UNDER a dictatorship, inertia is the only source for social action.In "Kiss the Hand You Cannot Bite," this fact is the magic key Edward Behr uses to unlock the mind-twisting puzzle of Romania's 24-year-long Ceausescu regime. A topnotch journalist who has covered Asia and Western Europe for Newsweek, Mr. Behr is probably best known as author of "The Last Emperor a book that was made into an Academy Award-winning film. His background as a journalist and successful writer qualifies him for the difficult task of drawing a clear picture of Nicolae Ceausescu, who started as a shoemaker's apprentice and ended up as Romania's Stalin. The uneducated third son of alcoholic peasants, he dropped out of school and at the age of 15 joined the Soviet-inspired, but tiny Romanian communist movement where he moved up the ranks. Behr points out three factors that set the stage for Ceausescu's ascent and kept him in power: the predominantly rural Romanian society, its history of intrigues and corruption in politics and administration, and its infrequent experience with democracy. But was Ceausescu nothing but a perfect mediocrity, supported by the very efficient, smoothly operating, repressive apparatus he created? Definitely not, says Behr. This biography of the supreme conducator (Romanian for leader) shows a rare ability to seize the best opportunity. Romanian propaganda praised Ceausescu as the best leader Romanians ever had, and glorified him as "The Danube of Thinking." But this was more than geographical aberrations. He had something of an evil genius for faking history and successfully manipulating a phony image abroad. He cast himself as a dissident during the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, playing a card that instantly brought worldwide political fame and unlimited financial credit from Western governments. But Behr reveals the gap between Ceausescu's external image as a "liberal" communist leader and the increasing restrictions he was imposing on Romanians. Behr uses firsthand sources to illustrate this gap, which eventually became disastrous for the Ceausescus. Although I grew up in Romania and have worked as a journalist there for several years, many of these details are news to me. That itself is testimony to the difference between fiction and reality in Ceausescu's Romania. The official story was so distorted and the secrecy surrounding the reigning clan so tight that only a handful of close relatives and prots could have had a clear idea about what the evil-minded couple was planning. Had Elena Ceausescu not been executed, we probably never would have learned that "the internationally recognized chemistry scientist, comrade academician-doctor-engineer," as propaganda described her, was barely literate and dropped out of school at the age of 14. The horrifying documentaries on Romanian orphanages came as a complete surprise in a country where people never knew whether, after waiting in line for five hours to buy a kilo of meat, it would be available. The handcuffing of the media and the permanent surveillance from securitate (the secret police) made publi- cation of such information impossible. So strong was the fear the Ceausescus had fostered through a shrewd system of misinformation and rumor, that we mistrusted everybody. Instead, we believed the securitate was able to watch everyone. That explains to a large extent why Romania had so few prominent dissidents, and why dissidents lacked coordination. Continual fear and suspicion proved a major obstacle in Romania's speedy march toward a free-market economy and a Western-style parliamentary democracy, Behr correctly points out. By the end of the book, Behr tries to predict whether Romanians will see their dreams come true. But in the last chapters, his sources are murky and his analysis is like middle-of-the-road Romanian attitudes. His attempt to explain the December 1989 overthrow, for instance, relies on partial information and rumors rather than solid facts. Therefore, his bitter prediction that post-Ceausescu Romania will follow the same unfortunate path and that present-day Romanians will not live long enough to enjoy the freedoms of a civil society might prove to be mere personal speculation. After all, this book, which unveils some of the mysteries of the Ceausescus's dictatorship, is nothing but proof that things have changed.