February 2022

Arts & Letters

Eastern blocked: Lea Ypi’s ‘Free’

By Emma Fajgenbaum
Growing up in Eastern Europe in the ’90s, as the free market’s arrival failed to ‘end history’

Today, the 1990s have a reputation for a kind of bland optimism. After the collapse of communism in the Eastern Bloc and the triumph of Western democracy, the big questions of politics, the story went, had been settled; all that remained was the work of finding technical solutions to administrative issues within the global community of liberal democracy. It was at the threshold of the ’90s, just weeks before the fall of the Berlin Wall, that Francis Fukuyama, deputy director of the US State Department’s policy planning staff, penned his enormously impactful essay in The National Interest called “The End of History?”. Interpreting (and sometimes misinterpreting) the work of the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel, Fukuyama saw history as a protracted struggle to realise the idea of freedom latent in human consciousness. It was with the Western defeat of 20th-century totalitarianisms, wrote Fukuyama, that one saw the final embodiment of this idea: “that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government”.

It is this process of ’90s democratisation that is the subject of Lea Ypi’s memoir, Free. It tells the story of growing up in Albania at the so-called end of history, experiencing both the latter stages of Enver Hoxha’s notoriously sealed socialist enclave as well as the country’s rapid-fire transition to democracy and acceptance into the community of European nations after the regime’s fall in December 1990. A professor of political theory at the London School of Economics, Ypi was interested in writing the book to explore the concept of freedom and its life under systems of both socialism and liberalism. But what really animates Free is Ypi’s very personal account of Albania during this period, viewed not from the perspective of the US State Department but from the Adriatic town of Durrës, where the young Lea lived with her family. There, ideas of freedom were hotly contested by her mother (scion of the expropriated high-bourgeoisie), her father (romantic ’68er awaiting the true revolution to come) and her indomitable paternal grandmother Nini (a Francophone former aristocrat who lost her reforming husband to Hoxha’s persecutions, and quoted Robespierre and Victor Hugo at the breakfast table).

It was in countries like Albania that the arrival of democracy was most anticipated. Over the course of his 40-year rule, Enver Hoxha had turned the small Balkan nation into one of the most isolated and secretive countries in Europe. Having allied and then broken with Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union and finally China, by 1978 Albania stood alone. Cleaving to Stalinist dogma, Hoxha all but sealed the country from outside influence, and exacted harsh retribution on any dissidents who thought to question his authoritarian rule. In 1989, when her account begins, Ypi is 10 years old and Hoxha has been dead for four years, though Albania remains barely reformed by his chosen successor, Ramiz Alia. So, when the Berlin Wall falls, the event is registered by Ypi’s schoolteacher Nora as merely a dispute between “imperialists” and “revisionists”. “None of it concerned us.” As a product of 1980s Albania – loyal to the regime, in love with “Uncle Hoxha” and in earnest belief of the nation’s status as a lighthouse to the world – young Lea is not an altogether reliable guide to her country, but Ypi is faithful to her perspective as a member of the communist youth movement. Lea’s childhood is a happy one, and through her eyes we learn of the afterschool clubs for literature and mathematics, the social fabric of neighbourhood bonds (“We relied on friends and neighbours for everything”) and the art with which a television antenna could be redirected towards Italy to escape the very limited fare of Albanian state media. The book also provides a fascinating ethnography of life in a society where grocery shopping required an initiation into the rules and subsequent loopholes of that notorious institution of socialist states: the queue. “Shopping bags, containers or appropriately sized stones” could take on “the representative functions that would otherwise have to burden their owners”, yet the protocol of an object holding your place could be withdrawn at a moment’s notice, when suddenly “the bag was just a bag; it could no longer be you”.

The turning point of the book is the regime’s collapse in December 1990, and 11-year-old Lea’s discovery of the distinctly “un-free” character of her homeland, with its labour camps stuffed with dissidents and widespread poverty among the population. The declared dictatorship of the proletariat – a temporary step on the way to communist utopia – had in fact been the dictatorship of an authoritarian strongman, with Ypi’s family among the victims. With her world turned upside down, she comes to learn that “studying for a degree” was family code for undertaking a prison sentence (“early drop out” meant suicide), and that the former prime minister and one-time justice minister in the interim fascist government, Xhaferr Ypi, did not share her name by “coincidence” but was her own great-grandfather, a fact that was a permanent blemish on her and her family’s “biography”. A new Opposition party declared that Albania had been “an open-air prison for almost half a century”.

