Born in Albania, the last Stalinist outpost in Europe, during the late 1970s, Lea Ypi was a true believer, convinced by her teachers and the state that Enva Hoxha, the country’s Communist leader, and Joseph Stalin were without equals. She repeatedly pressured her parents to get a framed photo of Hoxha to put on top of their television, and at one stage hugged a statue of Stalin while protesters chanted pro-democracy slogans nearby. Then the revolution came and in December 1990 ,everything changed; almost overnight, Communism was viewed as evil, or at the very least deeply flawed.
In Free: Coming of Age at the End of History, Ypi has written a profound memoir of a childhood spent trying to understand what it was to be a good Communist and then being forced to deal with what came after.
Now a professor of political theory at the London School of Economics, Ypi’s early years were filled with propaganda and slogans. Her parents were intellectuals and her upper-class grandmother spoke to her in French and had even attended the wedding of Albania’s last monarch, King Zog. Yet, while her family talked in code about relatives and friends jailed for sedition – who had ‘gone to university’ as they phrased it – Ypi remained blissfully unaware, spending her days learning of the glories of Communism and feeling sorry for the foreign children who vacationed on nearby foreigner-only beaches.
While the brainwashing – and subsequent un-brainwashing – of children during the Communist period is interesting, it’s the chaos of the 1990s that’s far more eye-opening. As Albania sought to become ‘like the rest of Europe’ (as many put it), it pushed through structural reforms that left many out of work and then succumbed to pyramid schemes that wiped out the savings of more than half the population. The result: a mass exodus and a brief civil war that left more than 2,000 people dead.
Trying to study during rolling blackouts while gunfire rang out on the streets, Ypi was among the generation struggling to make sense of this new world, while also trying to decide whether to stay or go. One of her best friends fled shortly after the revolution, only to become a prostitute in Milan.
Shortlisted for the 2021 Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction, Free is a beautiful memoir, written by a gifted storyteller who is able to balance the dark with the light. There are few books written in English about Albania and it would be a shame to miss this unexpected gem.
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