Dear Uncle Enver

These are notes from a short trip to Tirana in 2019, where it rained non-stop for the entire duration of my stay.

While visiting Tirana, the traces of its communist past are inescapable. Enver Hoxha (pronounced “oja”) established a communist regime in 1944 and exerted absolute power until his death in 1985, shaping the whole country in his own image. In fairness to the communist sympathisers at the time, Albania was a rural relic at the periphery of the Ottoman Empire, which did not invest in nor care about it to any significant extent. The small country lived off subsistence agriculture, with widespread poverty and illiteracy well into the 20th Century, followed by brief imperialist occupations by Fascist Italy and then Nazi Germany during WW2, repelled by local communist partisans with Anglo-American support. It was hard to imagine something worse, but reality would prove otherwise, and a noble anti-fascist struggle quickly turned into a totalitarian nightmare.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Uncle Enver, as he was known to his unfortunate subjects, launched ambitious 5-year plans with Soviet support to industrialise and electrify Albania, reaching considerable results in a short time (the percentage of industrial workers went from 0% to about 40% in a decade). As observed in other communist regimes, the government initially managed to create new houses, factories, power plants, farms, and mines, but at a terrible human cost. Following Stalinist tactics, Hoxha established concentration camps all over the country and used them generously to crush all opposition, labelling “enemy of the people” whoever dared to express dissent, and sending entire families to the camps. Access to jobs and resources were tied to having a “good biography”: The only valid currency in the country was unconditional loyalty to Hoxha. These policies, progressively moderated in most communist regimes after the 1950s, were still in place well into the 1980s.

Protecting the people

As seen in North Korea, Hoxha shaped himself as a god at the centre of a disturbing totalitarian personality cult that portrayed him as infallible, super-human, and omniscient, tightly controlling all aspects of life in the country and constantly looking for internal enemies to purge (and to literally remove from official pictures, practice known as damnatio memoriae). Any throwaway comment could be intercepted by a spy and used in a mock trial and converted into a heavy prison sentence with forced labour in appalling conditions, often leading to premature death. The level of paranoia reached by Hoxha and his loyal apparatus can be seen in the fact that even anonymous letters by mentally-ill Albanians were studied and inspected by a forensic unit that had the goal of identifying any sign of anti-government sentiment. 

As Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas observed, in a liberal-capitalist society a poor can at least express their misery openly. It is disturbing to think that, no matter how deprived and oppressed, Albanians had to publicly state their happiness and utter satisfaction to Uncle Enver on a regular basis not to attract suspicion. At the height of its power, the communist regime employed 100,000 spies in a population of 3 million people, which, in notoriously overcrowded flats, scanned conversations for signs of “unhappiness”. The agency Sigurimi, the Albanian equivalent of the Stasi, kept a meticulous record of citizens’ daily activities and indeed ran secret prisons and torture rooms (a rather odd but effective way to keep unhappiness problem at bay).

Better off alone

The Dear Leader of Tirana was a staunch Stalinist who believed that anything softer than the 1930s purges wasn’t real communism. In the geopolitical game, communist Albania started as a small piece in the Eastern bloc and got progressively more isolated, reflecting Hoxha’s deep paranoia. At first, he broke off with Khrushchev’s Soviet Union, whose de-Stalinization seemed to him a betrayal of communist ideals championed by the Man of Steel. When Tito suggested integrating Albania into Yugoslavia, Hoxha declared him a traitor of communism and cut all relations, a move that isolated the country from all neighbours (the other being capitalist Greece).

In the 1970s, Albania’s sole trading partner was Mao’s China, which was totalitarian and anti-capitalist enough to please Hoxha. With Mao’s death in 1976 and subsequent market reforms, you might have guessed it, the Dear Leader cut off relations with traitorous China and Albania remained completely isolated, striving for a disastrous autarchy. One does not need to be a professional economist to imagine what happens if a weak, small communist country aims at full self-sufficiency. In the late 1970s and 1980s Albania therefore descended into a spiral of extreme poverty and deprivation, coupled with relentless political repression. 

Talking to middle-aged Albanians, one could collect infinite anecdotes of the level of misery they experienced in those years. To an average citizen, chicken was available once a month, chocolate once a year. Basic goods such as sacks (yes, iuta sacks for agriculture) were hard to get by, and most industrial equipment had been imported from China a decade earlier and was now malfunctioning. A visible and devastating aspect of this phase is that clothes were basically not being produced in sufficient quantity and Albanians started to wear stitched up rags. Notably, when watching the plight of communist Romanians on tv, queuing for hours to get some food, a sight that shocked Western Europeans, Albanians were actually envious: At least Romanians had decent clothes, even different ones for men and women.

