IT HAS BECOME something of a habit in recent years to refer to the current Soviet system as "fascist," presumably and wrongly, in my opinion) to suggest that what had at one time been regarded as an illegitimate child of 19th-century socialist ideas has now reached its ultimate state of degeneration. The Russian Fascists, however, is not about Russian Communists, but about a handful of emigres --never more than 10,000 -- who for two decades combined fascist rhetoric and ideology with fierce Russian nationalism in a quixotic crusade against the Soviet regime.

Essentially, John Stephan's book is about two men -- Konstantin Vladimirovich Rodzaevsky, and Anastase Andreivich Vonsiatsky. The first born in Siberia, left his parental home at the age of 18, and made his way to Harbin, Manchuria. Restless, vain, ambitous and vengeful, Rodzaevsky could not have found a more hospitable climate for his activities: Harbin was teeming with Russian emigres, most of whom cordially detested Russia's new rulers.

Rodzaevsky's political ideas were largely visceral: he hated the Jews, he professed to abhor "the chaos and decadence of capitalism and liberalism" no less than communism, and he was drawn to the messianic strands in Russian Orthodoxy. He also admired Mussolini's idea of a "corporate state," but it was primarily the notion of a powerful, authoritarian, regenerated and Judenrein Russia with which he appealed to his would-be followers.

During the 1930s, his Russian Fascist Party (later known as the All-Russian Fascist Party and then as the Russian Fascist Union) gave its members uniforms, newspapers, parades (replete with the Nazi hand-raised salute), songs, a taste of extortionism -- as well as a gnawing sense of futility. After the Japanese occupied Manchuria in 1931, Rodzaevsky and his cohorts became little more than the pawns of the Japanese Army and secret police, which used them as instruments of control over the entire Russian emigre community. If there had been any doubts about how the Russian fascists were dependent on the whims of their Japanese masters, the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939 put them firmly to rest. Rodzaevsky and his party were, of course, shattered to find Germany allied with its arch-enemy -- communism and "world-Jewry" (which to the fascists were one and the same thing). But their protectors in Manchukuo gave them little comfort, too: while Germany was adhering to an alliance "cemented in blood" (Molotov's words),. Japan was turning most of its attention to South-East Asia.

Hitler's attack on Russia in June 1941 seemed, at first, to presage a change in the fortunes of the Harbin fascists, who delighted in the early defeats of the Red Army. They also helped to recruit Russian emigres for the Japanese Army's "undeclared war" against the Soviet Union, which had been waged fitfully since the late 1930s. What the Russian fascists were loath to recognize, however, was that there was no room in Hitler's plans for a "national Russian state"; the Slavs, like the Jews, were Untermenschen. Moreover, as far as most Russian emigres were concerned, Hitler's armies were slaughtering Russians and ravaging their country. The wave of pro-Soviet (that is to say, essentially patriotic) sentiments that swept the Russian emigre communities finally engulfed the vozhd (leader) himself.

The Soviet blitzkrieg against Japan in August 1945 threw Rodzaevsky into (as he put it) "a spiritual crisis." He wrote an extraordinary letter to Stalin in which he confessed his past mistakes, the biggest of which was his failure to recognize that Stalinism was the ideal embodiment and realization of "our Russian fascism." Ludicrously vain to the end, he offered his services to the super-vozhd. The Soviets accepted his offer and a year later after a typical Moscow Trial, Rodzaevsky and a number of other emlgres were executed in the cellars of the Lubianka.

The other protagonist of Stephan's book, Anastase Vonsiatsky, had much in common with Rodzaevsky, but also differed from him in several essential respects. While Rodzaevsky was consumed by murky passions, Vonsiatsky was interested largely in showmanship --The son of a tsarist colonel, he participated in the Russian civil war, made his way to Paris, where in 1921 a wealthy American divorcee, twice his age, took a fancy to and married him. Ensconced in a bucolic estate in Connecticut, and with large numbers of dollars at his disposal, Vonsiatsky gave free rein to his penchants, which ranged from golf and amateur theatricals to politics. Much like his compatriot in Harbin, Vonsiatsky was attracted to the military, nationalist and antiliberal aspects of fascism; unlike Rodzaevsky, however, he would have no truck with anti-Semitism. As Stephan puts it: "Vonsiatsky paid little attention to dogma . . . The most important thing was to get the show on the road."

The "show" was the All-Russian Fascist Organization, which Vonsiatsky and a few fellow-emigres founded in 1933. The "organization" was in fact no more than a figment of Vonsiatsky's imagination; it never numbered more than perhaps a few hundred members. But so generous was his doting wife, that Vonsiatsky was able to publish a monthly journal (called Fashist ), issue electrifying and altogether mendacious claims about the successes of his "disciples" in Russia, and prompt Rodzaevsky to bring him to Harbin to head a unified worldwide Russian fascist party. The honeymoon between the two vozhds lasted a mere six months. Back on his Connecticut estate, Vonsiatsky surrendered himself more and more to his fantasies, giving interviews and staging parties at which he drunkenly declaimed fiery speeches about the forthcoming "fascist revolution."

No wonder his antics finally led to suspicions, fanned as much by an American anti-Nazi congressman as by a pro-Stalinist hack, Albert E. Kahn, who in a book published in 1942 luridly portrayed Vonsiatsky as a confidant of Goebbels, a consummate Nazi spy and a dedicated ally of the American German Bund. With America engaged in a war against fascism, such charges --however inflated -- were bound to fall on fertile soil. In June 1942, Vonsiatsky was tried for esplonage. Although the evidence was threadbare and the prosecutor little more than an ambitious (and illiterate) politician, Vonsiatsky was found guilty and sentenced to five years imprisonment. His worst enemy, it seems clear, was his own braggadocio. Released from prison in 1947, he spent his last years -- now a, convinced monarchist -- in Florida, reminiscing about his past, raising a son (from a common-low marriage to a woman he met shortly after he regained freedom) and occasionally courting the press. He died in 1965.

John Stephan, a professor of history at the University of Hawaii, writes with wit, irony, elan and with a remarkable grasp of the material which he has unearthed from Japanese, German, British and American sources. His book might perhaps be regarded as a splendid example of "mini-history," but its implications are fascinating. Among them are the curious similarities between Stalinism and fascism (including even a Rodzaevsky "three-year plan" to bring about the downfall of the USSR), and the disturbing parallel between the use of nationalist-religious symbols by Russian fascist groups in the 1930s and by various Russian emigre groups today. As a more-or-less coherent ideology, fascism, of course, is dead.But the passions which nurtured it -- aversion to liberalism and democracy, shrill nationalism, anti-Semitism and religious messianism -- are, if anything, on the increase both within the Soviet Union and among Russian emigres throughout the world. Perhaps one of these days Professor Stephan will consider writing a sequel to The Russian Fascists . He is clearly the man to do it.