Seemingly overnight, socialism evaporated. “Things were one way, and then they were another.” The prison camps and secret police were disbanded, along with the poetry groups and youth clubs, and the state-guaranteed jobs that had austerely maintained a population disappeared. Liberal democracy was the system that would take its place. This meant a new language of freedom: free elections, free press, information, association. Ypi’s mother runs for office in the newly formed Democratic Party and her father takes a chief executive position at the ports. An influx of commodities from the West allows the freedom to choose one’s groceries as well as to access new ranges of household goods and imported fashions. Feminist delegations arrive to investigate the problem of harassment (though they remain silent on the fast-developing crises of unemployment and high-density orphanages), while a new vocabulary of “knowledge transfer”, “vision statements” and “team synergies” is mastered to secure new bodies of European funding.

Being catapulted into democracy and the “end of history,” was, in Ypi’s telling, a violent and shocking process. With the universalisation of Western liberal democracy also came the imposition of “free” markets and the implementation of “shock therapy” – a package of neoliberal reforms aimed at the rapid integration of the former socialist countries into the global capitalist economy. As Ypi writes:

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. A crisis was foreseen, but people had spent a lifetime making sacrifices in the name of better days to come. This would be their last effort.

In the case of Albania, shock therapy had devastating consequences. Ypi details how the social fabric of her childhood – the solidarity and community that made the shared oppression of the communist era bearable – disappeared with the freewheeling entrepreneurial spirit of klepto-capitalism, which, by 1997, would bring the country to the brink of civil war.

Meanwhile, by the early ’90s the hard borders that had locked in Albanians under Hoxha had been transformed into European barriers to keep them out. As the economy collapsed under the impact of structural reforms, tens of thousands of Albanians sought escape on the commandeered ship Vlora, but those who crammed aboard were met upon disembarkation in Bari, on Italy’s coast, by marine patrols, detention centres, beatings and eventual deportation. Emigration in these conditions remained as out of reach as before.

In the past, one would have been arrested for wanting to leave. Now that nobody was stopping us from emigrating, we were no longer welcome on the other side. The only thing that had changed was the colour of the police uniforms. We risked being arrested not in the name of our own government but in the name of other states, those same governments who used to urge us to break free in the past. The West had spent decades criticizing the East for its closed borders, funding campaigns to demand freedom of movement, condemning the immorality of states committed to restricting the right to exit. Our exiles used to be received as heroes. Now they were treated like criminals.

The freedom of movement championed by the West, in turns out, was not extended to those east of the Adriatic, and it was on Albanians that the harsh measures of Europe’s fortress were pioneered. “Were borders and walls reprehensible only when they served to keep people in, as opposed to keeping them out?” Ypi wonders.

Within Ypi’s very personal story of life lived under both socialism and liberalism is her account of how a specific set of idealised notions about liberty proved disastrous to those whose lives were ruptured by the largely unexpected collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. In her view:

Freedom is not sacrificed only when others tell us what to say, where to go, how to behave. A society that claims to enable people to realize their potential, but fails to change the structures that prevent everyone from flourishing, is also oppressive.

Ypi’s recollections of her childhood reveal that while the Stalinist regime brutally quashed liberal freedoms, it guaranteed a certain degree of equality that the democratic regime could not maintain. This in no way amounts to a defence of Hoxha’s Albania, but the very fact that Ypi can follow such a line of enquiry, and to such popular reception – Free will soon be available in 17 languages – suggests that the end of history has itself finally come to an end, and a new space has been opened to resist the hegemony of often empty definitions of freedom, themselves contributors to the manifold political and social crises assailing Western democracy today, which one can only hope in no way constitutes a “final form of human government”.

Emma Fajgenbaum

Emma Fajgenbaum is an editor at Black Inc.

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