“Free: Coming of Age at the End of History” by Lea Ypi started fierce debates in Albania. This book, which talks about the nature of freedom through the author’s experiences during the end of communism and the beginning of liberalism in Albania, provoked strong reactions about the way it treats the Albanian experience of communism and for the critique of liberalism’s failure in Albania.
Along with raising questions about the concept of freedom in communism and liberalism, the book, which was published in Albanian in November 2021, talks about identity and the moral responsibilities of the individual in society. The ensuing debate in Albania was overwhelmed by a wave of post-communist trauma, a result of the social divisions of the communist period that sometimes intensifies when these divisions are instrumentalized by political parties.
Because of this, much of the debate about the book was narrowly centered on deciding whether the impact of communism on Albanian society was positive or negative. The debate revealed the inability of Albanian society, 30 years after the fall of the communist regime, to openly discuss its past and to reflect on how the communist period still affects social relations, the country’s politics and contemporary thought about freedom
A party at the dictator’s villa
The liveliest part of the discussions about the book and the author started after a promotional event that took place in November 2021 in Tirana at the villa where Enver Hoxha once lived. These discussions were especially lively due to the presence of the Prime Minister Edi Rama and the mayor of Tirana, Erion Veliaj, as well as other members of the socialist government. Their presence bothered not only the government’s critics but also those who might otherwise have liked the book. The argument was that Ypi was tacitly supporting the corruption of the Albanian government by having these officials at the event.
Although Ypi has mentioned several times that she doesn’t think that a leftist ideology is present in any political party in Albania and that she doesn’t feel represented by the so-called “left” in the country, these statements have not been enough to dispel the doubts of her critics.
Some suggested that high government officials like Rama were there due to their tendency to instrumentalize art for their political purposes, particularly given the fresh memory of the government’s demolition of the National Theater in Tirana in May 2020. During the debate over the demolition of the theater, the government mobilized a number of the artists of the National Theater to support them. In the end the decision to demolish the theater was considered illegal and was taken without consulting the general public.
This attempt to build a new theater in an underhanded manner had damaged the legitimacy of the government. The recruitment of some well-known theater and film actors was the government’s attempt to restore the legitimacy they lost in the eyes of citizens, who, for more than two years, organized to prevent the theater’s demolition.
The construction of a new National Theater is not just a decision related to the arts. It is part of a wider government effort to recreate the country’s urban space and to leave a legacy. Through this the government of the Socialist Party aims to present a modern and liberal identity in contrast to what they present as the dogmatic, isolated and anachronistic one of its communist predecessor, the Albanian Workers’ Party.
This contrast is the core of Rama’s modernizing narrative. This narrative is especially attractive to audiences outside Albania, who seem to be fascinated by the prime minister’s artistic background and the urban symbols of Albania’s progress –– the towers built by European architects and architectural studios –– which are in fact a symbol of crime, corruption and inequality.
Some claimed that the presence of the highest officials of the Socialist Party made the author seem politically biased.
In this context, the book’s promotion was seen by some critics as an attempt by the government to reinforce the same propaganda –– to show how far today’s Albania is from the North Korean-style isolation of the 1980s or the chaos of 1990s, when the Democratic Party was in power. That is, they want to promote a narrative that Albania, under Edi Rama’s leadership, has not only achieved political stability, but has liberated all its creative and modernizing energies.
This distance was symbolically transmitted through the place where the book was promoted. So yes, here, the home of the former dictator, the main person responsible for the oppression of Albania, transforms into a center of free speech and criticism. Despite this symbolism, the presence of the highest officials of the Socialist Party made the author seem politically biased. This perception significantly influenced the way the book was interpreted and how the debate about it developed.
Views in Albania about the book split into two completely opposite camps, which embrace opposing narratives of communism.
Some argued that the book rehabilitated communism and hid the brutality of the regime by humanizing it through the nostalgic childhood memories of a little girl. There were also disagreements about how Ypi criticized liberalism for failing to fulfill its promises of freedom.
For those who evaluated it positively, the book is an honest portrayal of communism in Albania, which, according to the historian Artan Puto, is usually falsely told. From this point of view, unlike the many authors who only look at the dark sides of communism, this book showed that people still try to live normal lives within the restrictions imposed by the regime.
