In Russia, Rybakov (Heavy Sand, 1981) has only recently been allowed to publish this sprawling book about the beginning days of Stalin's terror. The novel has a double focus, first on a microcosm--the story (autobiographical) of the arrest and exile of a young Komsomol from the Arbat section of Moscow, the intellectual, cultural heart of the city--and then on a macrocosm: the thought processes that go on in Stalin's mind as he sets out to destroy any possible enemy he perceives he has in the Politburo. The former is fitfully interesting: Sasha Pankratov, the young man, is connected through family and friends to high officials in the government, and well-limned are the shock-waves of defensiveness and exaggerated prudence that go through the well-placed when anyone remotely involved with them has been touched by the plague of NKVD disapproval. All Sasha's friends, young people of vivacity and brains, too quickly are shuffled into the either/or queues of the informing or the informed-on. But what must be genuinely shocking to the Russians about this book are the sections dealing with Stalin's machinations. ""Machiavellian"" is too weak an adjective: paranoid, brilliant, nightmarish come closer. Stalin's presence in this old-fashioned naturalistic book is air-robbing--he fills it like an evil gas, and the sense of doom he wafts, a true anti-Christ, is very impressive. For the historically knowledgeable, then, the book has weight and force. It's not great novelizing, unlike Solzshenitsyn, but it is first-rate chronicling.