MOSCOW — Assailed by his Communist comrades for his words and deeds, Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze on Saturday gave an impassioned public defense of the Soviet people in what he called his "tragic" generation, saying that his only mistake was having been born during the times of dictator Josef Stalin.
In a moment of high drama at the 28th Communist Party Congress, and a reminder of the long and troubling shadow cast here by history, the normally debonair Georgian was brought before the delegates and made to account for the breakup of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe and the looming disintegration of the Warsaw Pact.
The Kremlin did not lose its allies last year, a finger-wagging Shevardnadze told the audience of nearly 4,700 Communists, but when it invaded Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, Afghanistan in 1979, and when it fell out with China in the 1960s.
"It is not the socialist system that has collapsed but the distorted representation of socialism," the snowy-haired Politburo member declared from the podium.
Though President Mikhail S. Gorbachev later headed off a move to hold Shevardnadze and other Politburo members individually responsible for their deeds in office, the appearance of the 62-year-old foreign minister and some of his peers to answer questions from congress members was a history-making event.
For the first time since the Stalin dictatorship, Kremlin leaders were being asked by lower-ranking Communists to justify their conduct.
For Shevardnadze, despite his 42 years as a party member and five years as Soviet foreign minister, the Saturday afternoon appearance at the congress was a gut-tightening ordeal.
"Everyone who comes to this tribune is tense beyond limits," he told the audience, gathered in the cavernous Kremlin Palace of Congresses.
One delegate, speaking from a microphone placed in the audience, asked Shevardnadze a question that visibly cut him to the quick: Why had he praised the now-discredited President Leonid I. Brezhnev so effusively when Shevardnadze was party leader in Georgia in 1972-85?
"I am pleased this question was asked, because this is the truth," Shevardnadze began, his emotion evident. He acknowledged having lauded Brezhnev at party congresses in 1976 and 1981 but insisted that his record as a crusader against corruption in Georgia at the time also be taken into account.
He cited Gorbachev and Prime Minister Nikolai I. Ryzhkov as witnesses that what he had accomplished in Georgia--including the stamping out of bribery, black-marketeering and protectionism--presaged the perestroika reforms launched after Gorbachev came to power in March, 1985.
"This was the period--and Mikhail Sergeyevich and Nikolai Ivanovich can prove it--when we were starting our experiments," Shevardnadze said, punctuating his argument by gesturing with his right fist. "We were accused at the time of heading toward capitalism. This embraced both industry and agriculture, cities and villages, transport and services, etc.
"I am proud that with the help and support of my comrades, we began this difficult but sacred struggle," said Shevardnadze, who was made a voting member of the Politburo in the early months of Gorbachev's rule and has been one of his closest allies since. "None of us, today's Politburo members, knew then about the most difficult situation that our country was in."
Shevardnadze, like Stalin, is a native of the southern republic of Georgia, and the foreign minister said the dictator who ruled the Soviet Union for 29 years left an indelible trace on him and all the people of his generation.
"Look at us, we are a generation of tragic fate," Shevardnadze said. "I will open my heart to you and say: I had the sin of writing poems when I was a child. One of them I dedicated to Stalin. I was 7 at the time. Believe me, this is the strongest argument against the current minister for foreign affairs!
"We were naive and believed Stalin," he said. "Later, we believed in Khrushchev. I wrote similar praising letters to Khrushchev: 'Dear Nikita Sergeyevich.' "
It was only later, Shevardnadze told the congress, that he learned that Khrushchev sent tanks onto the streets of Tbilisi, Georgia's capital, and that 150 young men had died in an "operation" to put down unrest there.
"Then came Brezhnev and all the rest," Shevardnadze said, looking at his questioner. "Then came you."
"You, comrade delegate, can blame me for having been born in 1928. The current Politburo member had no right to be born in the years of Stalinism, collectivization and blossoming industrialization!" he said.
Shevardnadze's words were an unspoken reminder to many in the audience that they too, from conviction, calculation or fear, had once praised Soviet leaders who are now in disgrace, like Stalin and Brezhnev.