Every year on 1 May, portraits of Stalin were carried by the workers through the streets of Tirana to celebrate socialism and the advance towards communism. On Workers’ Day, TV programmes started earlier: you could follow the parade, then watch a puppet show, then a children’s film, then head out for a walk wearing new clothes, buy ice-cream and, finally, have a picture taken by the only photographer in town, who usually stood by the fountain near the Palace of Culture.
The first of May 1990, the last May Day we ever celebrated, was the happiest. Or perhaps it just seems that way. Objectively, it could not have been the happiest. The queues for basic necessities were getting longer and the shelves in the shops looked increasingly empty. But I did not mind. Now that I was growing up I was no longer fussy about eating cheap feta cheese or old jam rather than honey. “First comes morality, then comes food,” my grandmother cheerfully said, and I had learned to agree.
My parents said that my country had been an open-air prison for almost half a century
On 5 May 1990, Toto Cutugno won the Eurovision song contest in Zagreb with Insieme: 1992. I knew enough Italian to be able to sing along to the lyrics: “We are ever more free / It’s no longer a dream, and we are no longer alone / We are ever more united / Give me your hand, and you’ll see how you’ll fly … Together, unite, unite Europe.” It was not until years later that I discovered that a song I had always assumed celebrated freedom and unity in the spread of socialist ideals around Europe was actually about the Maastricht treaty, which would soon consolidate the liberal market.
Lea Ypi with her parents in Durrës in the early 1980s. Photograph: courtesy of Lea Ypi
Meanwhile, Europe continued to be in the grip of all kinds of “hooligans” undermining public order. Earlier in the year, Poland had withdrawn from the Warsaw Pact. The communist parties in Bulgaria and Yugoslavia voted to renounce their monopoly on power. Lithuania and Latvia declared independence from the Soviet Union. Soviet troops entered Baku to suppress the protests in Azerbaijan. I overheard my parents talk about “free” elections in East Germany, and asked my father: “What do you elect in unfree elections?”
Visitors to our house doubled; my parents started sending me to bed early. I had noticed consternation in the hushed voices with which visitors were greeted, but they continued to smile and pat me on my shoulders, asking how I was doing in school and if I continued to make the party proud. I nodded and delivered the good news. I had just become a Pioneer (the Pioneers of Enver were a communist youth organisation), and was in charge of pronouncing the oath with which we swore allegiance to the party. I stood in front of the entire school and declared solemnly: “Pioneers of Enver! In the name of the cause of the party, are you ready to fight?” “Always ready!” the Pioneers thundered. As a reward, we went on a family holiday to the beach.
Later that summer, I spent two weeks at a Pioneers’ camp. The bell rang at 7am. We spent the morning at the beach. In the afternoon we read books. For dinner, we gulped down vegetable soup, then rushed out to take our seats in the open-air cinema. At night, we chatted late and made new friends. The bravest and oldest fell in love.
And all the time we competed. We competed over who was best at making their bed, who could swim the farthest, who knew the most capitals, who could solve complex equations, who played the most musical instruments. The socialist bonds of solidarity that our teachers worked hard to inculcate during the year all but disappeared and only petty-bourgeois, reactionary elements would have refused to participate. Very few children returned home without at least a red star, a small flag, a recognition certificate or a medal. I had one of each.
My two weeks at camp were the last of their kind. The red Pioneer scarf I worked impossibly hard to earn and proudly wore to school would soon turn into a rag with which we wiped the dust off our bookshelves. The stars, medals and certificates, and the very title of “Pioneer”, would soon become museum relics, memories from a different era, fragments of a past life that someone had lived, somewhere.
Our earlier beach holiday was the first and the last we spent as a family. It was the last time the state granted holiday packages. It was the last time the working classes paraded to celebrate freedom and democracy. On 12 December 1990, my country was officially declared a multiparty state, where free elections would be held. It was almost 12 months after Ceausescu had been shot in Romania while singing The Internationale. Small pieces of the Wall were already being sold in the souvenir kiosks of recently unified Berlin.
Completing a degree was coded language for completing a prison sentence. To study international relations meant to be charged with treason
I’d always thought there was nothing better than communism. Every morning I woke up wanting to do something to make it happen faster. But in December 1990, the representatives of the people declared that the only things they had ever known under socialism were not freedom and democracy but tyranny and coercion. As I stared incredulously at the television, where the secretary of the politburo was announcing that political pluralism was no longer a punishable offence, my parents declared that they had never supported the party I had always seen them elect. They had simply recited the slogans, just like everyone else, just like I did when I swore my oath of loyalty in school every morning. But there was a difference between us. I believed. I knew nothing else.
