It is December, 1990, and a young Lea Ypi is hugging a bronze statue of Stalin. She is hiding from protestors chanting “freedom” and “democracy” – “hooligans” as her father would call them – summoning the end of communist rule in Albania. As the rumblings of their footsteps dissipate, Lea looks up, to find Stalin is missing his head. They’ve stolen it, she realises.
At the time, Ypi was unaware that Eastern Europe’s communist scaffolding was falling apart; statues of socialist icons were being toppled across the region while pieces of the Berlin Wall were already being sold as souvenirs. That day, however, was the first time Ypi considered the meaning of the word freedom, as she writes in the gripping opening to her memoir Free: Coming of Age at the End of History.
Ypi was born in Durrës, Albania in 1979, at a time when the country had dissociated from much of the communist world under longtime dictator Enver Hoxha. “We had split from the Yugoslavs, then split from the Soviets, and then the Chinese,” she tells me over a Zoom call from Hamburg. “When I was growing up, we were completely on our own. But we had this image of ourselves, as the only country in the world that was standing up to all these empires. For children, this was really empowering and grabbed our imagination. The whole world was off the rails and we were the only country in which things were working pretty well.”
In short, there was no reason for Ypi to believe they weren’t. Beyond her father’s idealising of historic revolutionaries, her parents avoided politics and protected Ypi from much of the oppression and censorship that afflicted commuinst Albania. Ypi – brought up mainly by her cosmopolitan, French-speaking, Ottoman-born grandmother – was left to pursue the life of a zealous young communist: she amassed accolades, certificates, and medals as a Young Pioneer (a communist youth organisation); she wowed an educational panel at the Central Party Committee by spotting the world “collectivisation” in one of Hoxha’s works, despite mispronouncing it; on the occasion of “Uncle Enver’s” funeral, Ypi was left bemused by her parents’ tearless faces. She was a true believer in the Albanian communist cause.
Nevertheless, the West still glimmered from behind the Iron Curtain. “In some ways we idealised what was going on in the West,” she says. “The bubblegum, the sweets, the clothes – we saw these on western children who came to Durrës and they always had these funny things like flashing toys and sun cream. They definitely grabbed my imagination.”
In 1990, when socialism gave way to a multi-party state, a crestfallen and confused adolescent Ypi describes the so-called “freedom” that was promised as a “dish served frozen”. In the second half of the book, Ypi writes arrestingly about the human cost of structural reform: the protests, shootings, civil war, mass emigration, and the widespread lay-offs her father reluctantly oversaw under the instruction of the World Bank. The “shock therapy” that the capitalist consultants had administered to transform Albania’s economy was as traumatic as its name implies.
Ypi’s eye-level account of this period – rendered through diary entries, anecdotes, and well-tuned dialogue – evokes the dizzying personal experience of political chaos. “When there is a revolution, everything changes. All the categories that are familiar to you and that you use to make sense of reality collapse,” she says. When the impenetrable bubble of the party burst, so too did one closer to home. Ypi discovered that the prime minister responsible for transferring sovereignty to Italy in 1939 – a man she had been brought up to believe was the “Albanian quisling” and a “national traitor” – was in fact her great-grandfather. As such, her family were condemned to a life of anonymity, persecution, and a legacy of shame that drove some of her relatives to suicide.
Free has recently been shortlisted for the prestigious Baillie Gifford prize for nonfiction, but Ypi – now a lecturer in political theory and Marx at the London School of Economics – had originally set out to write a theoretical book about freedom before pivoting to this personal, and more pluralistic account. Freedom is, after all, a capacious term. “I decided to let the voices of the characters tell their story,” she says, “and try as little as possible to interfere with my interpretation of them.” For her parents, who lived in the “open-air prison” of Albania, socialism meant the denial of their identities and the stifling of their dreams. Her mother, therefore, can’t understand what value there is in her daughter’s continued parsing of Marxist texts.
Ypi, now, is neither sanguine nor scathing about socialist thinking. “I always found that there were really interesting thoughts in these traditions that needed to be rescued somehow,” she says. “And also because I’m just not happy, I guess, with the world in which I live. I really wanted this book to be a reconciliation of different generations. But I also wanted it to be a book of struggle because these people have all struggled; the least they deserve is that their struggle should be continued.”
Free: Coming of Age at the End of History is published by Penguin. Get your own copy here.