"Underground papers” were once defined by Kingsley Amis as “newspapers sold outside Underground stations.” It was nice deflation of the Western left’s self-deceiving belief that it was fighting a similar oppression to that endured by the peoples of Eastern Europe and thus entitled to borrow their samizdats and Charter 77s for domestic use. In truth they could hardly even imagine the reality of “really existing socialism” with its occasional outbursts of naked brutality and, more especially, with its everyday pedestrian repression of all individuality, hope, and free expression.

Those leftists who risked crossing the Iron Curtain had one of three sorts of experience. Most were happy to be deceived by the regimes’ Potemkin generosity. Some, briefly distressed by what they saw beneath that façade, rationalized away their distress on returning to really...