Few houses and many bunkers

Albanian communism reached such heights of political perversion and material deprivation that nostalgia is rare to come about. All economic activities were indeed centralised, and any attempt at meeting citizen needs from private actors was illegal. For example, selling clothes imported from Yugoslavia for a meagre profit was deemed to be a terrible crime, despite the obvious demand and mutual benefit. Throughout its existence, the government failed to reach housing and production targets, and Albanians experience persistent overcrowding, with dozens of people living in small flats.

2019-11-06 17.45.53
National Historical Museum

One of the few ways of getting a larger house for an individual family was to reach 11 children. A joke says that an ambitious family planned to reach this target, so they kept having kids in an increasingly cramped flat, and then when finally they got pregnant for the 11th time, communism fell and they now had 11 children to feed. Housing in Albania was suboptimal not just for the enemies of the people, but also for the nomenklatura. Even Hoxha’s residence presents itself as a thoroughly unimpressive petit-borgeois house with a small garden (see Ceausescu’s Spring Palace for comparison), located in a neighborhood for party leaders inaccessible to the general public. It seems that the dictator spent most of his free time at home, reading banned books, writing lengthy essays about everything, and chain-smoking.

An extraordinary testament to the secretive madness of the regime is visible in the so-called bunkerization of Albania. Hoxha believed that the West would finally invade Albania and launch a large scale programme to build defensive structures across the country. From 1968 onward, the regime built about 175,000 bunkers of different sizes, draining resources from housing and other desperately needed investment. These concrete structures, as one can imagine, were used only for incessant drills that reinforced nationalist paranoia, providing one bunker for every 20 inhabitants. If the regime showed the same efficiency in producing clothes, TVs, and cars instead of gulags, bunkers, and spies, perhaps history would have been kinder to Hoxha.

Hippies and priests not welcome

For decades, Albania was impenetrable to foreigners and locked down to its inhabitants. The migration policy of Hoxha was very simple. Nobody would leave and nobody would enter, except in very specific circumstances and under strict surveillance. The land borders, particularly the one with Greece, were patrolled by police with dogs that had the clear order to shoot (and bite). As car ownership was forbidden, people’s movements on public transport were relatively easy to monitor. 

A remarkably chilling piece of propaganda in a museum in Tirana set in a bunker was a documentary in which two soldiers use their dogs to catch a person trying to escape across the mountains by foot and are pleased with having stopped a dangerous “enemy of the people” (probably a hungry farmer trying to make it to Greece). Collective punishment awaited the families of the fugitives, who were then excluded from jobs, education, and other services. An incredible (and yet plausible) story involves a shepard who managed to flee with more than 20 family members by hiding them among his sheep, in a modern adaptation of Ulysses’ escape from Polyphemus.

Apparently, Hoxha did not appreciate 1960s hippies, seen as a sign of a degenerate bourgeoisie, and long hair was banned for men. For the few unsuspecting Marxist youngsters that managed to access Albania in those years, a barber was provided directly at the airport before entering the country to get rid of decadent hairstyles. Not many had to use the service anyway, as the fear of infiltration of foreign spies resulted in an extremely restrictive access policy. The circle of paranoid security around Hoxha protected him from any conspiracy, and the repression was so tight that the country did not even have an anti-riot unit. Ideologically, riots and strikes were considered a capitalist problem and a clear sign of a malfunctioning society. Albania, by contrast, was described in its propaganda as perfect: No unemployment, no homelessness, no illiteracy, no need to protest, no need to travel anywhere, as the party and its paternal security apparatus provided for all human needs.

Unhappy antennas

Because of its complete isolation, communist Albania did not participate in information flows from the outside world, not even from other communist countries. Apart from Hoxha’s insistent propaganda, Italian TV was the only alternative that the regime could not intercept and ban. Officially, foreign channels were of course forbidden, but the lucky Albanians who had a TV set could orient their antennas Westward and catch capitalist signals across the sea. Roofs with West-facing antennas signalled “unhappiness” to the authorities, but the regime could not fully repress this behaviour. Antennas were often camouflaged in trees and, when asked, owners answered that wind must have moved them West. Hence, hundreds of thousands of Albanians kept dreaming of a different world of abundance and freedom, while learning Italian through unsubtitled shows (many Albanians speak Italian fluently, even without having lived there). The title of the famous Italian movie Lamerica (1994) alludes precisely to the fact that Italy was to Albanians the promised land that the Americas were to poor Italians a century earlier. To many of them who would then emigrate there, it would be a rude awakening to discover that not all Italians were as rich, glamorous, and sexy as TV stars.

