Free: coming of age at the end of history

Things were one way, and then they were another. I was someone, then I became someone else.

Ypi cover

With my knowledge of Albania largely limited to the improbable combination of Norman Wisdom, Mother Teresa, the mesmerising polyphony of the Tosk and Lab peoples (here and here), and rituals of the Bektashi order, I’ve been fascinated to read

Covering Ypi’s early years before she left Albania to study in Rome, it makes a fine addition to memoirs on the climate of duplicity in people’s lives behind the Iron Curtain and their ongoing tribulations, such as Vesna Goldsworthy (Serbia), Katya Kassabova (Bulgaria), Maxim Leo (GDR), Orlando Figes (USSR); and of course it’s reminiscent of the circumspection and fear that Chinese people experienced under Maoism.

EnverBorn in 1979 in the port of Durrës just west of Tirana, Lea was prudently brought up to revere Uncle Enver and Stalin—despite the complicated “biographies” of her family, which she only began to understand later.

Biographies were carefully separated into good and bad, better or worse, clean or stained, relevant or irrelevant, transparent or confusing, suspicious or trustworthy, those that needed to be remembered and those that needed to be forgotten.

When Uncle Enver died in 1985, her parents dutifully protested their love for the Party, making Lea promise that she would never tell anyone otherwise.

Pioneers

At school she avidly became a Pioneer. Her father affectionately called her brigatista—equivalent, as she gathered, to “troublemaker”.

Gazing at foreign children on holiday at the beach, Lea reflects:

We knew that it was difficult for us to travel abroad because we were surrounded by enemies. Moreover, our holidays were subsidised by the Party. Perhaps one day the Party would be powerful enough to have defeated all our enemies, and would pay for everyone to travel abroad too. In any case, we were already in the best place. They had nothing. We knew we did not have everything. But we had enough, we all had the same things, and we had what mattered most: real freedom. […]

The tourists

were interested in everything: the Roman amphitheatre, the Venetian tower, the harbour, the old city walls, the tobacco factory, the rubber-making factory, the schools, the Party headquarters, the dry-cleaning shops, the piles of rubbish awaiting collection, the queues, the street rats, the weddings, the funerals, the things that happened, the things that did not happen, the things that may or may not have happened. Tourists held Nikon cameras, intent on capturing our past greatness and our present misery, or our present greatness and the misery of our past, depending on their point of view. […]

Ypi young

Years later, she discovered that the tourists were of two kinds. The realists, mostly from Scandinavia, belonged to fringe Marxist-Leninist groups, admiring “the clarity of our slogans, the order of our factories, the purity of our children, the discipline of the horses who pulled our carriages, and the conviction of the peasants who travelled in them”. The dreamers, bored with Bali, Mexico, and Moscow, were in search of the ultimate exotic adventure; they came to discover “a truth they had already agreed upon”.

Ypi grandparents

Lea was much influenced by her cultured, French-speaking, Ottoman-born grandmother. Her parents find relief from Albanian TV by complicated manoeuvres on the roof to receive foreign stations by satellite.

My family accepted that some rules were more important than others and that some promises would become obsolete with time. In this they were no different from other people, the rest of society, or even the state. Part of the challenge of growing up was finding out which rules faded over time, which were trumped by other more important obligations, and which ones remained inflexible.

She ponders the rules of grocery shopping and the loopholes of queueing. And she mends a rift between her family and their neighbours over a Coca Cola can.

At the time, these were an extremely rare sight. Even rarer was the knowledge of their function. They were markers of social status: if people happened to own a can, they could show it off by exhibiting it in their living rooms, usually on an embroidered tablecloth over the television or the radio, often right next to the photo of Enver Hoxha.

At school Lea eventually solves the mystery of Coca Cola:

“I think it’s a drink”, I almost whispered, as if I were revealing a secret. “Those cans you sometimes see on top of people’s shelves, they’re to hold drinks.”

* * *

In December 1990, as news of the collapse of socialism belatedly reached Albania, she stared incredulously at the TV screen.

The same human beings who had been marching to celebrate socialism and the advance towards communism took to the streets to demand its end. The representatives of the people declared that the only things they had ever known under socialism were not freedom and democracy but tyranny and coercion.

Hearing the cries of “Freedom, democracy!” Lea supposed the “hooligans” were shouting out of fear, out of uncertainty, “to explain that this was what they did not want to lose, rather than what they wanted”.

Finally she understands the discreet euphemisms her family had been using.

They said that my country had been an open-air prison for almost half a century. That the universities which had haunted my family were, yes, educational institutions, but of a peculiar kind. That when my family spoke of the graduation of relatives, what they really meant was their recent release from prison. That completing a degree was coded language for completing a sentence. That the initials of university towns stood for the initials of various prison and deportation sites.

Lea finally begins to understand her family’s biographies. Meanwhile at school, at first their teacher exhorts them to reject both the revisionist East and the imperialist West. But counter-protests in memory of Enver Hoxha were short-lived, and the terms dictatorship, proletariat, and bourgeoisie disappeared from people’s vocabulary, replaced only by an elusive “freedom”.

As the old Party managed to win the first elections, protests, looting, and violence spread widely. The new remedy was to be the shock therapy of market reforms.

Lea’s parents receive a visit from a former Party member turned Opposition candidate, asking them to lend him a pair of grey socks. He soon became a charismatic politician and highly successful businessman:

We rarely saw him again, and even when we did, it was only from a distance, as he slammed the door of his dark, shiny Mercedes Benz, surrounded by mighty bodyguards. It would have been imprudent, as well as implausible, to get closer and accuse him of wrongfully appropriating my father’s socks.

