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The tragedy of Bukharin was the tragedy of millions of dedicated communists. They were devoured by the system they had created to control others. Although Bukharin seemed genuinely horrified by the Ukrainian famine, he stood for several years at the pinnacle of power in the Soviet Union, which was born, forged and sustained in blood. He could scarce disclaim responsibility for the consequences.

Moreover, notes Mr. Gregory:

Bukharin was not a saint. He was content to use Stalin’s control of the party machinery to defeat his own ideological enemies, but he protested indignantly when Stalin turned the same weapon on him. As he saw himself losing to Stalin, he began to grovel and tried effusive flattery. He deserted colleagues and friends alike to demonstrate his obeisance to the Master. When innocents were condemned, Bukharin pretended that he, too, believed in their guilt. His confession was full of names of friends and colleagues - a virtual death sentence for them.”

Still, it is impossible not to feel at least a twinge of sadness when finishing “Politics, Murder, and Love in Stalin’s Kremlin.” Perhaps not at Bukharin’s fate, but certainly at that of his family and so many others who did nothing to deserve the horrors visited upon them.

Moreover, what if Bukharin had prevailed over Stalin? No brutal Ukrainian collectivization and mindless terror. Perhaps a less aggressive and threatening Soviet foreign policy. Probably no pact with Adolf Hitler. Presumably no Cold War.

The story of Nikolai Bukharin presents a fascinating mix of selfless love and selfish ambition. In presenting this tale, Mr. Gregory teaches about both history and life. Perhaps the most important lesson is to remind us how lucky we are to live in a country where the price of political failure is not death.

Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, is the author of “Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire” (Xulon).