'Free': a memoir about coming of age in communist Albania

'Free': a memoir about coming of age in communist Albania

Academic and author Lea Ypi talks to writer Diyora Shadijanova about her vital book documenting a pivotal moment in history and coming to terms with family secrets.

Though they wouldn’t like to admit it, most people’s childhood diaries are more or less the same – frantically scribbled entries made up of school crushes, friendship fallouts and occasional announcements of family hatred, all with a heavy dose of hormonal angst. What isn’t common, however, is when a teenage diary serves as a perfectly-preserved account of what it was like to live through a total political system change; when one day a country is communist and the next, it isn’t. This is what Lea Ypi’s Free: Coming of Age at the End of History – an extraordinary memoir of social upheaval and historical change in 1990s Albania – is about. 

“I started keeping my diary when this transition was happening and [revisiting it now], I could see how I lived through it,” Ypi tells me in a restaurant round the corner of the London School of Economics, where she works as a professor in political theory. “I could really see in the diary this conflict between the school and the family and the things you were [told] through the state and the things you would hear at home.” Documenting her life from the year 1990 meant that Ypi wrote through the fall of communism in Albania, the infamous Ponzi schemes that gripped the country within its new capitalist economy and the devastating civil war of 1997. “My diary is like a testimonial [to the] confusion of that period.”

Lea at the seaside 1986

Many don’t know that though Albania was ruled by a Marxist-Leninist government from 1946 to 1992, it was never part of the Soviet Union. Yet through those years, policies that prioritised economic self-reliance and national unity made the country one of the most difficult countries to visit or travel from – so much so, that Western imports were highly fought-over commodities during Ypi’s childhood. 

In one recollection of 1980s Albania, Ypi remembers a fight that broke out between her family and their neighbours over a missing Coca Cola can. “At the time, these were an extremely rare sight”, she writes in her book. “Even rarer was the knowledge of their function. They were markers of social status: if people happened to own a can, they would show it off by exposing 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 (a communist revolutionary who served as the leader of Albania from 1941 to 1985). Without the Coca Cola cans, our houses looked the same.”

This Stalinist style of administration also meant that there were darker moments in Albania’s communist history – censorship, political repression, secret police, forced labour camps and executions. One of the most fascinating parts of Ypi’s story is her family’s attempt to protect her from this truth. During a time when many people, including the Ypis’ friends and family, were imprisoned for fears of ‘political dissent’, the author’s elders came up with a way to avoid talking about the grim reality of that experience, often speaking in code. 

Lea and her mother, 1981

Only when communism ended in the country, was Ypi able to learn the truth about her family’s history, as well their aristocratic ‘biography’, which barred them from ever being members of the Party. “I think there was no way they could have [told me the truth] without immediate repercussions and of course, they did it to protect me, but also to protect themselves,” Ypi says when asked how she feels about having the truth hidden from her. “With every child from that kind of background, there comes a point when the child naturally understands what’s going on, for me, it was when my parents said to me as I grew up, ‘You can’t be in the Party’ and ‘You can’t be part of these kinds of youth activities’, and so on – your background always pans on you”.

But despite all the struggles, there are many aspects of communist Albania that Ypi misses, such as the sense of community (which to some degree was borne out of scarcity) and the level of trust between strangers, especially since she moved to the UK in 2009. “I think for children, society was much more free. There are some things that I did [in communist Albania], which with my children here in London, you can never do.” Now, the author feels like she can’t just let them go off and play with other children on the street without worrying about their safety.

Another point of nostalgia is the importance of education and knowledge on a wider societal level. “School was severely censored in many ways, but the availability of free education, which at least in some subjects gave you top preparation, is something I don’t have with my kids here,” Ypi says. She explains how today, many people assume that those who lived in socialist societies weren’t academically competitive because of a lack of economic competition, yet in reality knowledge was the currency of competition. 

“If you have a brutal dictatorship, then people are constrained in many ways, but [most] don’t realise that their minds are not as constrained as you’d think. From the limited access that they have to knowledge, there is a kind of yearning that will make them more curious and want to know more about the outside world.” In fact, she says, when Albania’s borders finally became easier to access, Albanians knew far more about the outside world than the outside world knew about them.

Nearly 30 years after communist rule in Albania was declared over, Ypi calls herself a socialist and teaches Marx. This, as well as the release of Free, is understandably a point of contention for some of her family members. In her book, she writes of her cousin, who remarked that their grandfather did not spend 15 years locked up in prison so that she would leave Albania to defend socialism. Yet it is exactly this binary view of political systems the author seeks to challenge. 

Lea and her grandmother

She seems frustrated that we live in an age where people believe there is no alternative to capitalism and that most discussions of socialism get flattened. “Every time we say we need to overcome capitalism, most people will say that socialism failed, but when we’re thinking about the future, you can’t be held hostage to what you know from the past, because that is such a failure of engaging with history in the right way and it seems that this history is never a source of learning.” 

But how have we ended up with these binary narratives? “I think it’s because every system survives on defeating alternative narratives,” she responds. “The problem is people don’t allow themselves to think beyond the system, because they have been convinced that however bad the system in which they live, it’s still the best system.”

Free is a book that discusses the good and the bad of what it was like living in communist Albania, and proposes the need for balance, nuance and accuracy within contemporary discussions of implementing socialism. By giving an account of living under both socialism and liberalism, Ypi illustrates what happens when governing bodies understand freedom in either an overly communal way or an individualistic way, and how when they get this balance wrong, it’s always the people who suffer.

Free by Lea Ypi is available now on Allen Lane. 

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