Free: A Child and a Country at the End of History, by Lea Ypi (W. W. Norton & Company, 288 pp., $27.95)
Lea Ypi’s memoir, Free: A Child and a Country at the End of History, has drawn the warm attention of readers and critics, for good reasons. The book describes Albania as seen through the eyes of a young girl—an ingenious combination of subject matter and literary form that makes a fascinating narrative. Albania was for decades the least-known Communist country, tightly sealed against external influence and subjected to a gruesome system based on terror and massive indoctrination. The Albanian Communists, with their Stalin-like leader Enver Hoxha, who was lavishly and shamelessly worshipped by the entire society, considered themselves to have the only genuinely Communist government in the world, having earlier broken their relations with Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union, and China. Albania was also the last European country to shake off the Communist yoke.
The book starts in the 1980s, when the system was still strong, with Hoxha (“Uncle Enver,” as Albanian children had to call him) reaching the end of his life. In the opening scene, we see a young Lea, a schoolgirl, hugging a bronze statue of Stalin. The first part of the book ends with the Communist system’s fall, and the second part depicts Lea’s experience in the early years of post-Communist rule. I said that the book is primarily about Albania as seen through the eyes of a young girl, but it is also about something else—namely, how painful and unsatisfactory was a transformation of one system to another, and how forces over which individual people had little influence determined their futures.
As I read the first part, I was amazed at how much the author’s experience of a Communist country differed from mine in Communist Poland, and how deeply the Albanian system intruded into people’s lives. I am Ypi’s senior by 30 years and have only vague memories of the Stalinist times in Poland. Yet nothing comparable could have happened in Poland during that era. We never called the Communist leader “uncle,” nor were we expected to do so. Yes, people were terrorized. Some feared arrest and execution. One of my parents’ frequent guests was arrested and hanged by the Communists. But at home, my parents spoke freely, didn’t use propaganda language, and never encoded their thoughts so that their children wouldn’t understand. And my home was not exceptional. As the system evolved, the free area in private and communal life increased.
By contrast, in Albania, Ypi’s parents and grandmother never talked openly about Communist oppression or about their own or their friends’ “biographies” (one of those mysterious words that indirectly referred to one’s being a victim of the repressive state apparatus). Instead of talking about someone’s imprisonments, they talked about this person studying at a university; instead of harsh treatment, they talked of difficult examinations, and so on. And all this was happening as samizdat publications became more accessible in other countries, and as a well-organized alternative society took shape in Poland.
How to live in a country so imbued with fear, coercion, and mendacity? Again, I was struck by the difference between Albania and Poland. In my country, we kept our minds fairly immune to Communist toxins by connecting ourselves to realities that differed from what the regime created—richer, more complex, nobler, more beautiful, more inspiring, truer, and closer to our hearts. These were, first, national culture and history; and, second, religion, with the Catholic Church playing a special role.
According to Ypi, neither of these two places of refuge existed for the Albanians. The Communists had declared Albania the first atheist state and used every instrument to eradicate religion. Ypi’s family came from Muslim stock, but Islam did not play any role in her family’s life. Even more significant, there was no alternative to the historical narrative forged and enforced by the Communists—no stories from the past that could drive the official gibberish from the people’s minds. Perhaps Ypi’s only path out of the drabness of the Communist reality was the French language, which she learned from her grandmother, a pupil in her youth at the Lycée Français de Salonique.
No wonder, then, that she recalls feeling little sense of liberation, relief, or joy when the system changed. The change, she writes, was like a replacement of one artificial construction by another. In a way, this is understandable. Since terror and indoctrination didn’t allow the Albanian people to share in a common hope of independence and a common dream of having their national identity released from a mental prison, the system’s disappearance must have lacked any euphoric element.
Other Communist countries had different experiences in that respect, but whatever the differences, Ypi has accurately captured those aspects of the new situation that were unpleasant and revealed new and dangerous trends in the post- Communist world. I am not talking about the notorious financial pyramid schemes that brought misery to many Albanians. Rather, the new system itself did not deliver what it promised. I remember discovering the unexpected facets of this new system after Poland entered the liberal democratic world, though in Albania, they must have seemed more potent. In Poland, almost overnight, a new official language was imposed on us. Ypi records similar observations in Albania. Suddenly everybody was talking about transformation, liberalization, shock therapy, democratization, private initiative, property rights, privatization, and so on. There was not only one official language but also one official interpretation of events. Dissenting attitudes were not welcome.
