- Interview by
- Daniel Finn
For much of the last century, Albania has seemed like Europe’s odd one out. It was the last country in the Balkans to gain its independence from the Ottoman Empire and the only Muslim-majority state west of Turkey. It followed a unique path during the Cold War under the long rule of Enver Hoxha.
Lea Ypi grew up in Albania during the last years of Hoxha’s rule. Her acclaimed memoir, Free: Coming of Age at the End of History, discusses Albania’s experience of communism and postcommunism during the 1980s and ’90s. She argues that for all its unusual features, Albanian history contains some vital lessons for anyone who wants to change the world for the better.
You refer in the book to your grandmother’s experience of growing up in Salonika when it was still part of the Ottoman Empire. That brings up the wider point that Albania itself was the last country in the Balkans to break away from Ottoman rule in the early twentieth century. How did Albania emerge and survive as an independent state — or at least a formally independent one — going into the interwar period?
Looking at the history of the period, it sometimes seems to have been an accident of history, or rather an accident of the will of the great powers, who were in competition with each other for hegemony in the Balkans.
For a long time, Albania’s history and its efforts to be independent were entwined with the Ottoman Empire, in part due to the fact that the country had a majority-Muslim population (though there were also Greek Orthodox and Catholic minorities). Throughout its history, the territories of the Ottoman Empire populated by Albanians were unruly and difficult to control but had also produced a significant part of the Ottoman intelligentsia. Many of the pashas and administrative and military leaders who were integrated into the Ottoman administration came from Albania.
On the eve of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the great powers competed for hegemony in the region, and the interests of those different powers were at odds with one another. Austria-Hungary competed with Russia for control, and there were different bits of Albanian territory that were claimed by different states: in the north, there was Serbia and Montenegro; in the south, there was Greece; and then there was the contentious issue of Macedonia. There was always the question of who would have access to the Adriatic Sea, and that was obviously of interest to Italy.
The Albanian independence movement was the last of the Balkan cultural and political movements to try to detach from the Ottoman Empire. The elites were so integrated into the empire that they believed for a long time they could stay within it and have more autonomy within that larger entity. National politics only really turned to a demand for proper independence rather than greater autonomy within the empire when the intelligentsia realized that the Ottoman Empire was a failing entity. At that point, the whole country was in danger because different parts of its territory were claimed by different states who had succeeded in separating themselves from the Ottoman Empire earlier.
There were various moments in the history of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries where the fate of the Albanians, alongside that of other Ottoman territories, was discussed at international conferences attended by the great powers: in the aftermath of the Russo-Turkish War, and in the context of the two Balkan wars before 1914 for example. At the end of each of these conflicts, the territory of Albania was at stake, with different neighboring countries laying claim to it.
The story varied in different parts of the country. The Ottoman Empire was divided into various territorial administrative units called vilayets, none of which corresponded perfectly to the actual territory of Albania. One could think about the relationship between political authority and territory in various ways: one could use linguistic or cultural criteria, or one could think about different ways of organizing politically, depending on how the different parts of the territory were integrated into the empire. There wasn’t a single definition of what exactly the state of Albania was supposed to be and how it would relate to the Ottoman Empire.
Albania declared independence unilaterally in 1912 and was recognized slightly later. The defining moment for the Albanian independentist movement was the point at which they had to settle accounts with the Young Turks, a reformist and progressive movement within the Ottoman Empire. Several representatives of the Albanian elites invested politically in the Young Turks before realizing that the promises for greater regional autonomy and guaranteed language rights were not going to be maintained in the way they hoped.
In the early twentieth century, the recognized territory of Albania was not the same as it is today. One of the most contentious issues was the status of Kosovo, which had an Albanian-speaking majority. At one point it was part of Albania’s recognized territory, then it was partitioned. Serbia laid claim to it, partly because of its symbolic importance for Serbia’s founding national myths. Something similar also happened in relation to Greece, in a slightly different form.
The Albanian state became formally detached from the Ottoman Empire in 1912 then went through a very shaky period. First there was a colonial puppet government headed by a German prince, Wilhelm of Wied. Then there were a series of governments exercising authority on behalf of the new independent state, which were more or less liberal, or more or less conservative, until Ahmed Zogolli (one of the most important chieftains) declared himself Zog I, king of the Albanians.
