BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- Milovan Djilas likes to tell a story about three inmates imprisoned here under Marshal Tito.
One of them asked the other two how they landed in jail. "When Djilas was on top, I shouted, 'Down with Djilas!' ," the first prisoner explained.
"When Djilas was down, I shouted, 'Long live Djilas!' " the second one answered.
Said the third: "I'm Djilas."
Milovan Djilas' life is a reflection of this country's travails over the last 45 years. He has known the determination, intrigue and fanaticism that forged postwar Yugoslavia in the Stalinist mold and then broke with Josef V. Stalin in 1948.
He was there as the country shivered on the edge of the Cold War, expecting invasion by East bloc troops until the United States and Britain signaled their political and financial commitment to Yugoslavia's independence.
He has also known the kind of social chill that hovers over the pariah in a Marxist state, after Stalin's death, and worse: He spent about a decade in jail and 20 years under surveillance.
Now an 80-year-old man who spends his days reading books in Serbo-Croatian, English, French and Russian, Mr. Djilas chuckles over his facility for making enemies.
As a young man, his study of Serbo-Croatian literature in royalist Yugoslavia was cut short by a jail sentence of three years for Communist activism.
During World War II, he was a leader in the fight against the Nazis and against anti-Communist Yugoslavians, in what Marshal Tito acknowledged in 1972 was "well and truly a civil war, [though] we did not want to admit it at the time."
After the war, he became Yugoslavia's minister without portfolio for agitation and propaganda, and Tito's point man in dealing with the Soviet Union before Yugoslavia left the Soviet orbit in 1948.
Mr. Djilas remembers being summoned to Moscow by Stalin to discuss Yugoslavia's plans to create a Balkan federation with Bulgaria and Albania. The federation, led by Yugoslavia, would have greatly expanded the country's influence to the south.
"I think he summoned me because he knew I was an open person," said Mr. Djilas.
Stalin told him he would not object if Yugoslavia swallowed up Albania. He then brought his fingers to his mouth, as if popping in a tasty morsel.
Watching Stalin wipe his mouth of Albania, Mr. Djilas thought: "You could gobble us both." But he told Stalin: "This is not swallowing. This is free federal unity."
Vyacheslav Molotov, Stalin's foreign minister, who was at the meeting, shook his head. "This is swallowing," he said.
Stalin was not sincere in saying he would not mind an expansion of Belgrade's power. "His point was to see what our intentions were," Mr. Djilas said.
The Balkan federation scheme failed, largely because of Soviet opposition. Shortly afterward, Yugoslavia was expelled from the Cominform, as the early grouping of East bloc states was called, and was completely isolated. Asked whether the break had been inevitable, Mr. Djilas said he long ago stopped believing in Marxist notions of historical inevitability.
But he said he did believe that Yugoslavia's move meant "the beginning of the disintegration of world communism. . . . This is one of the most important changes in the world since the end of World War II."
Stalin thought at the time that the break would lead to Tito's overthrow, but Tito arrested all suspected Communist and non-Communist opponents, isolating them on an Adriatic island that was a prison camp.
"The regime over them was inhuman," Mr. Djilas said. "That was the mistake of the Yugoslav government."
Mr. Djilas' problems with Tito began with Stalin's death.
In the years after Yugoslavia's break with the Kremlin, Tito had begun softening Yugoslavia's Marxism. He abandoned collectivization of agriculture and relaxed the police state apparatus. He decentralized political administration and formed councils to give laborers a share in management.
But today Mr. Djilas thinks Tito valued reform largely as a defiance of Soviet hegemony. When Stalin died, so did the pressure for Yugoslavia to change.
"Tito stopped the liberalization of Yugoslavia, but I couldn't stop myself," Mr. Djilas said last week.
"You know, when you're part of such a small ruling circle, you don't have the feeling that you can keep any thoughts to yourself. You figure you'll be found out anyway. You have very little room for maneuver."
A year after Stalin's death, Mr. Djilas was expelled from the Communist Party. With his arrest two years later for criticizing the 1956 Soviet intervention in Hungary -- while Tito remained silent -- Mr. Djilas became "the father of Yugoslav dissidence," according to historian Stevan K. Pavlowitch.
A year later, the publication abroad of "The New Class," his landmark work decrying the rise of a privileged class of Communist Party apparatchiks, won him a seven-year jail sentence. A subsequent book brought a five-year sentence.