THE FACE OF a clown, seen close-to, can be rather frightening, remarked Arthur Koestler. In October 1962, the world nearly came to an end: Khrushchev provoked the Americans, at nuclear level, over Cuba. He, and to an extent they, backed down, but there were a few days of exceehngly high tension, and American planes were put in such a state of readiness that one press of the button would have set off the 'mutually assured destruction' (MAD) whose threat dictated thermo-nuclear strategy. William Taubman's chapter on the Cuban Missile Crisis is, incidentally, the best in a very good book - it is a piece of literary craftsmanship as well as scholarship. Did Khrushchev take a sober view of it all? He hd not offer any regrets, and told the Central Committee: 'It was not necessary to act like the czarist officer who farted at the ball and then shot himself.' A clown, but a sinister one - for some reason a recurring figure in Russian history, from Peter the Great's sodden parodies of Orthodox liturgy straight through to Zhirinovsky.
The clowning is well described in Taubman's book. Again and again, at moments of desperate seriousness, that side of Khrushchev would come out - for instance, the famous occasion at the United Nations when he banged his shoe on the table in protest at anti-soviet remarks being made from the