There’s no other example in Europe — or elsewhere for that matter — of a communist party having taken power so soon after it was established. This was in a country where the Red Army never played any direct role in combat during World War II. Speaking very broadly, how did that come to happen, during and immediately after the war?
That is a very interesting question, which has to do with the way that the Albanian modern state was consolidated and the various political players in relation to it. As I’ve said, at the beginning of Albanian independence in 1912, you had a state whose territory and boundaries were still being contested and decided upon. The question of recognition by the great powers was always there. Eventually, the question was resolved with a kind of independent but curtailed Albanian state, which had lost a lot of its Albanian-speaking population and territory, in the south to Greece and in the north to Serbia, which was then part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.
The early years of the first modern Albanian state in the 1920s and ’30s were dominated by a clash between two main factions. You had the old landowners and property owners connected to the Ottoman Empire. There wasn’t really any industrial infrastructure or a network of roads. The majority of the population were illiterate, and there weren’t many schools. It was a very backward part of the Balkans, in terms of education and social standards, and also in terms of debate about social reform and so on.
One part of the political elite represented these conservative landowning elites. On the other hand, there were some beginnings of a progressive movement, which was never really a socialist or communist movement, in part because there wasn’t really a working class in Albania. It was a completely different context compared to other places in Eastern Europe. The origins of this progressive or left-wing movement are usually traced back to what is called the democratic revolution of June 1924.
This was a revolution led by progressives, not communists or socialists, although the Soviet Union recognized the state that emerged from this short-lived revolution, which was almost immediately defeated. For that reason, it was looked on with suspicion by the great powers. The abortive revolution was led by an Orthodox bishop, Fan Noli. He had returned from the US-based Albanian elite to promote the progressive cause in Albania, which at that point mostly took the form of promising land reform for the peasants who were living in extremely poor and vulnerable conditions.
However, there wasn’t a communist movement in Albania. In fact, Albania in 1940 was the only country in Europe that didn’t have a communist party. The way that the Communist Party emerged was very much connected to the Italian invasion of Albania, which was then followed by a Nazi takeover after the capitulation of Benito Mussolini’s regime. While the Italian Fascists formally occupied Albania in April 1939, they had already been consolidating their presence and position as a de facto neocolonial power in the country throughout the 1930s.
That was in part because of their alliance with King Zog, the country’s ruler. He was a landowner who came from a well-established Albanian family in the north. He had defeated the democratic revolution of 1924; after first becoming Albania’s president, he declared himself king in 1928. For the rest of the 1920s and ’30s, Albania was a kingdom, and it was very closely aligned with Mussolini’s Fascist Italy.
When the formal occupation began, some of the Albanian progressives decided to mobilize and fight the Fascists, with the help of Yugoslav communists who were connected to the Comintern, who came to Albania and decided to lead a process of unifying the various elements that one could associate with the Left in Albania. Throughout the interwar decades, there had been people who traveled to the Soviet Union, for example. Some of them had Trotskyist sympathies, while some were inspired by the Popular Front in the 1930s.
There was a tradition of intellectual elites who had left-leaning sympathies, with magazines or newspapers inspired by left-wing ideologies, but there wasn’t really any proper integration or connection between them and the Albanian people. It was only when representatives of the Yugoslav Communist Party came to Albania, having been instructed by the Comintern to help build an Albanian Communist Party, that you had the founding of that party in 1941. Its primary mission was fighting the Fascist and later Nazi occupation. It began with very few members — less than a hundred in the whole of Albania — and started to organize pockets of resistance.
You tell the story of your family’s personal connections with the political class in Albania, both before and after it became a communist state. You had a relative who briefly served in the government after the Italian invasion and was later denounced as a collaborator, but your grandfather went to school with Hoxha — at one point he tried to join the International Brigades in Spain while he was living in France. Would you say that kind of proximity or intimacy was a general experience for those with higher education in a country where the intelligentsia was quite small?
Yes, I think the fact that the intelligentsia was quite small is very much relevant here. This intelligentsia mainly derived from the families of landowners, a number of which were deeply integrated into the structures of the Ottoman Empire — especially in the south of Albania, where my family came from. The older generation of family members had come from the Ottoman administration and were in some ways nationalists.
