Free: A child and a country at the end of history
By Lea Ypi
WW Norton and Company, 2021,
$48.89, 288 pages
In the early 1990s, Albania was the last of the Eastern European countries to transform from an authoritarian socialist regime to free-market capitalism. It was perhaps the most repressive of them all: with an extreme “cult of personality” centred on Enver Hoxha, its Stalinist leader from 1944 until his death in 1985.
During that period, it broke with neighbouring Yugoslavia in the 1940s, the Soviet Union in the 1960s, and then China in the 1970s, accusing them of “revisionism” and selling out to the imperialist West.
In Albanian school textbooks, the country was described as “the light-house of anti-imperialist struggles around the world”.
Lea Ypi, who now teaches political theory at the London School of Economics (LSE), has written a fascinating memoir. She paints a vivid picture of the first 11 years of her childhood in Communist Albania and her teenage years as the country descended into the chaos of casino capitalism and civil war in 1997.
Although it deals with some weighty issues and has many poignant moments, the book is also incredibly funny.
In many ways, Ypi’s upbringing highlights the contradictory nature of the Communist regime. For example, in the context of a relatively poor and largely pre-industrial country, in which the vast majority of citizens were illiterate as recently as the end of World War II, the medical services seem decent.
Ypi was born prematurely, but state-funded hospital care, five months in an incubator and regular home visits from a doctor helped ensure that she survived and had a healthy childhood.
In some important respects, her primary school education was apparently superior to that in the West.
“In school we were taught to think about development and decay in evolutionary terms," she writes. "We studied nature with the eyes of [Charles] Darwin and history with the eyes of [Karl] Marx. We distinguished between science and myth, reason and prejudice, healthy doubt and dogmatic superstition.
"We were taught to believe that the right ideas and aspirations survive as a result of all our collective efforts, but that the lives of individuals must always come to an end, like the lives of insects, birds and other animals. To think that people deserve a different fate than the rest of nature does, was to be a slave of myth and dogma at the expense of science and reason.”
Additionally, there were plenty of opportunities for organised extracurricular activities. There were clubs devoted to poetry, singing, theatre, natural science, music and chess, and also opportunities for state-funded holidays.
On the other hand, the same teacher who extolled the virtues of science and reason encouraged her pupils to participate in the irrational cult of idolising Joseph Stalin and Hoxha.
Indeed, Hoxha had the status of a deity in Albanian society. In elections there was only one list of candidates to vote for, no scope for genuine political debate, and although no one appeared to go hungry, there was little variety in consumer goods.
Shopping even for staple foodstuffs was unpredictable and involved standing in queues for hours on end.
The biggest influence on Ypi’s fundamentally happy childhood came from her father, mother and paternal grandmother, a warm and attractive intellectual trio who between them provided her with a loving home and shielded her from the dark side of the regime.
Unknown to young Lea, they had good cause to fear it. Her father’s grandfather was Albania’s 10th prime minister and was regarded as a quisling and class traitor by the authorities.
Her mother’s grandfather was a woodchopper-turned-millionaire (and hence suspect), while her paternal grandfather (a non-Communist leftist) spent 15 years in prison because of his “biography”. There are hints that Ypi’s paternal grandmother suffered physical violence at the hands of the police and that they were deported from their home.
As Ypi approached her teenage years, Albania chaotically unravelled from bureaucratic state socialism into a disintegrating society rife with drugs, prostitution, organised crime, catastrophic pyramid schemes, high levels of desperate emigration and eventually civil war.
She suffered a psychological crisis.
As she puts it, she was a believer in the regime, having read all of Hoxha’s books for children and having worked hard for her red Pioneer scarf. When she heard protesters chanting “Freedom! Democracy!” in 1990, she thought it was because they already had freedom and did not want to lose it.
This sounds like a recipe for crushing disillusionment, but Ypi — who as a teenager managed to read the whole of War and Peace in five days — avoided that fate.
Looking back from the vantage point of Western Europe in 2021, she writes: “In some ways, I have gone full circle. When you see a system change once, you start believing that it can change again.”
Such change is necessary because “My world is as far from freedom as the one my parents tried to escape". "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."
An accomplished academic writer on left-wing ideas, the first thing she tells her students in her Marxism courses at LSE is that socialism is, above all, a theory of freedom.
In encouraging us to think hard about what we mean by freedom, Ypi has provided a thought-provoking and moving book that can be read profitably by anyone interested in progressive political ideas and ideals.