, has died in such a tragic way as my friend, Zviad Gamsakhurdia. Learn from him.



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