A remarkable and unique insight into the character and history of the seven leaders whose careers spanned the birth and death of the Soviet Union. Unique because Volkogonov (Stalin, 1991; Trotsky, 1996) was himself a Marxist-Leninist, rose to a position where he had unparalleled access to the most secret archives, and, in part because of that access, ``after a long and tortuous inner struggle'' was able to free himself of ``the chimera of Bolshevik orthodoxy.'' He uses those archives to great effect, in the process considerably changing the judgment he rendered on Lenin in his earlier biography to emphasize those aspects of his rule which foreshadowed Stalin: his preoccupation with secrecy, his savage attacks on democracy, his total unconcern with human life, and even his readiness to give secret privileges to the party elite. Volkogonov has less that is new to say about Stalin, though he quotes the notes made by that dictator in editing his own biography to inflate his own achievements. Between 1929 and 1953, Volkogonov notes, the state deprived 21 million Russians of their lives: ``No one in history has ever waged such war on his own people.'' The archives produce some extraordinary material about his successors: letters of imprisoned security chief Beria from prison to Malenkov and the other leaders; transcripts of discussions between Khrushchev and Mao about Stalin; and the discussion in the Praesidium about the shooting down of the South Korean airliner. His judgments on them are nuanced: Khrushchev and Gorbachev courageous but unable to free themselves from Leninist orthodoxy; Brezhnev in some ways ``the good tsar'' but the prisoner of his hard-liners; Andropov talented but without new ideas; Chernenko a pathetic figure who underlined the extent to which the whole system had crumbled. A remarkable book, the autopsy of a system that killed more people than any in history, with the possible exception of its Chinese counterpart.