At noon on August 10, 1978, I arrived at the frontier between Austria and Czechoslovakia in my rickety old Opel sedan that was The New York Times bureau car. I’d driven up from Belgrade, where I was then based, covering an Eastern Europe thoroughly in the grip of communism. Now, when I arrived at the frontier, I steeled myself. I was about to pass through what Winston Churchill had 32 years earlier dubbed the Iron Curtain, separating East from West. These were difficult times. Communism and capitalism were very much at each others’ throats, and there was no more extreme a contrast than in some of these heavily-fortified border points where the favored few could cross in both directions, provided they had all the right papers. Indeed, I had my American passport, my Czechoslovak visa, a fistful of dollars, my notebooks,...

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