Why Soviet dissidents won't kindle a revolution; Russia's Failed Revolutions: From the Decembrists to the Dissidents, by Adam B. Ulam. New York: Basic Books. $18.95.

By , Karen Steinberg is a free lance writer

Writing of the Decembrists, the early 19th-century Russian revolutionaries whose attempts to upset the monarchy ended in failure, Adam Ulam notes that paradoxically "patriotism drove them toward revolution, [yet] patriotism kept them from carrying it out."

It is the theme of Russian nationalism and its crucial importance to the history of the various abortive efforts within Russian society to overcome intellectually and politically repressive regimes that is Ulam's concern in "Russia's Failed Revolutions: From the Decembrists to the Dissidents."

Ulam, author of "Stalin: the Man and His Era" and "The Unfinished Revolution, " traces the history of Russia's revolutionary activity in light of his intriguing thesis.

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Beginning with the Decembrists and proceeding to the rumblings among the intelligentsia in the mid-19th century, the 1905 revolution, the 1917 revolution , and, finally, the dissident movement in the Soviet Union today, Ulam argues convincingly that time and again it has been a deep sense of nationalism -- the desire to further Russia's unity and greatness, even at the cost of one's personal freedom -- that has thwarted the revolutionary movements in Russia for almost 200 years.

While each of the various revolutionary movements is treated quite thoroughly in the book, the early chapters, which examine 19th-century activism, seem to lack a certain continuity and cohesion. In fact, three-fourths of the book is devoted to 20th-century revolutionary activity, and (not surprisingly) it is here that Ulam's text comes into its own.

His discussion of the 1905 revolutionaries is engrossing, clearly demonstrating that no matter what group they belonged to and what revolutionary methods they employed, the activists of this period were unable to fully envision a new government without the Czar, who "was for them still the only legitimated source of authority, and hence the only conceivable instrument of the country's political transformation."

Fear of the dissolution of the Russian state resulting from a revolutionary upset hindered these activists in the attainment of their ambiguous and conflict-ridden goals.

It was only when the monarchy's cause appeared different from that of the nation that the czarist government, according to Ulam, lost its appearance of political legitimacy, and it was only then that the revolutionaries could bypass the monarchic authority, rather than seek reform within its boundaries.

With the climax of the 1917 revolution, Ulam argues, the Communist rulers (much like their czarist predecessors) legitimized themselves through their power and successfully convinced Soviet citizens to accept this national power as a substitute for freedom. Thus, the nationalism of prerevolutionary Russia became Soviet patriotism following the revolution: The two are one and the same and fulfill identical yearnings and fears on the part of the Russian people.

Perhaps the most interesting secting of "Russia's Failed Revolutions" is the conclusion, in which Ulam discusses recent dissident activity and speculates on the future and outcomes of such activity in the Soviet Union. Commenting that it has been under communism that the Soviet Union has made its greatest strides in world power and influence, while modern democracies, despite their intellectual and political freedoms, appear to be on the wane in these respects, Ulam postulates that it is by allying itself with the national interest that the Soviet autocratic regime has tried to withstand pressures for liberalization. It is, therefore, Soviet citizens themselves who must be convinced that power and progress go hand in hand with democracy and freedom, that these latter ideals do not, instead, lead to social, political, and spiritual decline.

Ulam's disturbing conclusion to this provocative book is that it is "the worldwide reputation of freedom" that will determine the future of freedom in Russia. We are left wondering whether the course of freedom in the Soviet Union will, ultimately, determine the future in our precariously balanced free world.

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