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Why Soviet dissidents won't kindle a revolution; Russia's Failed Revolutions: From the Decembrists to the Dissidents, by Adam B. Ulam. New York: Basic Books. $18.95.

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Writing of the Decembrists, the early 19th-century Russian revolutionaries whose attempts to upset the monarchy ended in failure, Adam Ulam notes that paradoxically "patriotism drove them toward revolution, [yet] patriotism kept them from carrying it out."

It is the theme of Russian nationalism and its crucial importance to the history of the various abortive efforts within Russian society to overcome intellectually and politically repressive regimes that is Ulam's concern in "Russia's Failed Revolutions: From the Decembrists to the Dissidents."

Ulam, author of "Stalin: the Man and His Era" and "The Unfinished Revolution, " traces the history of Russia's revolutionary activity in light of his intriguing thesis.

Beginning with the Decembrists and proceeding to the rumblings among the intelligentsia in the mid-19th century, the 1905 revolution, the 1917 revolution , and, finally, the dissident movement in the Soviet Union today, Ulam argues convincingly that time and again it has been a deep sense of nationalism -- the desire to further Russia's unity and greatness, even at the cost of one's personal freedom -- that has thwarted the revolutionary movements in Russia for almost 200 years.

While each of the various revolutionary movements is treated quite thoroughly in the book, the early chapters, which examine 19th-century activism, seem to lack a certain continuity and cohesion. In fact, three-fourths of the book is devoted to 20th-century revolutionary activity, and (not surprisingly) it is here that Ulam's text comes into its own.

His discussion of the 1905 revolutionaries is engrossing, clearly demonstrating that no matter what group they belonged to and what revolutionary methods they employed, the activists of this period were unable to fully envision a new government without the Czar, who "was for them still the only legitimated source of authority, and hence the only conceivable instrument of the country's political transformation."

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