Free: Coming of Age at the End of History, by Lea Ypi, Allen Lane, 313 pp, £20, ISBN: 087-0241481851
It’s December 1990 and eleven-year-old Lea Ypi leaves school and decides she wants to hug Stalin. After all, her moral education teacher, Nora, has told her class how much Stalin loves children, and that he smiled with his eyes because the friendly moustache covered his lips so if you focused only on the lips you would never know if he was smiling or not. One look at his piercing, brown, intelligent eyes and you would see he was smiling. Stalin loved children just as much as Lenin, but Stalin’s enemies always hid this, because they were afraid of him. Lenin changed Russia, but Stalin changed the world, Nora added.
Little Lea decided to go to the square and hugged a huge leg of the statue of Stalin while all the while she heard protesters yelling “freedom, democracy, freedom, democracy”. She stood back and looked up to see Stalin’s smiling eyes and moustache, but his head was gone; the protesters, or hooligans, as she had learned to call them, had stolen it.
So begins the fall of the communist regime in Albania, a year later than elsewhere, and the first day that Ypi thought about freedom. She had never thought of it before because there was no need: she had plenty of freedom. She had been standing at the school gate wondering which way to go home; she was free to decide. Each path raised different questions, and she had to weigh causes and consequences, reflect on implications and make a decision she might regret, and she certainly regretted ending up in a protest while hugging Stalin! But the protesters puzzled her with their demand for freedom: “I wanted to know why everybody wanted freedom when we were already one of the freest countries in the world,” she mused. “We had Socialism.” Socialism gave you freedom, according to her teacher.
Free is a remarkable coming-of-age memoir, as well as a treatise on freedom. It apparently started out as a work of political theory on the nature of freedom before morphing into this subtle work of biography and philosophy that is destined to become a classic account of the collapse of the regimes of southeastern Europe at the end of the last century. Lea Ypi writes beautifull;, she is a born storyteller. Free is lyrical, funny and moving and is no less a serious work of memoir, history and politics.
Ypi, who is now a professor of political theory at the LSE, was born in Durres, the main port and second city of Albania, in 1979 and grew up a devout communist, who became a Young Pioneer and who listened to Teacher Nora with awe. She was vaguely aware of something called the Berlin Wall protests a year before hugging the headless statue of Stalin, but that was explained away by Nora as a fight between imperialism and revisionism. They were holding a mirror up to each other and the mirrors had broken; it had little to do with Albania. “Our enemies regularly tried to topple our government,” she explained to her class of eleven-year-olds: “We split up from Yugoslavia when the latter broke with Stalin. In the 1960s, when Khrushchev dishonoured Stalin’s legacy and accused us of ‘leftist nationalist deviationism’, we interrupted diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union. In the late seventies, we abandoned our alliance with China when the latter decided to become rich and betray the Cultural Revolution. It didn’t matter. We were surrounded by powerful foes, but knew ourselves to be on the right side of history. Every time our enemies threatened us, the Party, supported by the people, emerged stronger.” And so Nora explains Albania’s isolated place on the edge of the Balkans, neither imperialist, like its neighbour, Italy, nor revisionist, like the rest of the communist world.
Isolation wasn’t total, but distorting. Italian or Yugoslav television could sometimes be received by twisting the antenna on the roof. To own a Coke can brought status and the empty container would sit on top of the television. Lea had not known what it had contained. Chewing gum wrappers were swapped at school and the children would inhale the sweet sickly smell without ever having tasted the product.
Lea knew Albania was free. She was a loyal follower of the Party. She earned accolades as a Young Pioneer. She even impressed an educational panel at the Central Party Committee by spotting the world “collectivisation” in one of the Albanian leader, Enver Hoxha’s, works, despite mispronouncing it, and was allowed into secondary school a year earlier than normal. She dreamt of the day the socialist state would wither away to be transformed into communism.
But she lived surrounded by secrets. She was brought up mainly by her cosmopolitan, French-speaking, Ottoman-born grandmother, with French as her first language. Her mother and father were evasive about politics, but there were hints. While Lea was venerating her two “uncle”, Hoxha and Stalin, her parents found excuses for not having a framed picture of Hoxha on the wall and failed to take their daughter to visit his grave in the weeks following his death.
