BOOK REVIEW / Questions and answers from a self-styled hero: 'The Struggle for Russia' - Ruslan Khasbulatov ed Richard Sakwa: Routledge, 19.99 pounds

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THIS was so nearly the right book at the right time. Had Boris Yeltsin not won his vote of confidence in the recent referendum, The Struggle for Russia would have offered the English-speaking world a key if not to Russia's new leader, then to the man responsible for the president's fall.

Routledge brought forward publication, apparently with these eventualities in mind. But the gamble did not pay off, and the fact that it was made at all suggests the first thing that is wrong with this generally misconceived book. Ruslan Khasbulatov is not a potential leader of Russia. Nor is he a king-maker, nor even a king-breaker - nor was he ever.

Edward Sakwa makes the point in his introduction that the Khasbulatov-Yeltsin conflict was 'more than a struggle between personalities; it reflected a profound debate over the nature of power in post-communist Russia'. This is true, and it cannot be stated too strongly that what is going on in Russia is a genuine constitutional struggle that deserves to be treated as such, not sold to us as a clash between titans.

The structure of this book (and, regrettably, the number of misprints) suggests both the haste in which it was put together and the paucity of primary sources. The first part consists of edited interviews with Khasbulatov, reproduced in that infuriating question and answer form so beloved of Soviet text books. The questions are wooden and Soviet- style as well - try, for example, 'How is the nature of ownership applied in this country?' or 'The public blame the government for their woes, is the government alone responsible?' Nor does the editing make sufficiently clear either the sequence of events or the timing of the political controversies. Aside from offering a mini-autobiography of Khasbulatov (North Caucasian boy made good, adapts to open society), what purpose do the interviews serve? The main issues - Soviet economic reform, Gorbachev's attempt to keep the Soviet Union together with a Union Treaty - are dead, and Khasbulatov does little to illuminate them for future historians.

The second part, Khasbulatov's account of the three-day coup in August 1991, produces the most engaging narrative, and some judicious embellishing of history as the chairman of the Russian parliament tries to place himself unequivocally among the heroic Yeltsinites. 'During those difficult days, to be frank,' he writes, 'I only considered my duty as head of the Russian parliament, my honour . . . I reckoned I had to unite president and parliament into a strong force of resistance, and so the coup d'etat in the Soviet Union was suppressed.' All in all, none of this adds substantially to what has already been disclosed about the coup and its aftermath.

The third section provides, perhaps, the single justification for buying this book, though its contents are bound to be of more interest to specialists than to general readers. It is an exposition - handicapped, alas, by an inelegant and occasionally impenetrable translation - of Khasbulatov's thinking on the state system of Russia in its first year as an independent post-communist state.

Contrary to what we sometimes read, the chairman of the Russian parliament has a clear and well-informed idea of how he would like the new Russia to be organised. This is not the view of someone with authoritarian tendencies, but the view of a parliamentarian, who believes that power should reside with elected representatives.

To be sure, Khasbulatov's political priorities diverge from those of Boris Yeltsin: he wants slower economic reform, more attention (and more money) paid to social issues, and more social equality. But there is no evidence whatsoever that he is a closet communist or anything other than an aspiring democrat.

If this strange volume does nothing more than set the record straight about Khasbulatov and about the sophistication of the constitutional debate currently under way in Russia, it will have served a purpose. Though not, perhaps, the attention-grabbing purpose it was aiming for.