One day, when Lea Ypi was a child, an empty Coca-Cola can appeared in her house. This was communist Albania, in the 1980s, and the country, run by Enver Hoxha along Stalinist lines, was reputed to be the hardest to enter or exit in the world. So a Coke can was a rare and enviable sight. Her mother had put this new ornament in pride of place, on an embroidered doily. Then it disappeared – only for a Coke can to appear on top of the TV next door. Was it the same one? Perhaps.
The neighbours, who had been close, fell out. Finally, after a chilly stand-off, peace was brokered. At a party to celebrate the rapprochement, people were expansive, praising each other’s food, drink, generosity, when a young Ypi spoke up cheerily and silenced the room. “We were going to have a photo of Uncle Enver [instead],” she said, but “I don’t think they like Uncle Enver.” Eventually, as she tells it in her memoir, Free: Coming of Age at the End of History, her neighbour, a communist party member, called her to him. That was, he said sternly, “a very stupid thing to say … Your parents love Uncle Enver. They love the party. You must never again say these stupid things to anyone.” Her parents said nothing.
Albania held out for a year or so after the Berlin Wall fell, but protests escalated, and on 12 December 1990 it became a multiparty state. Ypi’s parents, who had opted to keep their children safe by letting them believe everything they were taught at school, began to admit that no, they had not loved Uncle Enver. But they could not be completely clear about why. Change did not happen overnight: the communist party was elected and ran the country until 1992, so there were many things it was not safe to say. For a 10-year-old, this meant “that the life I lived, inside the walls of the house and outside, was in fact not one life but two, lives that sometimes complemented and supported each other, but mostly clashed against a reality I could not fully grasp.”
And that was “really, really traumatic”, says Ypi now. We meet at a brasserie around the corner from the London School of Economics, where she is a professor of political theory. “I know it was traumatic because I wrote about it in my diaries at the time. I started keeping a diary in July 1990 because suddenly there was this desire to understand what was going on. I just didn’t know how to process it. Some of the diary is 10-year-old rubbish, but a lot of it is very political.”
“I doubted them,” she writes of her parents in Free, which is longlisted for this year’s Baillie Gifford prize for nonfiction. “And by doubting, my grip on who I was began to slip.” These days she seems, on the surface at least, entirely self-assured. She starts talking as soon as she enters the restaurant, long, fast, incisive sentences, laughing, listening, looking for common ground – which, in our case, is growing up in hardline Marxist states that were briefly colonies of fascist Italy. The ways in which communist countries were run were often so similar that although I grew up in Addis Ababa rather than Durrës, I recognise immediately the status of the one well-stocked shop that sells goods for foreign currency; the TV stations that followed an hour or two of cartoons with multiple hours of communist propaganda; the social role of queueing in a country where everything from paraffin to sugar was rationed.
The story young Ypi eventually began to understand, about her country but especially about her family – their “biography”, as they often put it, gnomically, to explain why a promotion hadn’t happened, or yet another choice had been closed down – was complicated. Her mother was descended from wealthy landowners; her grandmother, who lived with them, was the niece of a pasha in the Ottoman empire, and a brilliant student who became a government adviser at 21. Ypi had been given to understand that it was purely a coincidence that her father’s surname matched that of Albania’s 10th prime minister, Xhaferr Ypi, who was in office when Italy invaded Albania in 1939 and was, according to official accounts, responsible for the transfer of sovereignty to Italy after the flight of King Zog, and accordingly vilified as a national traitor and class enemy. In fact, her father was his grandson. And they were Muslims in a country that in 1967 had declared itself the first atheist state.
School at least made sense, and the young Ypi excelled. People in the west don’t realise, she says now, the extent to which, under communism, education was currency. “People assume that these societies failed because they didn’t get the competitive instinct. But these societies were some of the most ultra-competitive in the world. People didn’t compete with money – which is why they could freely ask, ‘How much do you earn?’ But where you could really compete was with brains, and school and knowledge and culture. It was unforgiving, in terms of performing well, and reading all the books that could be read and knowing all the culture that could be known.”
Ypi, who speaks six languages and whose CV bristles with prizes, is resigned about her mother’s probable reaction to her longlisting, which is announced the afternoon we meet: “I once won second prize in a maths Olympiad – and my mum was like, ‘Why not the first prize?’ She’s not impressed. ‘You’ve written a book. Fine. You got longlisted. Fine. Your children don’t wash their hands, they answer back … ’ It’s kind of liberating, actually,” –she laughs, “to know that whatever you do, you can’t please your mum. It’s a good reminder of your fallibility.”
This intellectual competition did come up against censorship – but that was just a further spur, “because there was this wall, everyone was going nuts to get access to what was behind it”. Ypi is keen on Dostoevsky, partly because Russian literature, in communist Albania, ended with Tolstoy and Chekhov. Dostoevsky “was considered modernist” and banned. “So there were these smuggled copies in Italian. I couldn’t speak Italian properly, but I was like, ‘I have to learn, so that I can read this book.’” Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass “was allowed, because they thought it had to do with agriculture. So you could find it in the library of the agriculture department of the university. If you picked it up, it melted in your hands because so many people had read it.”