The nationalists then divided between more conservative elements whose economic interests were connected to those of their class and more progressive elements who were slightly younger and who thought of the nation-building project as a progressive one. They were not merely interested in the consolidation of the Albanian state, as King Zog and other members of the political elite around him — including my great-grandfather — were. They had an alternative project that insisted on the importance of building social structures in Albania, making the country more educated, distributing wealth more evenly, and addressing the question of land reform.
I think it was quite a standard story. In fact, Hoxha himself came from a similar background. He was also from the south of Albania, where he had studied in the French lycée in the city of Korçë. His family were also property owners from the elite. In that context, there wasn’t really a political, left-wing movement that didn’t come from the Albanian elites.
What was the experience of those who opposed the new system — or those who were merely suspected of being opponents — during the postwar period? How did the split between Joseph Stalin and Josip Broz Tito affect the development of Albania?
The consolidation of Albanian communism was very much connected to the consolidation of the Albanian state. In other words, the period in which Albania was an independent country was very short. Soon after it became an independent country, it also became a communist state. The communists had been the main organized force behind the resistance.
There were other forces as well. There was a group called the National Front, made up of those who were nationalists but not left-wing and whose interests were more closely aligned with those of the landowners and the rich in Albania. There were others who were nationalists but sympathetic to the king. The king had fled Albania in 1939 after falling out with the Italian Fascists who he had initially supported and who had initially supported him. He was in exile, but some of his supporters were trying to help with the resistance.
Still, the Albanian Communist Party was the most organized political unit in the resistance. Several of the outsiders who came to observe what was happening in Albania decided to support the left-wing resistance and not the other factions because they thought the Left was the best organized — it was following Leninist principles. The role that the Yugoslav communists played in the organization of the Albanian resistance can’t be overstated.
However, once the war was over, the first question concerned the part of Albania that had only recently become part of Yugoslavia, with the separation of the ethnic Albanians who lived in Kosovo. There was also the status of Albania itself as an independent country. This was always a contentious issue with the Yugoslav communists. On the one hand, they said that they recognized claims to self-determination, or at least indicated that they were somewhat sympathetic. On the other hand, Tito had his own project of a hypothetical socialist federation in the Balkans, with Albania as a member.
At this point, there was a power struggle within the Albanian Communist Party between those who supported Tito and those who were much more reluctant to be part of this Yugoslav project, in part for nationalist reasons and in part for reasons of power, a clash of egos, and so on. This question of nationalism was there from the beginning, and it played out with the Yugoslav communists in this way. When it turned into a fight within different factions of the Albanian party, it was the Stalin-Tito split that decided the fate of Albanian communism.
Stalin didn’t really have an interest in Albania or know a lot about Albanian communism. Judging from the memoirs of Hoxha (he has a book called The Titoists in which he talks about the relationship between the Albanian and Yugoslav communists early on), it seems very clear that the Soviet Union wasn’t particularly interested in Albania to begin with. In addition, neither the western Allies nor the Soviet Union had been part of the liberation of Albania. This is also why the Albanian communists had relative autonomy within which to operate.
Yet the Stalin-Tito split was the key factor for the resolution of this internal fight between pro-Yugoslav and anti-Yugoslav factions. Enver Hoxha, who led the second of these factions, asked Moscow for support against Tito. Albania thus became isolated from Yugoslavia and received protection from the USSR. Many of the economic and commercial deals they had signed with Yugoslavia were broken. The Soviet Union now supported the country economically until the death of Stalin.
What impact did the political thaw in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe after Stalin’s death have on Albania? Was there any reformist tendency in the late 1950s that was akin to those in Poland or Hungary at that time, however tentative it might have been?
When Stalin died and there was a critique of Stalinism and of the Stalinist purges in the Soviet Union, this was very sensitive in Albania, because Albanians knew there might also be a rapprochement of the Soviets with Yugoslavia. The question of the relationship with Yugoslavia was often crucial for understanding Albania’s stance toward the Soviet Union.
In part, it was also a struggle about ideological purity. Hoxha declared himself in support of Stalin and Stalinism. When the Soviet leaders started to revise the cult of Stalin, the Albanians became extremely defensive and decided to fight for Stalin, criticizing the reformist tendencies of Nikita Khrushchev and his circle. When the Soviet communists felt that it was time to draw a line under the Stalinist methods and take the project in a different direction, the Albanian communists parted ways with the Soviets and were reluctant to endorse the critique.
