I remember the fall of communism. I was old enough to remember the Berlin wall coming down, but not old enough to have any real understanding of politics. I remember my third grade teacher, Mrs. Kotilainen, telling us of her father escaping the Soviet regime in Latvia by altering his passport. And I remember the the US entering the first Gulf War, the first real modern war fought with the unquestioned supremacy of American military technology. I remember the green and black footage of Iraqi air defenses blindly firing at ghosts on the evening news. This is the world I grew up in.
I’ve been fascinated about what came before it. I’m old enough to remember the jitters of the cold war, but my youth was colored by that unbridled techno-optimism that the 90s promised. It was ok for us to be soft now. The future had promise!
And 9/11 happened and everything changed but America didn’t fall. And the Great Recession came and really mucked things up but America didn’t fall. And at some point, I began to wonder, what brings us to the fall? What did it look like in all those other places where the indefatigable power of the state came so suddenly to an end? What did it mean to people like my third grade teacher, for them to see the bailing twine that bound their societies begin to fray and give out? What did it mean to be free?
If I could understand what freedom meant then, for those people, could I understand what freedom meant for me, an American brought up in the illusion and expectation of freedom, a free American who nevertheless has her government telling her where she can or cannot pee, a free American free from the protective aegis of civil rights laws, a free American who needed a psychiatrist’s permission to use her own name?
When I began to travel the world, I wanted first to see those sites where people rebelled against their governments. I visited the steps of the Národní muzeum in Prague, where Jan Palach self-immolated to protest against the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia. I visited Berlin, where a cobblestone line, two stones thick, cuts through the city where the Berlin Wall once stood. I paid close attention to what it meant to transition from brutal communism to relentless capitalism. Were people better off? Were they free?
Lea Ypi is a couple years older than I am, which means that like me, she grew up in the waning years of 20th Century communism. Unlike me, her childhood was spent in Albania, one of the countries we Americans congratulated on their newfound freedom. Ypi’s memoir, Free, tells a story of a childhood in an Albania in transition: first, after Enver Hoxha’s death, where the adults in her life found themselves dodging informants and trying to network a grassroots resistance against the regime. As she comes of age, she comes also to the realization that her relatives were not away studying at university, a euphemism used by her adult relatives, but rather serving time in Albania’s forced labor camps. She learns that it is no coincidence that she shares a surname with the fascist collaborator Xhafer Ypi, and that as her great-grandfather’s legacy her future opportunities under a communist Albania would always be limited.
The first three-quarters of her book are a humorous and enlightening look at the last European holdout of Stalinism and the transitory years that followed its fall. But the book takes an increasingly desperate tone as she describes her family’s struggles with the ruthlessness of western capitalism, its rapacious greed fuelled by distant and uncaring European advisors. The book becomes dark when she tells of the Albanian Civil War, which she finds herself unable to describe except through excerpts from her journals at the time. She leaves Albania in the end, and ends up now teaching Marxism at a English university. The book is her self-admitted way to reconcile her choice to teach Marxist philosophy despite her family’s suffering at the hands of Hoxha’s regime.
I find myself enamored with and identifying with Ypi’s description of her father, a wistful revolutionary:
He romanticized revolutionary struggle. He was a free spirit stuck in a highly rigid political order, a man with a biography he had not chosen but which was enough to determine his place in the world… He knew what he was against but found it hard to defend what he stood for. Sentences, theories, ideals crowded in his head, and he struggled to find a way to order them, to explain his priorities and to share his views. Everything eventually exploded in thousands of fragments: what he knew, what he was, what he tried to be, what he wanted to see happen. Like the lives of the revolutionaries whose heroic deaths he admired, like his favourite revolution, the one that had never taken place.
The Tirana skyline today is dotted with cranes and growing skyscrapers; it’s alleys still bearing the pockmark domes of the infamous Hoxha bunkers. Freedom today looks like the Turkish government and the European Union battling over the country’s future through investment, in the case of the former, by building the Balkan peninsula’s largest mosque; the latter, through restoring sites of cultural heritage like the National History Museum. The Pyramid of Tirana, built in the last years of communism as the Enver Hoxha Museum, is being restored as a glassy IT hub and education center, the borders of its property wrapped with those construction fences that display some architect’s saccharine rendering of an idyllic future of the space. Tirana is a city living in liminal space. It’s people are free: free to wait for the next revolution, or to make the last the final one.