Her mother and father spoke in a sort of code about their friends. They spoke of people “graduating” from university A, or dropping out of university B, which meant one had been released from a prison starting with the letter A or had died in a prison beginning with the letter B. They had codes for those who were tortured or died by suicide at “university”. Both had problematic “biographies”. Both were “intellectuals”. Her mother was from a wealthy bourgeois family which had owned vast amounts of land, houses and buildings, including that which housed the party headquarters in Durres. Her father was the grandson of Xhaferr Ypi, who briefly had been prime minister in the early 1920s. Lea believed that sharing a name with a former prime minister who was accused of allowing the state to be occupied by the Italian fascists was a mere coincidence, something she had to explain every year when other children were recounting the brave deeds of their partisan uncles, fathers and grandfathers.
Lea’s life of socialist certainty, with its maths groups, poetry clubs, youth clubs and civic pride, but also poverty and queues, came to an end first with the multi-party elections of 1991, when the communists held on, and the elections of the following year, which were won by the right of centre Democratic Party. Albania ceased to be a collective and embraced the West. Ypi employs a psychiatric analogy to explain what took place. “Our planned economy was considered to be the equivalent of madness. The cure was a transformative monetary policy: balancing budgets, liberalizing prices, eliminating government subsidies, privatizing the state sector and opening up the economy to foreign trade and direct investment. Market behaviour would then adjust itself, and the emerging capitalist institutions would become efficient without great need for central coordination … Milton Friedman and Friedrich von Hayek replaced Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels almost overnight.”
Something called Civil Society was added to the political lexicon as an alternative to “The Party”. Liberalism replaced democratic centralism, privatisation replaced collectivisation. Transition, which used to be the transition from socialism to communism, was now the transition from socialism to capitalism. Fighting corruption replaced fighting imperialism. “My teenage years were years of hyper activism in civil society,” she remarked.
When I worked in media development in the Balkans a few years later, I found it interesting to see how Western aid was always linked to market liberalism. How most Western institutions were automatically assumed to be better – though oddly public service broadcasting, such as the BBC, was not seen as superior to the privatisation of state-owned broadcasting. Nothing was to be saved from the previous regime, including education systems that had driven literacy to 90 per cent or more.
One freedom that many tried to avail of was the new freedom of movement, but in a stinging passage Ypi says that such a freedom was easy to defend when someone else was doing the imprisoning, while dissidents were feted in the West. “What value does the right to exit have if there is no right to enter?” Were borders and wall only reprehensible when they served to keep people in, as opposed to keeping them out, she asked. “The border guards, the patrol boat, the detention centres and repression of immigrants were pioneered in southern Europe in those years and would become standard practiced over the coming decade.”
Ypi’s rather gentle and politically interesting father becomes manager of the newly privatised port of Durres, but he cannot implement the “necessary” structural reforms and sack the mainly Roma workforce in the name of the market and loses his own job. Her mother becomes obsessed with getting back her family’s wealth and becomes active in the Democratic Party. However, it is her father who becomes a parliamentary deputy for the same party, something he is as unsuited to as managing a port; he loses his seat. Like everyone else, the family loses its money in the pyramid schemes that cause a civil war. This takes place as Lea is sitting her final school exams.
Lea Ypi is now teaching Marxism at the London School of Economics, much to her mother’s puzzlement and horror – her father and grandmother have died. She tells her students that socialism is a theory of human freedom, of how to think about progress in history, of how we adapt to circumstances, but also try to rise above them. Looking back to her communist childhood, she says that freedom is not sacrificed only when others tell us what to say, where to go or how to behave. A society that claims to enable people to realise their potential but fails to change the structures that prevent everyone from flourishing is also oppressive.
Ypi is not nostalgic for the Albania in which she spent her childhood. She knows its cruelty and oppression, the spying by neighbours for the secret police and lack of free speech, and she knows how this impacted on her own family. She describes herself now as a Kantian Marxist: the Kantian side means people are ends in themselves, that we have agency and are free to choose. Her family equated socialism with denial of who they wanted to be, of the right to make mistakes, and to learn from them and to explore the world on one’s own terms. She does not disagree, but adds: “I equated liberals with broken promises, the destruction of solidarity, the right to inherit privilege, turning a blind eye to injustice.”
Having seen a system change once, it is not difficult, she says, to imagine it changing again. Fighting cynicism and political apathy “turns into what some might call a moral duty”. In a nod to her grandmother and father, she adds that despite all the constraints we never lose our inner freedom: the freedom to do what is right.
Michael Foley is professor emeritus at the School of Media, Technological University, Dublin. He has worked in media development in the Balkans.