Power politics in the Politburo

The Kirov Affair, by Adam Ulam. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 404 pp. $19.95. For a behind-the-walls tour of the Kremlin, one couldn't ask for a more articulate guide than Adam Ulam. As director of Harvard's Russian Research Center, author of 16 nonfiction books about the Soviet Union, and adviser to US presidents, Ulam has spent his professional life interpreting the Soviet psyche and soul for Western audiences.

With ``The Kirov Affair'' Ulam makes an entertaining fiction debut. The novel takes off from a factual flash point in Soviet history - the death in 1934 of Sergei Kirov, a member of the ruling Politburo and intimate of Joseph Stalin.

Although the circumstances surrounding Kirov's death have never been made public (was it murder or was it suicide?), the execution of his alleged assassins signaled the start of the horrendous mass purges of the 1930s.

Through the eyes of Ulam's charming protagonist, 70-year-old Mikhail Kondratiev, the reader relives the ``years of terror,'' rides a roller coaster of suspicion and distrust through the Khrushchev era, and finally emerges into a more open 1982.

A Politburo member who was present on the night of Kirov's death and who now has his sights set on the powerful office of general secretary, Kondratiev is a likable survivor, a progressive thinker who dreams of dissolving the KGB and helping to ``restore the system to what Lenin and Stalin meant it to be.''

Like most first novels, this one has its rough edges. The conversations that carry the bulk of the narrative are often stilted and overwritten, it's hard to remember the Russian names without a Berlitz guide, and the time shifts between chapters can be jolting. There's not a lot of suspense, and the ending is somewhat inconclusive.

So why stick it out for 400 pages? Because in this summer of carefully orchestrated nominating conventions, this novel tells it like it really is in superpower politics. As the author takes readers behind closed Politburo doors for a glimpse of Stalin ``smiling mischievously at Beria'' or plunges into Central Committee wranglings over scenarios for Afghanistan and Central America, he shares his fascination with the policymaking processes.

It's an intriguing synopsis of Soviet history that also touches on the Russian people's deep spiritual impulses and their concern for national security. Good background reading for the next Geneva-bound arms-control delegation.

Diane Manuel is a free-lance book reviewer.

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