‘You’ll never understand what Albanian communism was like,’ begins one testimony in Margo Rejmer’s Mud Sweeter Than Honey. ‘Somewhere on the edge of Europe there was a North Korea, a bunker state, a fortress state … you can’t describe life in a country that was a prison.’
Albanians lived and died under communism for forty-six years. It was a period of prolonged human suffering, of which the outside world still knows little. Even in Albania many of its realities are undiscussed, and some are contested. After the communist regime fell in 1990–91, no effort was made to bring its worst perpetrators to justice and no truth and reconciliation commission was put in place to relieve the tensions and frictions that resulted. Today, Albanian politicians rarely rake over the past for anything more than political capital and the school history syllabuses barely scrape the surface.
Translated from the original Polish by Zosia Krasodomska-Jones and Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Rejmer’s collection of reflections by Albanians who experienced life under communism attempts to fill this gap. It is a pioneering, necessary book of such uncompromising clarity that even readers familiar with the broad outlines of Albania’s recent past are likely to find its contents shocking. Statistics can give a glimpse of the story: estimates vary, but it is thought today that six thousand people were killed or died in state custody between 1944 and 1991, while tens of thousands were imprisoned, in appalling conditions, or otherwise forced to live away from their homes and families. But Rejmer’s first-person accounts add degrees of searing detail that such figures cannot convey.
Present throughout Rejmer’s reportage is Enver Hoxha, the country’s dictator, who ruled with a brutal hand for more than forty years. Rejmer’s witnesses paint a picture of a cult of personality sustained through a mix of terror, propaganda and divide and rule. In this, the Sigurimi, Hoxha’s secret police, described in one account as ‘that monster with a million tentacles’, played a full part.
Fear of Sigurimi informants – and of the consequences of being informed upon – bred an atmosphere of such gnawing dread and suspicion that some continue to feel it. ‘When we came in here, to this café, I looked around, and I was pleased to see we were alone,’ another of Rejmer’s interviewees says. ‘I picked the most secluded table, and then I took a good look at your clothes: where might you have a bug hidden? … So many years have passed, and my thinking is still guided by terror, it’s still there inside me.’
Perhaps Rejmer’s most original contribution is her assessment of the psychological impact of Albanian communism. Her interviews are heavy with evidence, ranging from accounts of suicides among prisoners and ex-prisoners unable to carry on to reports of lives changed permanently by the label of a ‘bad’ past and the persecution and rejection that came with it. ‘My background was repellent, like a slimy outer coating that pushed people away,’ the writer Shpëtim Kelmendi tells Rejmer. He describes, too, his father’s trauma from living under the threat of impending execution. ‘When a man learns he has been condemned to death, he has to come to terms with his fate and cut all his ties with the world … He cuts the first rope: love for his children … He cuts the second one: love for his wife … Finally, he cuts the last one: his own love of life … I know how long it took my father to come back.’ And then there is the mind-set of the majority: those who were too frightened to stand apart, were convinced by the lies or were prepared to take advantage of others’ suffering.
Human responses to communism (and its alternatives) are also a dominant thread in Lea Ypi’s memoir, Free. Now a professor of political theory at the LSE, Ypi, born in Albania in 1979, had originally envisaged her book as a study of ‘overlapping ideas of freedom in the liberal and socialist traditions’. Free is far more than that: it is a rich and remarkable record of her experiences and observations, chiefly as a young child and teenager, during Albania’s transition from communism to post-communism. Her focus is principally the years between 1985, when Hoxha died and she turned six, and 1997, the year of collapsing pyramid investment schemes and widespread civil disorder.
The daughter of once-privileged parents, Ypi does not present her tale as typical. Yet plenty of her themes chime with those found in Rejmer’s work, from the systematic persecution of her family for the ‘crimes’ of its forebears to the diverging reactions of elder relatives and others to a new world without communism. There was a sense among some of these that communism’s worst features were preferable to Albania’s post-communist travails.
Ypi excels at describing the fall and aftermath of Albanian communism from the perspective of her childhood self: her unquestioning acceptance of communist propaganda while the regime was still in place; her feelings of conflict as communism ended and she began to sense its evils and illusions; her sense of dislocation at discovering that her parents, to protect her, had lied to her for years about her family’s past; her amazement, on a trip to Athens, at seeing life beyond Albania’s borders; her distress at the fate of those left behind by the sudden imposition of capitalism; her confusion, horror, fury and despair at the country’s descent into chaos and killing in 1997.
Albania’s communist past may be hard to fathom, even among those who endured and survived it. But it is not impenetrable. Margo Rejmer’s successful marshalling of multiple voices in Mud Sweeter Than Water demonstrates one method of digging more deeply. Lea Ypi’s personal approach in Free is just as effective. Albania needs books like these if the past that continues to shape it is to be understood effectively. Citizens of other nations as well ought to be reminded of where narratives born of lies can lead.