What followed was a sense of helplessness, which Ypi describes well. The people felt helpless not because the new system was too open and indeterminate but, on the contrary, because it soon became closed. The language of freedom that we were using was misleading. East European societies entered a world of necessity: experts, specialists, foreign advisors, homegrown elites, international organizations, intellectual authorities—all pontificating on what had to be done. We were there to learn and to obey. “Now that you are free, you have to do this, this, and this” would be a simplified and caricatured version of the message we kept hearing.
In a country like Albania, the sadness of existence under Communist rule somehow found its continuation after the society put on new political clothing. Many who took positions of responsibility in the new order were the same people who had been in charge of the old one. With the Communists suddenly becoming liberal democrats, there were no perpetrators and no guilty parties. All the blame was put on the allegedly wrong ideas. It was, as Ypi writes, “a revolution of people against concepts.”
It would be, of course, unjust to claim both systems were morally and politically equivalent, and the author does not make such a claim. But given that she puts those systems side by side, the reader cannot escape the question of how the two systems related to one another. That question has no easy answer. Ypi’s picture of Communist Albania is filtered through a young girl’s illusions and her family’s protective strategy. The reality occasionally comes out, but much remains unsaid, and this filtering renders the narrative more akin to literature than documentary. The world the reader observes is not only small—reduced to the young girl’s family and friends—but also partly imagined, distorted by the self-deceptions and falsehoods in which she was made to believe.
Ypi’s presentation of the post-Communist world, by contrast, is decidedly objectivist. The reality that unfolds is of Albanian society: elections, waves of immigration, Ponzi schemes, political turmoil. The personal ingredient is there, to be sure, but the author’s story goes far beyond what she herself experienced. Sometimes, she imposes her present personality on herself as a young girl. For instance, when she mentioned her mother’s hostility to quotas and affirmative action to support women, she says, “Socialism succeeded in ripping the veil off women’s heads, but not in the minds of their men.” This is not the kind of statement that a 12-year-old girl could make in Tirana after the collapse of the system. This is the language of today’s Lea Ypi, a progressive philosophy professor at the London School of Economics.
Therefore, the picture of the post-Communist world is not only far more objective than the picture of the Communist system in the first part of the book but also more interpretive. The contact with this post-Communist world gave the author more in terms of her intellectual development than did her early years with the Stalin statues and Uncle Enver. She has been trying to come to terms with her initial disappointment in the post-Communist system ever since. To her, the new system meant “broken promises, the destruction of solidarity, the right to inherit privilege, self-enrichment, cultivating illusions while turning a blind eye to injustice.”
Some years after the Communist system collapsed, young Ypi had to decide what to study at the university. Her family was not happy about her choice of philosophy but made her promise that she would “stay away from Marx.” She did not keep her promise; today she teaches Marxism at a British university. Her justification is simple: she teaches Marxism because Marxism “is above all a theory of human freedom, of how to think about progress in history, of how to adapt to circumstances, but also to try to rise above them.” This, she says, enabled her to give an account of what she experienced in Albania and elsewhere.
Though simple, this justification is also rather unusual. One can, of course, interpret Marxism as a theory of freedom, and this would not be an eccentric interpretation. Leszek Kołakowski’s magisterial Main Currents of Marxism goes in this direction. What is unusual is that someone with Ypi’s biography would not only turn to Marxism but also treat it as an intellectual key to understanding freedom. I would rather imagine that such a person would turn to non-Marxism—that is, to the enormous area of human thought that the Marxist apparatchiks kept closed or downgraded with their ideological clichés. Marxism, after all, is a tiny island in the ocean of philosophy and far from the most interesting one. I could more easily imagine such a person learning about freedom from Aristotle, the Stoics, St. Augustine, Hobbes, Descartes, Burke, Tocqueville, Hegel, Bergson, and others.
I do not understand Ypi’s decision, and her book, interesting as it is, doesn’t give a satisfactory explanation. My only guess is that it has to do with some form of continuity or consistency. The Albanian world she depicts, both before and after the political change, was drab, arid, socially and intellectually impoverished, and closed off to all but a few simplistic formulas. I cannot resist the feeling that the author, having liberated herself from the Albanian environment, failed to move to a much richer and livelier philosophical world. Whether she was unable to do so, whether her Albanian upbringing killed any interest in this world, or whether it was Western academia that did the job, I cannot say.