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Gorbachev : A BIOGRAPHY by Thomas G. Butson (Stein & Day: $14.95; 170 pp.)

July 28, 1985|Jack Burby | Burby is assistant editor of The Times' editorial pages.

On Page 37 of "Gorbachev," subtitled "A Biography," the reader discovers that Mikhail S. Gorbachev, general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, was once a yuppie.

It happened in 1970, and the author presents his evidence in one paragraph, as follows:

"By this time, Michael and Raisa Gorbachev had a baby, a daughter, Irina. Gorbachev was with his political and administrative duties. Raisa was a primary school teacher in Stavropol. They needed help to look after the child and the home; so sympathetic friends helped them find a housekeeper; they were like any other upwardly mobile young couple."

Pretty skimpy stuff, but--by comparison with the rest of this work about the the head man in the Kremlin--rich in detail. "Gorbachev" is obviously drawn largely from clippings from various journals, papered over by a few interviews and turned loose in the book market to make it on its name alone. Even there, the reader is shortchanged because the book does not mention Gorbachev's middle initial.

The book is less biography than it is description, in no great detail, of the houses and trees around a street intersection, interspersed with rumors that Gorbachev had once been seen in the neighborhood.

There is, for example, a long passage about a meeting of the Soviet Central Committee on the subject of land reclamation that Gorbachev may or may not have attended. The decision reached at the meeting, we read, surely would have gladdened the heart of "someone who, as a youth, had spent some chilly days fighting the weather on a cabless combine near Stavropol."

The bulk of the judgments about Gorbachev's personality and likely approach to running his country seems to come from the impressions of people who met him during a tour of Canada in 1983 and a tour of Great Britain the next year, both stretched so thin that if they were rubber bands they would snap.

He "seems to delight in new surroundings," Thomas Butson advises. He stunned his hosts at dinner in a restaurant atop the CN tower in Toronto by knowing that it was 20 meters taller than Moscow's television tower.

To be fair to the writer, the Soviet system does not encourage dissemination of the kind of information that would make it possible to produce a book that would back up the claim implied in its title. To be fair to the reader, Butson should simply have announced that, when the system changed, he would write a proper biography of Gorbachev.

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