Lea Ypi was born in 1979 and grew up in the isolated communist dictatorship of Albania. Like other children, she was taught to worship Stalin and a man whom she and everyone around her called Uncle Enver – the dictator Enver Hoxha. We see communism through her innocent eyes, which is both very funny and very poignant – while she’s entralled with both men, there’s something more ominous happening than the adults let on. She had no idea that her parents were less than enthusiastic about the regime. She had no idea that she was the great-granddaughter of former Albanian politician Xhafer Ypi, a man whom the regime considered an enemy. In 1991, the regime collapsed and her parents told her the truth: Albania had been an “open-air prison for almost half a century” – and many members of her family had served time. To her, Albania had been Free – the title of her new memoir.
With the unraveling of the communist regime, the negative and positive sides of freedom were out in the open. Members of her family quietly struggled with finding work due to their last name; but after communism, her parents lost their jobs during an economic crisis and had to find new ones. People had managed secretly to escape from Albania during communism; but now, people fled on ships en masse, and her best friend disappeared in Italy, possibly forced into prostitution, but nobody really knows. Her mother joined the new opposition party, and her father briefly served as an MP in a democratically elected parliament, but Albania soon descended into civil war in 1997. Ypi recounts the war by publishing her diary entries from the time, a move which unfortunately disrupts and confuses the narrative.
Albania was different from Eastern bloc states in that it embraced Stalinism until the end and was not a member of the Warsaw Pact. However, Ypi’s book is in many respects a universal story about how communist societies experienced the transition to capitalism. Free helps illuminate the point of view of an average citizen in the communist world. Many people in Albania and the Soviet Union alike thought that they lived in the greatest country in the world. There were positives to these societies. People cared for each other, there was a sense of duty, and a communal cohesiveness that the West lacked. Overnight, what they thought was the truth was revealed to be lies. Capitalism arrived, and both parents and children had to scramble to survive in a completely different economic model. The base of Russian leader Vladimir Putin is this sort of person – resentful about the loss of security and safety afforded under communism and not at home in the new capitalist world.
Ypi is no Putinist – she is a political theorist at the London School of Economics who describes herself as a “democratic socialist” and a “Kantian Marxist”. Her background in both communist and capitalist worlds allows her to make shrewd observations of both systems. Her story will help readers to understand how destabilising the transition from communism to capitalism was – and why leaders like Putin have gained such power by weaponising old resentments.
Lea Ypi's memoir “Free: A Child and a Country at the End of History” is available here or at your local independent bookseller.