Here, Ulam, author of numerous nonfiction works on the Soviet Union (Dangerous Relations, Russia's Failed Revolutions, etc.), writes an ambitious if somewhat leaden first novel about the brilliant career of a Soviet politician, whose instinct for survival allows him to negotiate the shifting tides of power for decades in pursuit of the country's top job. In 1982, Mikhail Kondratiev is tiding high. He's head of the Soviet delegation to the Geneva arms-control talks, one of three Politboro members talked about as a possible successor to the aging General Secretary, Konstantin Leontiev (read Brezhnev). But Kondratiev's ascent has been a tricky one. Present in 1934 when Sergei Kirov, then boss of Leningrad, was murdered, Kondratiev was imprisoned and forced to sign a false accusation of the seven men who had already been executed for the crime. Despite his role in the incident that marked the beginning of Stalin's purges, Kondratiev's management-smarts and his uncanny instinct for flattery won him favor with the dictator. He held plum industrial management jobs, associated himself early on with Khrushchev, then established himself as a voice of reason in the inner circle. But as the succession fight nears, Kondratiev's rivals scrounge for weaknesses that will snap the front-runner's string of luck and judgment. Ulam's inside-the-Kremlin vantage point allows him a speculative romp through all the major events in Soviet history: he sketches out a dizzying cast, and literally talks them through almost 50 years of decisions. Unfortunately, all this verbosity informs at the expense of action and surprise. Without characters who grab or a heated-up pace, this Greatest Hits of History is earnestly rendered, but hardly compelling.