Critics of the book see communism only from the perspective of the people who were persecuted or imprisoned by the regime. They promote a limited narrative that only has space for harsh criticism of the oppressive nature of Hoxha’s regime. Since the book takes a different approach, critics claim that the book portrays a mistaken image of the regime. This mistaken image, according to the writer Ardian Vehbiu, gives readers, especially non-Albanians or people who did not experience Enver Hoxha’s communism, the wrong impression of that period.
The problem with these two narratives lies not in the way communism is viewed in Albania, but in the tendency to try to argue about communism's "true" nature.
Meanwhile, those who appreciate the author’s style and treatment of communism have highlighted that despite the broad fear of the regime, people still made choices. For example, when a persecuted family and a communist family enter into friendship, we see an expression of people overcoming fear to maintain human solidarity. At the same time, when a member of a persecuted family is recruited by the regime to spy on other family members, we see an occasion when fear of the regime defeats the individual.
The problem with these two narratives lies not in the way communism is viewed in Albania, but in the tendency to try to argue about communism’s “true” nature. These arguments are harsh and intolerant of other interpretations and they have political implications.
The narrative of communism as a violent and oppressive system helped people oppressed by the regime legitimize their takeover of power after the collapse of communism.
The other narrative, one that centers the all-encompassing system of fear as the main tragedy of communism, has the effect of relativizing the responsibility of individuals tied closely to the regime. This gives them the space to try to rehabilitate themselves and try to regain power. To do so, they must condemn communism not by taking personal responsibility, but by claiming the circumstances were beyond their control.
The narrowness of these narratives makes it difficult to open up the debate about Albania’s communist experience, the social responsibilities for building new systems and the post-communist failure to help Albanian achieve their dreams of freedom.
In “Free,” Ypi criticizes the failures of liberalization in Albania by highlighting the collapse of the economy following the collapse of numerous pyramid schemes, mass emigration and the dissolution of state and society during the near civil war of 1997.
These failures provoked great disappointment in the system that promised to free the individual from the oppression of communism, only to place Albanians in a state of physical and economic insecurity. But according to the supporters of liberalization, this criticism is inappropriate, as the failures of the system cannot be compared with the oppression and brutality of the communist regime.
Communism and liberalism are two systems with completely opposite approaches to freedom. The first is a system that oppresses the individual by denying him freedom of thought and expression, and the second is a system that gives the individual the opportunity to be free in thought and expression, although it carries the uncertainties of a free system. But what is the role of individuals in shaping these systems?
It is difficult to discuss the idea of freedom during communism, when the individual was utterly powerless under the pressure of the state and Marxist-Leninist ideology. And how can we talk about freedom in liberalism, which has at its center the fulfillment of the narrow individual interest instead of a common good?
In communism the individual is often assumed to be without any freedom to control their own life. They are at the mercy of circumstance. While in liberalism, the individual is assumed to have the freedom to determine their own destiny. But what is the role of the individual in defining social and political systems and the possibilities of freedom within them?
If we believe that social systems are created against the will of the individual, then we must accept that regardless of the system –– be it communist or liberal –– the individual is not free to influence society. Consequently, those who committed crimes during communism could be acquitted by the claim that they were only following orders, as Nazi officials claimed after World War II.
On the other hand, if we believe that individuals have a role in creating social systems and determining the degree of freedom within them, then we must recognize that they must be held accountable for the systems they create and participate in.
The individual’s choices cannot be detached from their consequences.
Otherwise, we would have an illogical conception of a free individual who somehow bears no responsibility for the actions they commit, or fail to commit. We would be talking about an individual who does not have the ability to make moral judgments, that is, to determine what is good or bad. As long as we acknowledge that individuals have the capacity for moral judgment, we must acknowledge that the individual is free to choose. And the individual’s choices cannot be detached from their consequences.
Albanian society keeps the communist regime alive by claiming that the regime’s fear and oppression of individual freedom made it impossible to confront, instead of acknowledging that despite these factors it is individuals and society that determine what is acceptable and unacceptable.
And since we still have not accepted full responsibility, we relativize the events on the 1990s, for the utter destruction of social relations that occurred, and act as if these traumatizing events were not as serious as the oppression of individual freedom that society suffered under Hoxha’s regime.
The individual’s ability to choose must be placed at the center of the discussion about the meaning of freedom. And freedom must be discussed beyond the ideological frameworks of communism and liberalism. This would help us overcome the pain of the past and build a freer present. By suppressing the discussion about choices and the responsibilities they carry, we are suppressing freedom.
Feature Image: Ferdi Limani / K2.0.