After the fall of communism, Lea Ypi discovered Xhaferr Ypi, the former prime minister of Albania she had despised, was actually her great-grandfather. Photograph: Kel Marubi
In the following days, the first opposition party was founded and my parents revealed the truth, their truth. They said that my country had been an open-air prison for almost half a century. That the universities that had haunted my family were, yes, educational institutions, but of a peculiar kind. That when my family spoke of the graduation of relatives, what they really meant was their recent release from prison. That completing a degree was coded language for completing a sentence. That the initials of university towns stood for the initials of various prison and deportation sites: B for Burrel, M for Maliq, S for Spaç. That the different subjects of study corresponded to different official charges: to study international relations meant to be charged with treason; literature stood for “agitation and propaganda”; and a degree in economics entailed a more minor crime such as “hiding gold”. That students who became teachers were former prisoners who converted to being spies, like our cousin Ahmet and his wife, Sonia. That if someone had achieved excellent results, it meant the stint had been brief; but being expelled meant a death sentence; and dropping out voluntarily, like my grandfather’s best friend, meant killing yourself.
I learned that the former prime minister whom I had grown up despising, and whose name my father bore, did not have the same name by coincidence. He was my great-grandfather. For his entire life, the weight of that name had crushed my father’s hopes. He could not study what he wanted. He had to make amends for a wrong he never committed and to apologise for views he did not share. My grandfather, who disagreed with his own father so much that he had wanted to join the republicans in Spain on the opposite side of the struggle, had paid for the blood relationship with 15 years in prison. I would have paid, too, my parents said, had my family not lied to keep the secret.
“But I was a Pioneer,” I objected. “I became a Pioneer ahead of my cohort.”
“Everyone becomes a Pioneer,” my mother replied. “You would have never been able to join the party.”
“Were you stopped?” I asked.
“Me?” My mother laughed. “I didn’t try. A new colleague recommended me once; then he found out who I was.”
I would have paid for my mother’s family, too, I was told. I learned about the land, boats, factories and flats that had belonged to them before she was born, before they were expropriated. That the building that housed the party’s headquarters had once been her family’s property, too. She reminded me of how whenever we went past, she looked up to the fifth-floor window, the one without the flowerpot. An alleged enemy of the people had once stood there, shouting: “Allahu Akbar!” before throwing himself out. He had been trying to escape torture. The year was 1947. The man was her grandfather.
I learned the truth when it was no longer dangerous, but also at a time when I was old enough to wonder why my family had lied to me for so long. Perhaps they didn’t trust me. But if they didn’t, why should I trust them? In a society where politics and education pervaded all aspects of life, I was a product of both my family and my country. When the conflict between the two was brought to light, I was dazzled. I didn’t know where to look, who to believe.
Lea Ypi today: ‘All I remember from that time is fear, confusion, hesitation.’ Photograph: Florian Thoss/The Guardian
Sometimes, I thought our laws were unjust and our rulers were cruel. At others, I wondered if my family deserved their punishments. After all, if they cared about freedom, they should not have had servants. And if they cared about equality, they should not have been so rich. But my grandmother said that they had wanted things to change, too. My grandfather was a socialist; he resented the privileges his family enjoyed. “Then why did he go to prison?” I insisted. “He must have done something. Nobody goes to prison for nothing.” “Class struggle,” my grandmother said. “Class struggle is always bloody.”
One afternoon, my mother brought home Rilindja Demokratike, the first issue of the first opposition newspaper. For days there had been rumours that it would reach the bookshops – the only places to sell newspapers – early one morning. People waited, clutching empty bottles so that if they were queried by the Sigurimi, the secret service, they could argue that they were only queueing for milk. My father read the editorial out loud. It was titled “The first word”. The newspaper promised to defend freedom of speech and of thought, and to always speak the truth. “Only the truth is free, and only then freedom becomes true,” he read.
02:05Lea Ypi reads an extract of her book ‘Free’ – audio
More changes occurred in the weeks between May and December 1990 than in all the previous years of my life combined. For some, those were the days in which history came to an end. It did not feel like the end. Nor did it feel like a new beginning, at least not immediately. We had spent decades planning for nuclear war, designing bunkers, sanctioning dissent, anticipating the words of counter-revolution, imagining the contours of its face. But when the enemy eventually materialised, it looked too much like ourselves.
We had been warned that the dictatorship of the proletariat was always under threat by the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. What we did not anticipate was that the first victim of that conflict, the clearest sign of victory, would be the disappearance of those very terms: dictatorship, proletariat, bourgeoisie. They were no longer part of our vocabulary. Only one word was left: freedom. It featured in every speech on television, in every slogan barked out in rage on the streets.
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Yet all I remember from that time is fear, confusion, hesitation. We used the term “freedom” to talk about an ideal that had finally materialised, just as we had done in the past. But things changed so much that it would be difficult to say later if it was the same “we”. For half a century, everyone had shared the same structure of cooperation and oppression, occupying social roles that would now all have to be different, while the men and women performing these roles remained the same.
I will never know if the working classes who paraded on 1 May were the same who protested in early December. I will never know who I would have been if I had posed different questions, or if my questions had been answered differently, or not answered at all.
Things were one way, and then they were another. I was someone, then I became someone else.
Free: Coming of Age at the End of History by Lea Ypi is published by Penguin, priced at £20. To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.