Transition brought great changes in her parents. Ypi’s mother became a leader in the national women’s association, spending her days at meetings and delivering polished, unscripted speeches to rallies thousands strong, “as if she had written them in her head many years ago … rehearsed every day of her life the sentences that she would later utter”. Her father became general director of the biggest port in the country (one of the largest in the Adriatic Sea) – and found himself in the invidious position of having to translate the gospel of liberalism into management of real people, which all too often meant laying them off. Many were acquaintances, and Ypi is lovingly sympathetic about the contortions he put himself through, trying to please the World Bank representative, “a missionary of sorts”, while at the same time failing to fire anyone.
But Albania, used to a command economy, was struggling. At one point, two-thirds of the population were estimated to have invested in Ponzi schemes, many of which then collapsed. More than half of all Albanians, including Ypi’s family, lost their savings. Many fled. “The 90s for me were marked by hearing of people dying,” says Ypi, “crossing the Adriatic in dinghies. People I knew. Or they were shot at the border, on the Italian side. It’s one of these things where we think the west is a free society, but if you stop people from coming in, it’s exactly the same– whether you’re dead because your state shoots you or you’re dead because another state shoots you, it doesn’t matter. You’re still dead!”
By 1997, the country was riven by civil unrest, and Ypi lets her diary speak for itself. Kalashnikov fire ricochets through the streets; she has teenage crushes (she wasn’t allowed to fall for children of former secret service agents, but did so twice); she does exams, discovers Metallica. Her mother and brother hitch a ride on a boat bound for Italy, where her mother becomes a cleaner. Her father, deeply hurt, stops speaking to his wife. Ypi stops speaking at all. “Every time I wanted to speak, I cried.”
She is wry, now, about the empty shelves and educational chaos of post-Brexit, pandemic Britain. After years of being lectured about the supposed failures of where she comes from, “there is a special pleasure in it, because the tables are reversed for once”.
Not that she accepts that characterisation in the first place. Ypi is very critical of liberalism and of “leftist types who think that because you come from Albania you don’t really know what left is. I felt that there was this very holy left in the west, where everything the left does that is bad can’t be the left. And it annoys me, because you’ll never learn, if you think that the way you do things is so much better.”
And communism had important things to offer. Solidarity, for instance. “You are taught to care for others,” by, for example, sharing rations equally. In the west, she finds, “solidarity mostly takes the form of charity. And that is distracting. It means you don’t ask why there are only some people with wealth in the first place.” Returning to Albania now, she finds it depressing that many young people “just want to have expensive stuff”.
When communism collapsed, Ypi says, it took with it many valuable ideas. “There were a lot of democratising efforts, and thoughts about freedom – but that freedom was not capitalist freedom. And then that effort was completely destroyed by the way in which the story was told after 1990. This idea that the east was defeated and the west won has been so damaging – both to the east, for their own self-understanding, and for the west, in terms of not being able to see themselves as losers as well.”
Ypi’s upbringing, she says now, has resulted in her becoming “suspicious of everything. And it also makes me cynical. I’m extremely suspicious of propaganda – both from the left and from the right.” But it has also produced a very worked-out idea of freedom: –not the tired, grubby concept co-opted for “freedom day”, nor Trump’s “negative freedom, [where] no one tells you what to do, what to wear, where to go”, –but positive freedom – “the freedom to realise your potential, to flourish, to have access to certain opportunities”, and especially “freedom as moral agency”.We are all, Ypi writes in Free, “complicit in moral tragedies created in the name of great ideas”. All of us? “Yes, I think so. In every system we don’t just contribute by doing nasty things to other people, but by taking the benefits. So if the state is providing you with schools and roads and so on, or if you’re living in capitalism and buying things in a certain way – that makes you part of the structure. No one is completely innocent.”
But there is always, even in the most repressive or commodifying systems, moral choice. In communist Albania, “You could choose whether to spy on your neighbour. You could pretend you didn’t see something. A lot of examples I give in the book” – the fight over the Coke can, for instance – “are of the good official, someone who exercises a little discretion.” That is, she says, “the core of my philosophical belief: that morality is not something created by institutions; there is a kernel of goodwill in everyone”.
When Ypi was 11, she was part of a group of children hanging out in her home city of Durrës, watching Italian TV journalists trying to cover the first free elections. She volunteered to translate, and then they interviewed her. “When I’m grown up, I want to be a writer,” she said. “It’s because I really like it. But being president [of Albania] is also not too bad.”
She is still asked about it now. Will she run for office? “I’d like to contribute to the country somehow, to return some of what it has given me, but I don’t know if running for office is the right way. I’m not sure there is a party there that shares my ideas right now and I don’t think one individual alone can do much to challenge the system. You need a sufficiently strong movement to even get started.” Perhaps. But I wouldn’t put it past her.