Can there be any country more puzzling than Russia on the cusp of the millennium?

From questions of the economy to sales of french fries, from a hitchhiker looking for "real" Russians to a writer looking for Kirov's true killer, here is an armful of books on the new Rossiya.

Things Fell Apart

Although more fortunate than the beggars thronging Moscow's streets, Rose Brady, author of Kapitalizm: Russia's Struggle to Free Its Economy (Yale, $30), is also a victim of Russia's economic collapse. Bureau chief for Business Week from 1989 to 1993, Brady was the perfect person to chronicle Russia's unprecedented transition from dead-on-its-feet communism to vibrant, exuberant capitalism.

Unfortunately, as Brady herself acknowledges in a chagrined postscript, this transition collapsed on Aug. 17, 1998. Russia's banks closed, wiping out their depositors; thousands lost their jobs, and those who didn't found their wages effectively slashed two-thirds by inflation, if they were paid at all; the reformers whom Brady champions were pushed from power, replaced by recycled Soviet apparatchiks; and the fabled oligarchs whom Brady calls "ruble barons" were either living abroad or were facing criminal indictment.

Its spectacularly wrong projections do not invalidate Kapitalizm, however. Brady's scholarly thoroughness makes her book something like a videotape that we can now replay to figure out what the magician was really doing when it seemed he was pulling capitalism out of his hat. Brady's optimism may have been proven false, but it did not arise from ignorance; rather, she genuinely wished the Russian people well, which prompted her to accept appearances for reality and desire for fact.

Her hasty postscript also suggests that the collapse taught Brady, however belatedly, to better understand a people so accustomed to being cheated that their only defense is to cheat first, so skeptical of power that they flout it when they can, yet so fearful of it that they submit to it abjectly when they can't. Brady reiterates her hope that Russia's economic transformation might eventually continue but prudently concludes Kapitalizm with one of the deeply fatalistic sayings that have sustained the Russian people for a millennium: pozhivyom, uvidim. We'll find out, if we live.

Intrepid Trekker

Europeans in search of America visit cities because that is where most Americans live. Most Russians also live in cities -- indeed, almost one in 10 lives in Moscow -- but there is a persistent conviction among foreign Russophiles that the "real Russia" lies somewhere out in the permafrost.

Jeffrey Tayler, a Moscow-based journalist and author of Siberian Dawn: A Journey Across the New Russia (Hungry Mind, $27), set off in 1993 to hitchhike across this "real Russia." Persistent, inventive and apparently impervious to discomfort, Tayler mostly succeeded in his plan, hooking up with a series of hardy truckers, resorting to trains only when he had to cross the thousands of miles of half-frozen muck that separated him from Europe.

Tayler's account shows that Russia has vastness but no variety. The towns he visits seem to differ only in the depth of their mud and their degree of public drunkenness. With haunting lyricism he describes the many sunsets he witnessed, but he never has anything encouraging to say about what he finds on the ground. The people he encounters are drunk and diseased, numbed by adversity, some made into carnivorous opportunists and others into witless anachronisms by the vanished Soviet system.

His optimistic title notwithstanding, Tayler makes the sun seem to be setting on Siberia, not rising. Yeltsin's own officials say that the costs of this vast chunk of territory are such that it would be cheaper simply to move all of Siberia's residents into five-star hotels in Moscow. The unrelenting hardships chronicled in Siberian Dawn -- which have only grown worse since Tayler's trek -- are a persuasive argument that such a hotel might also be a more commodious base from which to seek the "real Russia." Unlike travel books about Provence or Tuscany, which stoke a fierce thirst to wander, Siberian Dawn makes the armchair traveller grateful that Tayler has taken this trip in our stead.

May I Take Your Order?

While telling how he built the first McDonald's in Moscow, George Cohon notes that his father and Leonid Brezhnev were born the same year in the same city, then jokes that Russia might be better off if Brezhnev had emigrated instead of his father. In fact, To Russia With Fries: My Journey from Chicago's South Side to Moscow's Red Square -- Having Fun Along the Way (McClelland & Stewart, $21.95) makes it seem likely that, had fate given Cohon the chance to sell Bolshevism instead of burgers, the globe would now be covered in red flags, not golden arches.

