An illuminating, interpretive report on Mikhail Gorbachev's exercise of power, which concludes that his reforms may do more to expose than remedy the deficiencies of the Soviet Union's sociopolitical and economic institutions. Kaiser (co-author, Russia from the Inside, 1980, etc.) grapples with an intriguing paradox throughout his highly personal text. In brief, he seeks to explain how a lifelong Communist and upwardly mobile Party official could evolve from a modest progressive into a revolutionary chieftain who unleashed forces he seems unable to control. Unlike Gail Sheehy in The Man Who Changed the World (1990), Kaiser accords Gorbachev's provincial youth and early manhood comparatively short shrift, focusing mainly on his subject's dramatic career after he had climbed the Kremlin's slippery pole early in 1985. Among the more important reasons for Gorbachev's ascent, Kaiser believes, was the old guard's realization that the Soviet system had failed, making radical change from an apparatchik acceptable, even alluring. At the top, though, Gorbachev showed himself a leader with a sense of direction and a tactician's opportunism, albeit with no detailed plans for achieving his goals--a lack with far-reaching consequences. By Kaiser's account, for instance, the first summit with Reagan made Gorbachev a hostage to his own good behavior, i.e., by precluding any possibility of a crackdown inside the USSR's crumbling empire. As one result, Eastern European satellites gained their freedom, setting an example the Baltic republics are trying to follow. Their challenge to authority has precipitated an abrupt reversal of the Politburo's brief fling with democratic ideals--at no small cost to Gorbachev's global prestige. While his fate and that of the aspirations he encouraged remain very open questions, Kaiser notes that Gorbachev never eliminated the governance mechanisms that make dictatorship possible. A savvy, closely reasoned appraisal of an embattled kingpin who has been overtaken by events he initiated.