There were struggles in the Albanian party, but Hoxha always managed to circumscribe them, and they often led to internal purges. The pro-Yugoslav party had already been purged, and that became almost the standard blueprint for how the Communist Party — which was now called the Albanian Party of Labor — would handle such internal disagreements.
Hoxha ruled Albania for almost four decades before his death in 1985, which was one of the longest periods in power for a ruler of any political complexion in the twentieth century. He’s often remembered today for his more eccentric statements and actions while in power, which perhaps overshadows the bleaker side of his rule for those who fell afoul of it. What kind of a man did he show himself to be over the course of his political life, and what impact do you think his own personality had on the Albanian system?
I think the assessment changes at different points of his career. I am usually reluctant to talk about Hoxha as such, because for me, it’s more interesting to understand the forces and political processes at work that enabled him to consolidate his power within the Communist Party and then to maintain that power. I think he started out as someone who came from an elite family, who went to France, and who was inspired by progressive ideas, like many people of his generation.
When he returned to Albania, he was part of the movement without being in any way central. He was not the main character in the beginning — there were other members of the Albanian party who appeared to be as influential as him. He became much more central after the Albanian-Yugoslav split, and successfully managed to use the struggle between Tito and Stalin for his own advantage, to eliminate his adversaries in the party. From then on, it was a story of holding onto power, consolidating power, and responding ruthlessly to opponents.
He became more and more like a classical tyrant — someone who controls everything and everyone and who is inspired by the idea of being indispensable. There was a narrative and a cult of personality around Hoxha that depicted him as the father of the nation, who defeated the Fascists and the Nazis, and without whom the party and the country could not survive.
There was a myth around Hoxha that was inculcated in schools and repeated in workplaces and to which everyone subscribed — more or less sincerely. In families like my own, obviously nobody ever really believed that myth, but there may have been other families in Albania who were more sincere, especially if one judges by the amount of crying and wailing that took place when he died.
By the time of his death, I think he really had become a paradigmatic tyrant — someone who had absolute power over everything. One of his last important fights was with one of his closest allies from the beginning of the resistance movement, Mehmet Shehu, who was also the prime minister of Albania for a very long time. Shehu ended up killing himself in very mysterious circumstances in 1981. This was the end of a series of internal power struggles, which led to the executions of adversaries and dissidents.
The question of what kind of ruler Hoxha was depends on what point of Albanian history we are talking about. He always tried to mobilize Albanian nationalist sentiments in the service of his own political ends. That is perhaps the main characteristic of his almost four-decade rule in Albania. He had the ability to instrumentalize a narrative of national independence, self-sufficiency, and the protection of Albania to consolidate his own position in the country, with all the familiar episodes of bloodshed and oppression.
After the initial period of alliance with Yugoslavia, he aligned with the Soviet Union, then broke with Moscow and encouraged a special relationship with China, before splitting with them in turn. The story was one of looking for protection from a great power and getting concessions and support, both economic and political. When the Soviets or the Chinese took a more moderate direction and questioned the cult of the individual — anything that would endanger his own control of the party — then Hoxha mobilized national rhetoric at the service of cutting links with the superpowers.
I grew up with this idea that Albania was a small country that had resisted empires throughout history and now was completely isolated because even its former socialist allies had turned out to be corrupt and had betrayed the true ideals of socialism. The image of Albania as a small state that could set the example for other small states around the world who wanted to resist big powers, whether it was the imperialist West or the revisionist East, was very powerful (and also very attractive in the eyes of a child).
It also attracted to Albania many communist activists from outside, who without knowing the details of the situation from within, were driven to the socialism of a country that presented itself, as the slogan used to go, as the lighthouse for anti-imperialist struggles around the world. However, the narrative of a country led by Hoxha and able to stand up to all these different superpowers could be sustained only at the cost of huge isolation, internal violent repression, and the intolerance of any form of dissent.
From your account of your childhood in the book, it appears that you took the ideology of the system largely at face value until 1991. For example, you say that you never deciphered the code that your family used to talk about people they knew who were in prison or who had died in prison. It probably is very common for children to take what they learn in school at that age at face value, whatever political system they may happen to live under. But how far do you think the state ideology had been accepted by people who were adults but had grown up under Hoxha’s rule?
