A Polish journalist (The Soccer War, 1991, etc.) who has written extensively on the Third World turns a discriminating eye on the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Russia, showing once again that Russia is ""a country utterly without precedent."" The book is based partly on his boyhood experiences of the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939, partly on his travels (particularly in the period of decline and disintegration, 1989-91), and partly on his reflections. He brings a sharp perspective even to well-traveled routes: the customs officer sifting with meticulous care through sack after sack of grain, spread out on his table, to see that nothing has been concealed; the death camps of Kolyma, where three million people died, today displaying only the ""rusty carcasses of ships, rotting watchtowers, deep holes from which some kind of ore was once extracted""; the swimming pool where once stood the Temple of Christ the Savior, 30 stories high, which was built with exquisite care by successive czars to commemorate the defeat of Napoleon and which was demolished by Stalin. Kapuciski's political judgments are also fresh: He notes acidly that not one American political scientist predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union, and that some indeed saw it as a model system. Nor does he believe that Gorbachev brought about the break-up of a flourishing USSR, but just the opposite; the USSR had been disintegrating for a long time, and Gorbachev extended its life for as long as possible. It has left a heritage of poverty, deep memories of terror, staggering demoralization, and ecological disaster. The author's prognosis is not reassuring: He quotes Nicholas driving bis troika over the fields in Tolstoy's War and Peace, ""Heaven only knows where we are going, and heaven knows what is happening to us."" Sensitive and searching.