The Lives of Mikhail S. Gorbachev

By Gail Sheehy

HarperCollins. 401 pp. $22.95

After completing this book, you can be satisfied that you will know Gail Sheehy's Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev. What you won't know is whether this is the same Mikhail Gorbachev who, as Sheehy rightly puts it, took over the Soviet Union in 1985 and "changed the world."

Sheehy, who specializes in a kind of psychological profile that may be today's equivalent of phrenology, has (after profiling a pride of major American politicians) tackled the perfect subject. Soviet leaders traditionally come into the limelight without a personal past. The early years are shrouded in layers of state-enforced fog and real, hardball propaganda. Sheehy has done a lot of work interviewing people who knew or half knew or say now that they knew Gorbachev, and has shaped the fog into her version of the man.

To do this, she has filled in many gaps, made many leaps and generally given us an interesting, even entertaining version of Gorbachev that may be real or may be a form of journalistic psycho-projection that is Sheehy's specialty. Thus it is the kind of work that will generate sneers or perhaps even guffaws from a growing number of Soviet experts who haunt most universities, think tanks and news organizations. But while the experts may turn up their noses and demand more historical proof, the masses may appreciate this study as something as delicious and worthy as bubble gum. This is history as told to us by Liz Smith.

The book, which is an expanded version of a Sheehy article in Vanity Fair last February, describes a bright, ambitious young Gorby who enjoyed the company of strong-headed women (his mother and his wife, in particular) and whose father was the Communist Party since his real papa was weak and quiet. Energetic and smart, Gorby learned how to climb the Soviet ladder without alerting the old guard that he was thinking like a heretic.

It is interesting reading, but what is troubling is that in many of the scenes, Sheehy finds much to write about from very little. Take for example the moment when Gorbachev meets British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

"From the moment of his arrival, Gorbachev's body language conveyed a 'coiled energy' of raw power. Thatcher came forward on the steps to greet him, firmly clasped his elbow and moved him into position for photographs."

And then what? They tore off each other's clothes and got right down to a lusty round of bilateral negotiations?

Although Sheehy has indeed interviewed many people for this psycho-profile of Gorbachev, one senses a certain ability to leap from the concrete into the fuzzy ozone. This steamy interpretation of this diplomatic encounter seems to come primarily from a photo opportunity.

But Sheehy's modus operandi is to soar above mere detail, or lack of it. In Gorbachev's rise to power, for example, Sheehy elaborates on such bizarre aspects as what she calls "the diabetes connection": i.e., that two mentors -- Yuri Andropov, who succeeded Brezhnev only to die himself a year later, and Mikhail Suslov, chief party ideologue until his death in 1982, apparently bonded with Gorbachev while he was a young up-and-coming apparatchik, at least partly because they all suffered from diabetes. At the spa in Pyatigorsk, where he apparently hung out occasionally with these Soviet powers, Gorbachev took on the "comforting role of male nurse," Sheehy writes.

In such a manner, the book attempts to tackle the many personalities of Gorbachev and weaves the known and unknown into a startling portrait.

One example of Sheehy's tendency to go for the more unusual aspects of the Gorbachev story is her description of the role played by the birthmark on Gorbachev's forehead -- a mark deemed by superstitious peasants to be the stain of the Devil. She writes of the mark during a particularly stressful period: "It had always been something one noticed, but it didn't compel attention. Now it appeared to have grown and darkened, from wine-colored to purple to almost the color of dried blood, and with the smaller marks falling from the great blotch it almost looked as if his head had cracked open. Evidence of the struggle inside Gorbachev's mind was right there on his forehead."

Huh? Do birthmarks do this? How convenient.

Perhaps the way to read this book is as if it were all said with a conspiratorial cackle over the kitchen table -- with readers and writer oiling the evening with a few swigs of icy vodka and some black-market brown bread. A work for the ages this isn't. But Sheehy has contributed to the lore of the Gorby cult that thrives a good deal more in the West than in the Soviet Union.

The reviewer will be a special correspondent for The Washington Post in Moscow next year.