FOURTEEN YEARS after he had faced down the Decembrists' confused conspiracy to deny him Russia's throne, Nicholas I professed a view of himself as more the creature than the master of events. "I have not acted heroically," he told a French visitor in 1839. "I only performed my part: in such circumstances none can tell what he will do or say. We run into danger without previously inquiring how we are to get out of it."

More than becoming modesty, that bit of imperial judgment fits as well on the czar and his heirs as it does on his early foes and most of those who succeeded them in time and in the spasmodic undoing of Russian autocracy. Prisoners of their roles, both the liberals and reactionaries who made what Adam Ulam titles Russia's Failed Revolutions seem predestined to failure. From the Decembrists' "dress rehearsal" in 1825 to Lenin's star turn in 1917, Ulam's key actors enter as Cassius or Brutus only to exit as Rosencrantz or Guildenstern.

Given the circumstances, the repeated instances of fecklessness on both sides of the barricades smack of tragicomic inevitability. The mutineers of 1825 arrived too late on the Senate Square of St. Petersburg to capture their primary target. Their military leaders deserted in panic. The new czar twice countermanded his own order to fire before letting it stand and seeing "a few salvoes of grapeshot" rout his unresisting adversaries.

Some 80 years later the priest who led the protest march that became 1905's Bloody Sunday turned out to be a police agent whose sponsors saw his work in organizing a labor union as building "a firm barrier among the workers." And the "democratic" revolution of 1917 "literally talked itself to death," its liberalism extending -- fatally -- to the protection of Lenin. Even the Bolsheviks couldn't shoot straight. Half their artillery fire fell "far from the target," while the gunners on the now-famed cruiser Aurora "not trusting their marksmanship fired blanks, the only casualty being a member of the crew."

Ulam, the Harvard historian, chronicler of Russia's 19th-century intellectual ferment and biographer of Stalin, offers an authoritative but glum verdict on the Russian tradition. "The greatest harm done by the autocracy to Russia," he concludes, "was that by denying or perverting popular participation in government, it had accustomed the nation to think of politics in terms of high historic and moral abstractions rather than as a mundane humdrum occupation." Thus, even when a parliament of sorts came into being after 1905, "there were clear signs that the emperor's regime and parliamentary institutions of any kind were essentially incompatible." It was not that time was too short before World War I to exorcise "from the Russian scene the twin phenomena of autocracy and revolution," Ulam argues, but that the one could only beget the other with no moderate political forces capable of flourishing, or even long surviving, on the same soil.

Persuasive, occasionally ponderous intermittently controversial, the scholar makes a strong case, but not an overwhelming one. There is another way to arrange the evidence to leave a faint glimmer of hope flickering from Russia's past onto its future. Around those high "moral abstractions" of the 19th century a "society" groped toward coherence and toward an alternative civic ethic. As often as the effort failed, it was nevertheless resumed. And even after Stalin's unremitting effort to erase all shreds of independent thought, the habit of intellectual inquiry reappeared. From the silent, individual protest that had been, in times of terror, the only mode of opposition, the impulse to think freely found speech and became, for a few, open dissent.

Because those few are "informed by somber realism," they may not only survice but influence some unforeseeable shift in the fated, fatal cycle. They are not revolutionaries, but they promote the possiblity of change simply by being, by reappearing stubbornly where all trace of their kind of courage should have been long ago eradicated. "Nor is it likely they can ever be entirely silenced," Ulam believes. "Those who speak out may be exiled and imprisoned, but even if abroad, theirs is an authentic echo of new, Soviet society."

That there should be "society" again is testimony to a persistent searching within Russia that is probably better rendered by novelists than scholars. Ulam's cautionary history leaves little ground for hope. It also suggests, however, that hope need never be completely extinguished.