After his lyrical literary debut (Leaving Losapas, 1991), Merullo ventures into more commercial territory--in a highbrow thriller set during Russia's 1991 ``undeclared civil war.'' Based on an intimate knowledge of the Soviet Union, Merullo's timely and intriguing narrative juxtaposes the careers of two bureaucrats--both decent, ordinary men who find themselves acting heroically after years of mistakes and compromises. Approaching 50, Anton Czesich, an American descended partly from Russian immigrants, has followed a safe course as a diplomat in the information services. But his personal life's a mess--a failed marriage, and a gay son who hates him. His latest assignment (to oversee food-relief efforts in the ``Stalinist backwater'' of Vostok) reunites him with his former lover, a fellow diplomat stationed in Moscow. But the State Department, afraid of becoming too embroiled in Russia's internal affairs, throws a wrench into the works and postpones the food delivery. Czesich takes things into his own hands, hoping to bring off ``the command performance in a career of consummate bullshitting.'' In Vostok without authorization, Czesich eventually joins with Sergei Propenko, a midlevel Party functionary who's being used as a pawn between Moscow's Yeltsinites and local Party loyalists, who are disgusted with the notion of US aid. Where Czesich hopes to fulfill some vague 60's-ish pledge to change the world, Propenko acts bravely to restore himself in his family's eyes. His daughter, Lydia, is a follower of the radical priest Father Alexei, who leads local strikes against the Party. Things play themselves out with intensity and credibility, culminating in an act of stunning heroism. A moving novel--with great cinematic potential--that brilliantly captures the historically tense moment of Russia on the verge of freedom, just before the attempted coup and the Party's last gasps.