This is a difficult question to answer, and it may be one of the most controversial questions that are still crucial to current political debates in Albania. I would say that it depends very much on the family and on the context in which these adults had grown up. A family like mine had been clearly dissident from 1946. My parents, even though they were born in communist Albania, had learned very quickly that they were the class enemy, because they had been singled out in that way.
They lived their entire lives watching over their shoulders and worrying that some colleague at work might spy on them or some relative might listen to their conversations. If they didn’t trust somebody, they needed to be careful, because they might report on them. I would say my family was obsessed to an extreme with the spying system and the network of collaborators — the people who were watching to see if they were doing something wrong. For that reason, they developed a very elaborate code to talk among themselves and to people they trusted about the system, but in a way that wouldn’t have been intelligible to a child like me.
People with different experiences, or who come from different generations, report different things. When I’ve discussed the book in Albania, people who come from different family backgrounds have said, “Actually, in my family, we spoke about this. And I knew about the injustice of the system from very early on.” Sometimes people are surprised when I say that I was eleven and I didn’t know anything about what was going on and that my family had this very elaborate code with the help of which they could speak freely among themselves while also trying to shelter me.
This was partly to protect themselves, because they didn’t want to say something that would be misinterpreted politically and would endanger them, but also partly to protect my ambitions. I was a very committed young pioneer who believed that the state she lived in was a just state where freedom mattered and that was committed to promoting freedom, not just for its own people, but for everyone else around the world. My parents did nothing to challenge that narrative, in part because they didn’t want to kill my ambition of being a good citizen, which they thought came with caring about work, thinking, reading, becoming more educated, and so on. They didn’t want to stifle that.
In other families, people say that there were more open conversations, though of course they were never public. There was never really a dissident movement like the ones in Poland, Hungary, or Czechoslovakia. Every potential dissident was immediately silenced and harshly punished.
When things changed in 1990, it didn’t really come from any movement of long-term dissidence. It was very much a change that was driven from the inside by party members, or representatives of the elite, who realized that it was over for most of Eastern Europe, and soon it was going to be over for Albania. The transition and transfer of power was more powerful precisely because a lot of it was managed from within the party ranks.
Perhaps families of communist officials, or families that were different from mine, might have had different codes of conversation, or might have been a little more open. It varied depending on the social background of who you were talking about and where they were positioned — were they party members or not? My parents, for example, would not have been allowed to join the party even if they wanted to, so they were extra careful, whereas in families of party members, perhaps the conversations would have been different.
However, this is something that people don’t talk about openly in Albania today, because the narrative is very much one of everyone having been oppressed by the system. If you were to be more nuanced about the degrees of oppression, or the ways in which you were impacted by censorship and the variations between different families, this might suggest different levels of complicity. That’s a very tricky question to raise in postcommunist Albania.
A lot of the discussion around your book has focused on Albania’s communist period — understandably, perhaps, because it is such a compelling story about your family. But you do have an entire second part of the memoir, which concentrates on the experience of postcommunist Albania, where you suggest, for example, that the dogmatic ideological thinking of functionaries from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) who came to Albania had something in common with very crude forms of dialectical materialism under the old system. Do you think that people were expecting a rather more conventional account that would make them feel better about present-day Western capitalism?
I don’t really know, because I’ve actually been surprised by how well the book has been received, even by people who you might have thought would have been more critical of the second part. It may be related to the time at which the book was released, at a moment of crisis for a lot of Western countries in the wake of the pandemic but also before that.
Many people committed to the liberal system are questioning themselves and thinking about its foundations. Can you take this project forward? What do you need to do to change things? There’s also a sense in which some of the critical responses in Eastern Europe to the Western liberal model are related to the failures of globalization and the neoliberal reforms imposed on these countries during the 1990s.
I don’t know if people were expecting something different, because to me it’s been really surprising how receptive readers have been, including a number of those I would have considered much more willing to defend liberalism. This has been the case regardless of the very critical message in the second part of the book about the period of transition and the legacy of shock therapy, and even though Albania is in many ways sui generis and has a distinctive set of experiences compared to other countries.
