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.