This is not to accuse Cohon of political indifference or careerist opportunism (even if he has traded away his American citizenship). Indeed, part of the charm of To Russia With Fries is Cohon's enthusiasm for the Western political and economic systems that have let him get fabulously rich while also having fun and doing good. Still, Cohon's energy, acumen and daring suggest that this talented businessman would be a winner no matter what system he was born into. Indeed, the 14 years of lousy hotels, dour bureaucrats, and thickets of naysayers through which he slogged, sustained only by the utopian vision of the Big Macs he might one day serve up in Pushkin Square, all make Cohon's tale one of commitment to the cause which would have done any Old Bolshevik proud.

A decade later, McDonald's has become so Russian that the Arbat outlet is said to enjoy its biggest crowds right after the anti-NATO rallies break up at the American Embassy nearby, justifying Cohon's certainty that his capitalist revolution has triumphed in Moscow. However, Russia's steep slide into bitter poverty since Cohon completed this book should also remind us that the revolutionary memoirists whom Cohen resembles were equally certain that the victory for which they had struggled was as irreversible as it had been inevitable.

What Might Have Been

Those unwilling to dismiss communism entirely still talk about Bolsheviks who might have led Russia toward "socialism with a human face" -- if only they had lived. Prominent among these "shoulda-coulda-woulda" leaders was Sergei Kirov, whose murder in 1934 has long been lamented not just because Kirov was handsome and personable -- and thus a striking contrast to baleful, malevolent Stalin -- but also because it became the pretext for the Great Terror and the darkest hours of Soviet history.

Because Kirov was such an obvious and popular rival, Stalin has long been assumed to have been Kirov's real killer, even if the trigger was pulled by someone else. Although most witnesses died mysterious deaths soon afterward, and many documents and files have been destroyed, are lost, or still remain off-limits to researchers, Amy Knight's Who Killed Kirov?: The Kremlin's Greatest Mystery (Hill & Wang, $26) builds a compelling argument that Stalin not only plotted to remove his rival but did so precisely in order to use Kirov's death as the justification for Terror.

However, Knight's portrait of Kirov debunks the idea that "Kirovism" would have been better than Stalinism. Knight's Kirov is a philanderer, an indifferent family man, and a calculating, timorous oppositionist. History denied Kirov the opportunity to shed blood on the scale it offered Stalin, but Knight makes a convincing case that Kirov would have seized such a chance had it come.

Kirov's descent into absolutism also answers the question that Knight asks of her own study: Does it matter who killed Kirov, if Stalin killed so many millions of others and his system continues to cripple Russia to this day? The best answer to that uncomfortable question is precisely Knight's account of how the will to power, even if for humanitarian ends, transformed Kirov from an idealistic, sympathetic young peasant into a conspiratorial and sycophantic politician.

Doomed Campaign

The title of David M. Glantz's book -- Zhukov's Greatest Defeat: The Army's Epic Disaster in Operation Mars, 1942 (Univ. Press of Kansas, $39.95) -- will seem oxymoronic to many Russianists. Russians revere Zhukov as the architect of what Soviet historians have styled their "continuous march to victory" in World War II. Such historiography of course omits Operation Mars, which cost the Soviets more than 200,000 men and nearly 2,000 tanks.

Glantz's resurrection of this forgotten campaign is dauntingly specific, filled with the hour-by-hour movements of particular troops, difficult to follow even with this volume's many maps. Glantz is also occasionally irksome, for he describes the thoughts of major combatants without detailing his sources for such intimacy. Glantz's depiction of Stalin is particularly unsettling, for here the Soviet dictator looks far less suspicious, jealous and vindictive than most accounts make him appear.

Even readers who find the minutiae of military movement hard to follow, however, will recognize here Russian traits that other books have also found in collectivization, in industrialization, and even in the construction of a post-Soviet identity. Glantz ascribes Zhukov's defeat to grandiose goals, exacerbated by poor intelligence and excessive subordination, further compounded when the Soviets stuck doggedly to their original orders even as new circumstances made these impossible to carry out. As their German opponents put it, "Even in extremis, the Russian is never logical . . . the nature of the Russian is to use mass, steamroller tactics and adhere to given objectives without regard to changing situations."

Although a history, Glantz's study is also a rehearsal of the persistent habits and traits that periodically take Russia to the lip of disaster; equally important, though, this book is a reminder that these same traits also eventually took the Russians to Berlin. As Glantz illustrates, for Russians solutions need be neither efficient nor elegant; it is enough that they are effective.

Anthony Olcott is an associate professor of Russian at Colgate University.

CAPTION: Did Stalin kill Kirov?