Shevardnadze's political career has had three stages. The first was his rise to the top of the Georgian Communist Party. He joined the party in 1948, and spent more than a decade in the Communist youth league, known as the Komsomol. In 1956, he became first secretary of the Komsomol. After holding various posts in the Communist Party apparatus in the early 1960s, Shevardnadze became Georgia's deputy minister of internal affairs in 1964 and minister of internal affairs in 1965. In this position, he tried to fight rampant corruption in the republic. Georgian dissidents (including the former dissident Gamsakhurdia) bitterly note that Georgian police imprisoned and tortured them during Shevardnadze's tenure. In 1972, Shevardnadze helped to engineer the dismissal of corrupt party leader Vasily Mzhavanadze and was elected to replace him. In his 13-year tenure as Georgia's leader, Shevardnadze conducted an expanded crackdown on corruption and introduced modest economic reforms that improved Georgia's economic performance. Shevardnadze became a member of the Soviet Communist Party Central Committee in 1976 and a non-voting member of the Soviet Politburo in 1978.
The second stage of Shevardnadze's career came when he was named USSR foreign minister on 1 July 1985, less than four months after Mikhail Gorbachev took power. This announcement came as a surprise to the international community since Shevardnadze had little previous foreign policy experience. Gorbachev and Shevardnadze had known each other since their tenure in the Komsomol in the 1950s. Gorbachev selected Shevardnadze in part because he saw in him many of his own qualities: pragmatism, energy, and a conviction that the Soviet system had become terribly corrupt and required radical reform. Shevardnadze launched the "new thinking" in Soviet foreign policy. This new pragmatic course aimed at reducing the Soviet Union's external burdens to allow domestic reform to succeed. The Soviet Union disengaged itself from costly foreign commitments, like the war in Afghanistan, and pursued a conciliatory line toward the West. After the collapse of the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe in 1989 and the reunification of Germany in 1990, Shevardnadze came under attack from conservatives who accused him of betraying the country. Frustrated by these charges and by Gorbachev's shift toward a conservative domestic policy, Shevardnadze suddenly resigned as foreign minister in December 1990. In his resignation speech, he warned of a "coming dictatorship" in the Soviet Union if Gorbachev did not change course. After the failed Soviet coup in August 1991, which many saw as the fulfillment of Shevardnadze's warning, Gorbachev asked his old friend to resume his post as foreign minister. Shevardnadze at first refused, but in November 1991, he headed the foreign ministry for a few weeks before the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991.