Mao: The Real Story, by Alexander V. Pantsov and Steven I. Levine, Simon & Schuster, 784 pages, $35.

Along Bolshaya Dmitrovka Street, about half a mile north of Red Square in Moscow, an austere, cavernous building houses the Russian State Archive of Social and Political History. The premises were originally occupied by the Institute of Marxism-Leninism. In the 1930s it was renamed the Institute of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin, but—following Khrushchev’s 1956 Secret Speech, which acknowledged some of the dictator's crimes—Stalin's name was dropped. Above the entrance, portraits of Marx, Engels, and Lenin cast in concrete peer into the distance. Inside the building, an air of abandon prevails. When I was there two years ago, several discarded statues of Lenin were gathering dust underneath the staircase. But even though much is still locked away from the prying eyes of historians, in the archives on the third floor a wealth of information on the Soviet Union and its global empire can be found.

Alexander Pantsov, a Russian-born professor of history at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio, is one of the few to have gained exclusive access to the personal dossiers on Mao Zedong and other top members of the Chinese Communist Party. He teamed up with Steven Levine, a respected historian of modern China, to distill this new material in Mao: The Real Story. An earlier version appeared in Russian some five years ago, but this edition is much more ambitious in scope and content.

The first third of their book follows a rather conventional path, piecing together a history of Mao’s early years from standard secondary sources. The authors claim that they tried to present their narrative "unmarred by political considerations," but they are decidedly sympathetic to their subject—and to the early years of communism in China. They seem in no doubt that revolution was a necessary step in republican China, an extraordinarily thriving era they dismissively characterize as "semi-colonial." Their writing is lively, following the tribulations of Mao's career and his relationships with his wives and children with an eye for the telling detail. Yet somehow, despite their attempts to depict his youthful pride and stubborn obstinacy, Mao the person remains strangely abstract.

The heart of this book is Mao's relationship with Stalin. Here the authors break new ground. The files from the archives amply demonstrate that Mao was a faithful follower of his master in Moscow. He had a good reason: From the start, the Chinese Communist Party was dependent on the Soviets' financial help and political guidance. Stalin personally assisted Mao's rise to power. The relationship between the two was often tumultuous, but once the red flag fluttered over Beijing in 1949, Mao wasted no time in imposing a harsh communist order modeled on the USSR. As the authors point out, "he looked upon Stalin as his teacher and the Soviet Union, which inspired fear throughout the world, as a model to imitate." Mao was a Stalinist attracted to the elimination of private property, all-pervasive controls on the lives of ordinary people, an unlimited cult of the leader, and huge expenditures on the military. Ironically, it was Stalin who constrained the Stalinisation of China by forcing Mao to slow down the pace of collectivisation, fearful as he was of the emergence of a powerful neighbour who might threaten his dominance.

So committed to Stalinism was Mao that he never forgave Khrushchev for his Secret Speech. His dislike of what the Chairman called "revisionism"—that is, de-Stalinisation and a less belligerent attitude toward noncommunist countries—eventually culminated in the Sino-Soviet split, and tensions between both countries became so bad in the late 1960s that Moscow even contemplated an atomic attack against its rival's industrial centres. Yet Stalin’s memory survived unstained. While the Soviets took down their portraits and statues of Stalin, in China he remained officially in favor for decades after his death in 1953. Until a few years ago the tyrant's face could still be seen on the walls of bookshops and classrooms, painted in warm tones. He is revered in China to this day, his reputation defended by an army of fierce censors.

In other respects, the much-vaunted new archival revelations seem rather disappointing. They add nothing, for instance, to our understanding of the Gao Gang affair, when the party leader in Manchuria was accused of an attempted coup and eventually committed suicide in 1954. The references to the Mao dossier in Moscow tend to be relatively trivial, adding detail rather than substance to existing knowledge. And precisely because of the Sino-Soviet split, the documentation for the last 15 years of Mao's life is appreciably more limited, though the authors do a good job at narrating the chaos and paranoia of the Cultural Revolution.

Overall, by the authors' estimate, Mao was responsible for the deaths of some 40 million of his countrymen. During the Great Leap Forward, from 1958 to 1962, they reckon that 30 to 45 million people died, "many along the roads, famished and emaciated." Over a million perished during the Cultural Revolution of 1966 to 1976, and here too the authors have no doubt who was responsible: "He was the chief culprit of the senseless and merciless mass terror." Yet they insist on presenting the Great Helmsman as a "multifaceted figure" with a good side. Unlike Lenin and Stalin, the authors contend, Mao not only promoted "radical economic and social reforms, but he also brought about a national revolution in former semi-colonial China and he united mainland China." This lack of moral clarity fatally mars the book.

By choosing the title Mao: The Real Story, the authors invite comparisons with Jung Chang and Jon Halliday's groundbreaking Mao: The Untold Story. Chang and Halliday based their work on an unsurpassed wealth of evidence, including files from the Soviet archives, and many of the conclusions presented by Levine and Pantsov only confirm what Chang and Halliday wrote seven years ago. But Chang and Halliday had a moral compass. The keys to a new, "real" Mao are not in the Russian State Archives in Moscow but in the Central Party Archives in Beijing, and until their doors open to historians, Mao: The Untold Story remains peerless.