The reception of the book has been universally positive, from the Right and from the Left. I think this is partly because people from the Right tend to read the first part of the book and appreciate the inside view on real socialism, while people from the Left read the second part and appreciate the criticism of the neoliberal dynamics after 1990.
For me, the more controversial and difficult aspects of the debate have been in Albania because people are inevitably drawn to thinking, “What is this book trying to tell us? Is it saying that liberalism was just as bad as communism? Is she being critical enough of the communist period in Albanian history?”
At the end of the book, you challenge people on the Left in Europe and North America who may consider the experience of countries like Albania to be irrelevant to their own understanding of socialism. How would you like to see people engaging with that experience and learning from it?
This goes back to something that I say at both the beginning and the end of the book. At the beginning, I quote Rosa Luxemburg, engaging with the famous quote from Karl Marx in which he said that people do not make history of their own free will; she added yes, but they still make history.
I think this is one of the messages of the book: concepts, theories, or ideologies never enter a historical context in the way in which we would want them to. There’s never a perfect realization of an ideal. There’s never an environment or a set of circumstances that is just as it should have been for that ideal to be realized.
In the case of communism in Albania, you have a Marxist theory that started in and was developed for industrial societies. It presupposes advanced capitalist relations and liberal states with elections, parliamentary representation, and so on. All these elements make a difference to how you then think about the critique of capitalism and the project of, as I see it, radical democratization of economic and political relations that are already in place.
Then, you have the same set of ideas that was developed for a context like that of Britain or France, but they enter a country like Albania with a state that is still very much in its early years of existence, where the national project of consolidating territory and the boundaries of the state can’t be separated from the project of social reform or the idea of recognition from the outside world.
The social relations are completely different: you have a theory that has at its center the emancipation of the working class, and yet it is deployed to modernize a country where there aren’t workers at all — it’s mostly a land of peasants. A theory that is conceived for a context where people have a relatively sophisticated public sphere and liberal representation is applied to a place where most people are illiterate. They can’t even read and write at the point in which the theory enters domestic politics.
I think this is a wake-up call because it’s an important reminder that this is how ideas always come to be. This is how they become part of history. It’s easy to say this is not what should have happened or this is not really the theory — because it entered a context like that, therefore we can completely dismiss this experience. To me, it’s very important to engage with those experiences.
This applies both to socialism and to liberalism, to any complex combination of ideas and reality. We need to see how they apply to these different historical contexts and what we can learn when you think about changing circumstances and transforming societies in a way that is informed by the empirical knowledge of these contexts.
One of the problems with the West or Western intellectuals engaging with other parts of the non-Western world is not knowing enough about the history of these places — not knowing enough about the circumstances of their state formation, the power dynamics within them, or their social relations. That is one of the gravest limitations of the approach. If you go to a context without knowing the history, without knowing how certain dynamics have developed, then you’re much less likely to have a sense of constraints, but also of opportunities, when you engage with that context.
To me, that’s very obvious when you see how liberals engage with other parts of the world. There’s a set of abstract ideas and insufficient knowledge of the context, coupled with arrogance and the notion that we know better, because these sophisticated ideas have been elaborated through intellectual exchanges over the course of many years; so what can you learn from observing how they operate in a different context? People think they don’t need to know very much about this context.
I would like to see representatives of the contemporary left not simply disengage from the historical experiences of real socialism as though those experiences had nothing to teach it. It’s very important to engage with them and see why things went the way they did. Why did they fail? What were the constraints? What were the social relations in these different contexts? What made economic and political systems fail? Could there have been an alternative path? What would have been necessary for that?
You can learn from these reflections when you’re thinking about renovating, adapting, reconfiguring, and reimagining these projects for the future. It’s really in the spirit of engaging with history in a way that enables people to learn from it, rather than saying you realize something didn’t work and then proceeding to ignore it. History constrains politics; it has done so in the past, and it will continue to do so in the future.
There’s a kind of truth that is hard and uncomfortable for those who are on the Left and believe in Marxist ideas but then see the way in which they worked in many East European contexts and simply dismiss them as if they had nothing to do with the history of the Left. I don’t think that’s a mature attitude, or one from which one can learn very much. A more productive approach would be to engage with these historical experiences as learning processes, to avoid the repetition of the same tragedies in the future.