But the media that mattered — radio, after World War II; the television networks, for Putin — were quickly brought to heel.
Identically to the martinets of Eastern Europe, Putin is quick to blame Western provocations when things go awry, to exploit ethnic prejudices and nationalist bigotry to cement his power, to point darkly toward internal enemies. ("They rummaged through their files and identified twenty-five categories of 'enemies,' " Applebaum writes of the Polish secret police. "Eventually, this list grew to forty-three categories.")
Even the squashing of Pussy Riot is unoriginal; the Communists 60 years ago were panicked by oddly dressed jazz musicians they couldn't control.
And as in Putin's Russia, those who resisted might be beaten, imprisoned or murdered. Then as now, it was understood that a few cases of shocking violence could silence a multitude.
Unlike Stalin, Putin has not tried, so far, to infuse ideology into every aspect of daily life; he demands acquiescence, not fervor.
His bare-chested machismo seems a parody of the personality cult that Stalin enforced with deadly seriousness. He enriches cronies and controls the country's natural resources, but he doesn't ban all private commerce.
And one more difference: Poles had reason to feel abandoned as the Iron Curtain descended, but at least the West — beginning with Winston Churchill — acknowledged what was happening.
As Putin snuffed one freedom after another, Bush administration officials kept fatuously pointing out that Russia remained freer than it had been in Soviet days.
Obama administration officials just as fecklessly beseech Russia for help in promoting Syrian democracy while trying to block Congress from holding Putin's henchmen accountable for the deaths and imprisonments of dissenters.
For all its tragedy, "Iron Curtain" is in one sense a happy story: The dictators failed to reshape human nature. Europeans rebelled, first in 1956 and again in 1989. Communism crumbled.
But the ending, or at least its timing, might have been different had the West not unequivocally defended freedom, including with the Marshall Plan, NATO, Radio Free Europe and the National Endowment for Democracy.
The same kind of determination has yet to be mustered in response to Stalin's imitators in Belarus and Central Asia, not to mention his star pupil in his old Kremlin stomping grounds.
Hiatt is editorial page editor of The Washington Post.