In 1991 Lea made her first trip outside Albania, joining her grandmother on a visit to Athens and Salonika in a futile attempt to reclaim the family’s former properties. A passage like this doesn’t read merely as poverty voyeurism but evokes genuine culture shock:

I made a list of all the new things I had discovered for the first time, and meticulously recorded them: the first time I felt air conditioning on the palm of my hands; the first time I tasted bananas; the first time I saw traffic lights; the first time I wore jeans; the first time I did not need to queue to enter a shop; the first time I encountered border control; the first time I saw queues made of cars instead of humans; the first time I sat down on a toilet instead of squatting; the first time I saw people following dogs on a leash instead of stray dogs following people; the first time I was given actual chewing-gum rather than just the wrapper; the first time I saw buildings made of different shops and shop-windows bursting with toys; the first time I saw crosses on graves; the first time I stared at walls covered by adverts rather than anti-imperialist slogans […]

But she wanted to go home, to feel safe. Meanwhile back home everyone seemed to be trying to leave—including her schoolfriend Elona, who managed to get to Italy, aged just 13, where she ended up as a street beggar. Elona’s grandfather told Lea how he had gone in search for her by getting on board the Vlora, a ship built to take 3,000 passengers and now crammed with nearly 20,000, before he was deported back with most of the others.

Still, mass emigration continued apace.

Her mother joined the opposition Democratic Party and became a leader in the national women’s association, delivering polished, unscripted speeches to large rallies, “as if she had written them in her head many years ago, as if she had rehearsed every day of her life the sentences that she would later utter”. She received a visit from a delegation of French women, who didn’t find her vision of female emancipation entirely compatible with their own.

When Lea briefly joined a mosque, her benign father, recently unemployed, joked “Did you pray for me to find a job?”

“It won’t help”, I replied. You need to change the font on your CV. You need to switch from Times New Roman to Garamond.”

(I doubt if at the time anyone anywhere was much aware of the joys of choosing arty fonts, but I’m happy to allow for poetic license.) Anyway, her father soon became director of the biggest port in the country, finding himself having to deliver “structural reforms”, laying off workers that he cared about.

Lea had previously been content with her “freedom”; but as she became a teenager, with decades of socialist education being overturned, she became withdrawn, losing her voice for a time. The clubs of her youth, for poetry, theatre, singing, maths, natural science, music, and chess, had ceased to exist.

A few pubs and clubs had started to open. Most of them belonged to people-smugglers, drug-dealers, or sex traffickers. These were all mentioned as normal occupations, in the same way one would have explained in the past that so-and-so was a cooperative worker, a factory employee, a bus driver, or a hospital nurse.

From Islam she turned to Buddhism for a while, and volunteered for the Red Cross at the local orphanage.

There was no politics left, only policy. And the purpose of policy was to prepare the state for the new era of freedom, and to make people feel as if they belonged to “the rest of Europe”.

During those years, “the rest of Europe” was more than a campaign slogan. It stood for a specific way of life, one which was imitated more often than understood, and absorbed more often than justified. Europe was like a long tunnel with an entrance illuminated by bright lights and flashing signs, and with a dark interior, invisible at first. When the journey started, it didn’t occur to anyone to ask where the tunnel ended, whether the light would fail, and what there was on the other side. It didn’t occur to anyone to bring torches, or to draw maps, or to ask whether anyone ever makes it out of the tunnel, or if there is only one exit or several, and if everybody goes out the same way. Instead, we just marched on, and hoped the tunnel would remain bright, assuming we worked hard enough, and waited long enough, just as we used to wait in socialist queues—without minding that time had passed, without losing hope.

As the new buzzwords “civil society” and “corruption” circulated, people were duped by disastrous pyramid schemes in which more than half of the population, including Lea’s family, lost their savings. This led to the civil war of 1997, which she records starkly by reproducing her diary from January to April, written amidst the sound of gunfire, explosions, and screaming.

It’s like a whole country committing suicide. Just when it looked like things were getting better it all went downhill. Now that we are all falling from a precipice, there’s no way back. It’s so much worse than 1990. At least there was hope in democracy then. Now there is nothing, just a curse.

The strife led to a new mass exodus. By now Lea’s mother had already managed to get to Italy, where she eventually found menial work. After Lea’s farcical graduation from school, beset by doubts she too found her way to Italy, studying philosophy in Rome.

I waved goodbye to my father and grandmother on the shore and travelled to Italy on a boat that sailed over thousands of drowned bodies, bodies that had once carried souls more hopeful than mine, but who met fates less fortunate. I never returned.

* * *

As for others in the socialist bloc, people could neither feel positive about their new circumstances nor nostalgic for the socialist past. Such memoirs are not merely quaint, but evoke an ongoing psychological conflict both for those who experienced the period and for outsiders.

Lea Ypi now teaches political theory at the LSE. As told in the Guardian,

She is wry, now, about the empty shelves and educational chaos of post-Brexit, pandemic Britain. After years of being lectured about the supposed failures of where she comes from, “there is a special pleasure in it, because the tables are reversed for once”.

Still, she is critical of the “holy” left in the West.

My mother finds it difficult to understand why I teach and research Marx, why I write about the dictatorship of the proletariat. […] Mostly, she keeps her criticisms to herself. Only once did she draw attention to a cousin’s remarks that my grandfather did not spend fifteen years locked up in prison so that I would leave Albania to defend socialism. We both laughed awkwardly, then paused and changed the topic. […] I wanted to clarify, but didn’t know where to start. I thought that it would take a book to answer.

This is that book.

And very fine it is too.

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