"LENIN, STALIN AND HITLER: THE AGE OF SOCIAL CATASTROPHE," by Robert Gellately, Knopf, 695 pages, $35.

This book clarifies exactly how serious dictatorship is for national governments, singling out probably the worst and most brutal leaders in world history — Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin of Russia and Adolf Hitler of Germany. They form the pattern by which all other dictators have been and will be judged.

The author, an eminent historian at Florida State University, provides a powerful narrative to go with his powerful subjects. It is Gellately's cogent interpretation that most historians of Russia and Germany have neglected the importance of Lenin in preparing the way for both Stalin and Hitler — and so he presents a threesome for study here.

The author also demonstrates how the rivalry between Stalin and Hitler led inevitably to catastrophe and the death of millions.

All three, he writes, are the authors of "modern barbarism."

The book is replete with black-and-white photos and evidence from mountains of documents that help him tell his story. He has had access previously disallowed in both German and Russian source materials.

Surely, this will be the dominant work on totalitarian states for sometime to come. The central idea to his thesis is that all the dictators were concerned with advancing a form of Utopia, or a perfect society, in order to get the support they needed from their subjects.

Authoritarianism and the use of terroristic tactics also enabled them to gain and retain control over their countries — and gave them the confidence they needed to move on to other countries, with the hope of dominating the world.

In light of the Bush administration's justification of the use of torture (staples for Lenin, Stalin and Hitler) for those detained in the current war against terrorism — and the failures of the administration to protect the privacy of individual Americans — presages warnings for our own future.

Vladimir Putin has moved to ensure his continuing leadership of present-day Russia, even though his eight-year tenure is approaching an end. It is reminiscent of the ways Lenin and Stalin achieved and retained power. It is to be hoped that Putin's future leadership (at the prime minister level) does not include all of the ingredients of his predecessors — but he has already muzzled the press, ordered the assassination of those who disagree with his policies and established an authoritarian regime opposite to the intentions of his recent predecessors — Yeltsin and Gorbachev.

Clearly, democracy is dead in Russia before it could get even a foothold.

The author has provided not only the proof for his positions but a convincing narrative as to the dangers of dictatorship. It should be used as a cautionary for Americans and every other country where freedoms and privacy are being eroded.

E-mail: dennis@desnews.com