The Penguin History of Modern Russia, By Robert Service

For the greatest drama of the 20th century, no country comes close to Russia. Oxford's Professor of Russian History tells this epic story with clarity and objectivity. He starts by toppling the revolution's protagonists. "Lenin believed that overkilling was better... than being overthrown."

Trotsky was "proud of his ruthlessness [and] eulogised mass terror." But Stalin outdid both. Contrary to the current legal action of his grandson, who wants a Moscow court to assert that Stalin was not personally involved in murder, Service notes that "his self-assigned chore was to append a number" to the names of important arrested persons. "1" meant execution, "2" indicated 10 years in the camps. Service's epic narrative combines such telling details into a masterly work.