Theodore White's you-are-there journalism makes its Soviet debut in this gripping account of the last years of the Soviet Union. Dobbs, Washington Post bureau chief in Moscow from 1988 to 1993, turns his own experiences as well as interviews with some of the major participants and the increasingly frank memoirs flooding out of Moscow to good account in reconstructing almost novelistic scenes from the decline. These include his own experience as the first US newsman allowed into the Gdansk shipyard and his presence on the scene when Yeltsin made his famous speech from a tank. He has a novelist's eye for telling detail: the table designed for negotiations in Warsaw ``providing a safety margin of three feet over and above the world's longest-recorded spitting distance''; the carpet to the Central Committee headquarters in Moscow as a guide to power, gliding past the offices of ordinary apparatchiks but making right-angle detours into the suites of top leaders; the supermarket in Houston that amazed and depressed Yeltsin--the Soviet group had scarcely recovered from the shock of the cheese section when they were ``literally shaken'' by the quality of produce in the vegetable section. ``They had to fool the people,'' Yeltsin told an aide, ``It is now clear why they made it so difficult for the average Soviet citizen to go abroad.'' Dobbs's epilogue is an excellent summation of Gorbachev's importance as ``the Communist who dismantled Communism, the reformer who is overtaken by his won reforms, the emperor who allows the world's last great multinational empire to break apart.'' The paradox is, he concludes, that by seeking to reinvigorate the Communist system, Gorbachev succeeded in destroying it. Dobbs succumbs to the temptation of using material derived from his time in Yugoslavia, which does not really fit into his overall theme, and his book is not as profound as David Remnick's Lenin's Tomb, but is well written and highly illuminating.