An almost unprecedented look into life at the top of the former USSR, by a former speechwriter and adviser to Khrushchev, Andropov, Brezhnev, Kosygin, and Gorbachev. A strong backer of Khrushchev's efforts to rid the Soviet Union of Stalinism, Burlatsky fell from power shortly after Khrushchev himself, and regained prominence only under Gorbachev. Still, he retains strong opinions on Soviet leaders who served during the interim--e.g., Brezhnev's ``incompetence was a blessing; it gave wide opportunities to the apparatchiks.'' But it is his portrait of Khrushchev that is unforgettable: Son of a peasant, with minimal education, Khrushchev had a ``wide face with its two warts and his enormous bald head, large upturned nose and very protruding ears''--but also ``an austere and penetrating political mind.'' The Soviet leader, Burlatsky says, was anything but guiltless of the deeds he later condemned: His signature rests next to Stalin's on many documents sentencing people to death; he agreed to the suppression of the 1956 uprising in Hungary; and he never reappraised Stalin's policy of forced collectivization of agriculture, even after witnessing firsthand agriculture's successes in the US. But Burlatsky contends that Khrushchev's ``humanity, kindness and sincerity...were not erased despite his involvement in many of the terrible affairs of that time,'' and that no other post-Stalin leader would have taken the risk of exposing Stalin's crimes. Above all, the author offers a revealing glimpse of life within a totalitarian system: He quotes Khrushchev as saying, after Stalin died: ``Mikoyan said to me, `[KGB head] Beria has gone to Moscow to seize power.' I answered, `While this bastard is around none of us can feel safe.' '' And Khrushchev went on to describe how he arranged for army officers to seize Beria at a Presidium meeting--after which the KGB chief was executed. Burlatsky's candor--modified only by a short and unrevealing chapter about Gorbachev--makes this one of the most fascinating works ever about the inner workings of the Soviet system.