to come of age in communist Albania
Lea Ypi was born in 1979 and grew up in the isolated communist dictatorship of Albania. Like the other children, she was taught to adore Stalin and a man she and everyone around her called Uncle Enver – dictator Enver Hoxha. We see communism through her innocent eyes, which is both very funny and very poignant – as she’s captivated by the two men, something more disturbing happens than the adults let on. She had no idea her parents were less enthusiastic about the diet. She did not know that she was the great-granddaughter of former Albanian politician Xhafer Ypi, a man whom the regime considered an enemy. In 1991, the regime collapsed and his parents told him the truth: Albania had been an “open air prison for almost half a century” – and many of his family members had served prison sentences. . For her, Albania had been Free – the title of his new memoirs.
With the collapse of the communist regime, the negative and positive sides of freedom were exposed. His family members struggled to find work because of their surname; but after communism, his parents lost their jobs during an economic crisis and had to find new ones. People had secretly managed to escape from Albania during communism; but now people have fled en masse on boats, and her best friend has disappeared in Italy, possibly forced into prostitution, but no one really knows. His mother joined the new opposition party and his father was briefly a deputy in a democratically elected parliament, but Albania soon descended into civil war in 1997. Ypi recounts the war by publishing his diary entries from the era, a decision that unfortunately disrupts and blurs the story.
Albania was different from the Eastern Bloc states in that it embraced Stalinism until the end and was not a member of the Warsaw Pact. However, Ypi’s book is in many ways a universal story of how communist societies experienced the transition to capitalism. Free contributes to enlightening the point of view of an average citizen in the communist world. Many people in Albania and the Soviet Union thought they lived in the greatest country in the world. There were positives in these companies. People cared about each other, there was a sense of duty and community cohesion that the West lacked. Overnight, what they thought was the truth turned out to be lies. Capitalism arrived and parents and children had to scramble to survive in a completely different economic model. Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s grassroots is that kind of person – resentful of the loss of security and safety afforded under communism and uneasy in the new capitalist world.
Ypi is no Putinist – she is a political theorist at the London School of Economics who describes herself as a “democratic socialist” and a “Kantian Marxist”. His experience in both the communist and capitalist worlds allows him to make insightful observations of both systems. His story will help readers understand how destabilizing the transition from communism to capitalism was – and why leaders like Putin gained such power by weaponizing old resentments.
Lea Ypi’s memoir “Free: a child and a country at the end of history” is available here or at your local independent bookstore.