Free by Lea Ypi review – a riveting portrait of growing up in communist Albania

나는엔 1990 Lea Ypi was asked to write a school essay. The theme was a former prime minister who had brought disgrace to her socialist homeland, Albania. This man – a traitor, according to Ypi’s teacher Nora – had handed over the nation in 1939 to the Italian fascists. A few months later an aerial bomb fell on his head.

Eleven years old, and the daughter of intellectuals, Ypi was reluctant to do the school assignment. The reason? She shared a surname with this hated quisling. And unlike her classmates, whose grandfathers had fought during the war as partisans, Ypi’s family lacked anti-fascist credentials. The only candidate was a remote uncle. This was a source of confusion and shame.

Home for Ypi was the Adriatic port city of Durrës. During the cold war Albania was a sort of nowhere place, cut off from the world on the edge of the Balkans, and neither east nor west. It had a habit of falling out with other, bigger powers – not just the imperialists in next-door Italy, but the “revisionist” Moscow-led bloc in eastern Europe, and the Chinese as well.

Nevertheless Ypi believed her country to be free. She was a keen junior communist, badgering her parents to put a framed photo of Albania’s leader, Comrade Enver Hoxha, on top of their TV set. Not everybody, it turned out, shared her enthusiasm. That December, emboldened by changes elsewhere, pro-democracy protesters took to the streets.

As she wryly recounts in Free: Coming of Age at the End of History, Ypi bumped into the demo en route to a municipal park. There was a statue of Stalin. Stalin, she had been told, loved children. Ypi describes how she hugged the statue’s bronze legs, to faint cries of “freedom and democracy”. Taking a step back, she noticed that local hooligans had removed Stalin’s head.

Ypi’s memoir is gloriously readable. It is a subtle inquiry into the meaning of freedom, personal and philosophical, and a wonderfully funny and poignant portrait of a small nation in a state of collapse. 이번달 초, Free was shortlisted for the 2021 Baillie Gifford prize. One of the nonfiction titles of the year, it is destined for literary accolades and popular success.

Growing up, Ypi was aware of mysteries and family secrets. Her beloved upper-class grandmother Nini spoke to her in French and had attended the wedding of King Zog, Albania’s last monarch. Her father, Zafo, and mother, Doli, were evasive about politics. Sometimes they would talk cryptically about relatives who had “gone to university” – code, it turned out later, for a stint in prison.

Both adults seemed cursed by their “biographies”: a destiny-shaping word that loomed over every Albanian. Neither had been able to study what they wanted at university. Ypi recreates their squabbles in drole dialogue. They disagreed over everything: human nature, money, and whether Beethoven’s third symphony or another march was played at Comrade Enver’s 1985 state funeral.

Her family’s hidden backstory only emerged once Albania’s communist regime crumbled. That momentous summer Ypi attended Pioneer camp for the last time. She went swimming and competed in maths and physics contests. Soon, the red scarf she had worked “impossibly hard to earn” was being used as a duster. “I was someone and then I became someone else," 그녀는 말한다.

Ypi writes mordantly about what happened next to her country. Tutored by western advisers, Albania embraced 유럽 and structural reform. In place of Marxism-Leninism came the strange language of the marketplace. Her father became director of the newly privatised port but could never bring himself to sack its mostly Roma Gypsy workforce, as capitalism demanded.

Within seven years Albania had practically fallen apart. It experienced emigration, dislocation, anarchy on the streets, rumbling civil war, gangsterism and military rule. Thousands lost their savings by investing in pyramid schemes, including Ypi’s parents. European Union countries that had once feted Albanian dissidents turned them away and closed their borders to migrants.

그 동안에, Ypi was struggling with her own adolescent turmoil. There were feelings of nullity. And doomed infatuation. For long periods, studying amid electricity blackouts and gunfire, she was depressed. Far from achieving freedom, it seemed Albania had swapped one dire creed for another. At school dialectical materialism gave way to a new humanities course in “market economy”.

Ypi acknowledges socialism wrecked the lives of millions. But something meaningful was lost too amid the painful transition to liberalism, she thinks. Under the old system there was solidarity in adversity. Neighbours chatted in hours-long shopping queues; it was equally rubbish and drab; everyone shared the same structure of “cooperation and oppression”, 그녀는 쓴다.

Now a professor of political theory at the LSE, and a teacher of Marx, Ypi is amusingly scathing about western leftists. They include the “dreamers” – wide-eyed Scandinavian tourists who in the 1980s would visit Albania in search of utopia, bringing with them exotic accessories such as suntan lotion. Their modern university counterparts are condescending about Ypi’s experiences, saying Albania’s socialism was not the real kind.

Free is one of the most thoughtful texts to emerge from the debris of communism. Its title is ironic – with irony a mode of survival in dark times, as Ypi’s joke-loving father noted. Her enjoyable book is neither nostalgic nor embittered. Rather it seeks to tell how real people can be caught up in history: individuals who loved, fought, struggled and muddled through, just like us.

Luke Harding’s latest book is Shadow State: Murder, Mayhem and Russia’s Remaking of the West (Guardian Faber, £9.99)

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