"A reflection on "freedom" in a dramatic, beautifully written memoir of the end of Communism in the Balkans. Lea Ypi grew up in the last Stalinist country in Europe: Albania, a place of queuing and scarcity, of political executions and secret police. While family members disappeared to what she was told were "universities" from which few "graduated", she swore loyalty to the Party. In her eyes, people were equal, neighbors helped each other, and children were expected to build a better world. Then the statues of Stalin and Hoxha were toppled. Almost overnight, people could vote and worship freely and invest in hopes of striking it rich. But factories shut, jobs disappeared and thousands fled to Italy, only to be sent back. Pyramid schemes bankrupted the country, leading to violence. One generation's dreams became another's disillusionment. As her own family's secrets were revealed, Lea found herself questioning what "freedom" really means. With acute insight and wit, Lea Ypi traces the perils of ideology, and what people need to flourish"--
An interesting book that shows a country fighting for democracy, the challenges faced and how things changed, for not only her family, but for the country as a whole. She finds out the many secrets her family kept, and that their political views had been different from those they were forced to expouse.
I loved how this started when she was young because one can chart her personal and political evolution. As her country changed so did she.
"My parents had simply mastered the slogans, just like I did, but there was a difference, I knew nothing else. Now I had nothing left. In the following days my parents revealed their truth, that their country had been an open air prison for half a century...
I found it difficult to process the fact that everything my family had said had been a lie, they continued to repeat so that I would continue to believe... They had encouraged me to be a good citizen when they knew full well that with my biography, I was only ever a class enemy."
She then experiences the disaster of clumsy liberalisation, made worse by the World Bank, pyramid schemes and neighbouring countries, who pitied the natives when at home but were terrified of them all moving in.
How much really changed? "Civil society" was substituted for Party, liberalization replaced democratic centralism, privatization replaced collectivisation, transparency self-criticism, transition meant socialism to capitalism not socialism to communism, and fighting corruption replaced anti-imperialist struggle.
At the end of the book she still talks with her friends about true socialism.
Her parents wanted Albania to be "like the rest of Europe": fighting corruption, promoting free enterprise, respecting private property, encouraging individual initiative. This would be "freedom".
The first part of this book describes Ypi’s childhood in Albania under Socialist rule, with her parents and grandmothers being outside the Party even though they were left wing, because they came from bourgeois backgrounds. But Ypi’s parents never spoke
In March 1991 Ypi is eleven and travels to Athens with her grandmother, as her grandmother’s family had owned property and a business in Greece before the Second World War, but too much time had passed and laws changed, so this amounts to nothing. However Ypi provides an insight into how vastly different a Western society appeared to her.
Upon Ypi’s return to Albania (chapter 13 entitled Everyone wants to Leave) she finds that migration has started, but Western countries are now enforcing immigration controls to prevent emigration. At this time Ypi’s parents are still employed and settled in Albania, but this is about to change with liberal economic “shock therapy” creating unemployment, where the one party state had ensured near full employment, albeit on very low wages.
Ypi’s father was generally “socialist”, became unemployed and was unable to obtain immediate employment, but because of his education takes on managerial responsibilities in a business, then the local port, before becoming a politician for a short period. Ypi clearly conveys her father’s “political outsider” personality and human warmth.
Ypi’s mother was generally “capitalist”, so on taking “early retirement” became involved in the progressive liberal party and sought to reclaim properties expropriated by the State after the end of the Second World War.
Ypi describes her impressions as an individual of Albania leaving its socialist past by “market restructuring” through her encounters with the Dutch NGO adviser (nicknamed “The Crocodile”), her parents political involvement, her gradual awareness of the likely stories of friends who have emigrated to other European countries (to become sex workers or traffickers), and the Ponzi savings schemes. These stories lead the reader to the reality of Albania’s 1997 civil war, with Ypi providing extracts from her diary to glimpse at the history, from her personal experience (chapter 21).
Ypi is lucky, and made her luck by studying hard (something in which she was encouraged by her family), she emigrated to Italy to study philosophy at university and is now a professor at the London School of Economics.
This is an excellent memoir, which through the personal story allows you to explore what Freedom might be, socialist, libertarian, perhaps the struggle, the journey.
Student unrest grew and riots followed leading to a revolution in 1989 and the first multi-party elections in 1991.
Both of Lea’s parents tried to further Albania’s march toward Westernisation and the acceptance into the European Union and NATO. However, liberalization led to massive layoffs and unemployment. Western financial and peacekeeping forces seemed to add to the chaos. Many citizens lost fortunes in financial ponzi schemes which were often supported by the government.
I had shockingly little knowledge of Albania’s history when I started this book. I found this memoir of communism and the post communism era in Albania really interesting and often humorous.
Eventually the author moved to Italy where she studied philosophy. She is currently a professor of political theory at the London School of Economics.