Even the most horrific dictators deserve a fair trial of their actions: As actor Roberto Benigni used to say, even Stalin and Hitler must have built a bridge and a road. Education worked fairly well and Albanians were often more educated than their Greek neighbours, with a virtual 100% literacy rate, and despite the inevitable dose of propaganda, Albanians were overall happy with their education. Anthropologist Clarissa De Waal defined the system as having a “first-world education and a third-world economy”. Communal management of land (although performed in a totally anti-democratic fashion) defused family feuds that had plagued the region for centuries. Hoxha banned some “backward” practices like arranged marriages, modernizing social relations. No matter how deprived, people enjoyed the opportunities for socialisation, cultural activities, and community-building provided by the “houses of the people” that were built even in remote rural areas. If these few points compensate for four decades of brutal Stalinism, it is up to the reader to decide.

There are no poor in Albania

Hoxha’s death in 1985 (one cannot say “untimely”) led to the presidency of his heir Ramiz Alia, who started very cautious reforms. While Hoxha hated religion to the point of making it illegal and punishable with 25 years of forced labour, Alia allowed Mother Teresa to visit the country (the missionary was of Albanian origin). A local joke goes that, when the nun expressed the desire to help the local poor, Alia replied that there were no poor in Albania. Soon afterwards, the fall of the regime became inevitable and chaotic, and Alia could not stop the liberal tide. All of a sudden, as news from abroad started to flow in, all Albanians discovered to be desperately poor even by the standards of the Eastern bloc.

In the 1990s, Albania experienced not only the usual poverty (aggravated by reckless market reforms), but also a vicious breakdown of law and order, which peaked in 1997 where large-scale financial fraud led thousands of Albanians to assault police station to steal weapons for self-defence (an event that baffled international observers). This traumatic phase has been documented by excellent anthropologist Clarissa De Waal (2012). The country’s livelihood relied on mass emigration, with remittances from hundreds of thousands of Albanians in Italy, Greece, and the US supporting the unemployed population at home. Mercedes became an iconic Western status symbol (Albanians went from owning only 200 cars to 500,000 in less than a decade), often coupled with Adidas and Nike tracksuits. The Albanian mafia emerged as an international phenomenon and started to produce substantial revenue from illicit drugs and, more disturbingly, women trafficking, smuggling teenage girls into Italy as sex slaves (negative stereotypes about Albanians today in Europe are still linked to this sad aspect of their recent history).

From a dark heritage to a brighter future

In the 2000s, Albania finally found some stability and started to develop, attracting some foreign investment, including from Italian companies, and creating a tourist sector that for obvious reasons did not exist under the vigilant eyes of Hoxha. Unspoilt Mediterranean beaches, dramatic mountains, interesting history, and comparatively low prices all contributed to make Albania an up-and-coming tourist destination praised by all major tour operators. For the History buff, Albania provides many opportunities for dark tourism, with several museums devoted entirely to Hoxha’s regime.

In my recent visit, Tirana struck me as a rapidly modernising place, with a bustling city centre speckled by dozens of attractive cafés and shops, showcasing the emergence of an Italian-looking middle-class. The excellent free walking tour gives a good overview. Edi Rama, former mayor of Tirana, artist and current PM had the brilliant idea of painting a lot of grim communist buildings with bright colours, giving Tirana an edgy, playful halo. Compared to the crime-ridden 1990s, the city streets are now safe and easy to navigate, although aggressive driving remains a nuisance. A large Turkish mosque being completed in Tirana shows Erdogan’s increasing soft power in a largely irreligious country hungry for foreign direct investment. Symbolically, the concrete pyramid built to celebrate Hoxha’s legacy will be refurbished as a facility for IT training for young people, highlighting the emphasis on promoting advanced services. While a large country is about to leave the EU, it is heartwarming to see, despite recent setbacks, how eager Albania is to join it. Another recent change in outlook can be observed in the relative decline of the Italian economy, with its stagnating salaries and high unemployment, and the 20 years of sustained growth of Albanian GDP, causing some return migration of skilled workers. After all, Albanians are not desperate anymore.

Sources

De Waal, C. (2012). Albania: Portrait of a Country in Transition (2nd ed.). London: IB Tauris.

Woodcock, S. (2016) Life is War: Surviving Dictatorship in Communist Albania. London: HammerOn Press.