It’s possible, likely even, that my first exposure to Albania came from reruns of The Simpsons. It might sound a little ridiculous, but it’s not like Albania is a topic that comes up much in elementary school. The Simpsons, however, were a staple of my youth and an education itself. The basic plot of “The Crepes of Wrath”, an episode from the first season,” is that Bart is sent away to study abroad in France after proving too much for everyone to handle. The Simpsons family receives an exchange student of their own, Adil from Albania. While Bart is working as slave for two horrible Frenchmen at their winery, Adil is the perfect child that Bart could never be. Adil’s perfection is facade, as he is actually a spy for the communist Albanian government. He is caught by the FBI sending plans for the nuclear plant back to Albania and sent away. I don’t know when I first saw this episode, though I do remember it well, mostly for Bart’s struggles in France. By the time I would have first seen it, Albania was no longer communist and things would have been dated. I wouldn’t have cared, the references would have gone over my head anyway. At least I learned that Albania was a place and I got a half hour of entertainment.
From 1945 to 1992 Albania was a communist state. For the first 40 of those years the country was run by Enver Hoxha. Even by the standards of communist states, Albania was isolated.
If you’ve seen the Spike Lee joint Inside Man, then you’ve heard Enver Hoxha’s voice. A recording of him is a plot device. If you haven’t seen the movie and don’t know what I’m talking about, go out and watch it. Anyway, Hoxha’s voice and likeness blanketed Albania during his rule and he had total control of the country.
Hoxha, like most communist dictators, is an intriguing figure. He was born in Gjirokastër in 1908 in the house that now holds the Museum of Ethnography. He later went to France for university on a scholarship. Like Ho Chi Minh, Pol Pot, and many other communist leaders, Hoxha’s time in France proved to be a political education and he became involved in communist activity.
He returned to Albania and played a role in the founding of the Albanian Communist Party in 1941. While Albania was occupied by Italian and German forces during the war, Hoxha was a leader of partisan forces. By the war’s end the communists were the dominant political force in the country and Hoxha, as their leader, naturally came to lead post-war Albania.
He put the country on a strongly Marxist-Leninist path. Confiscating land, implementing massive health and education programs, and silencing dissent. Hoxha had a close relationship with Stalin and the USSR. Once Stalin died and the USSR shifted course, Hoxha held steady to a Stalinist ideology and split from the Soviets. He looked to Maoist China for guidance and put in place typically disastrous policies. The isolation from Russia meant that its primary outlet for goods was no longer an option. Combine this with the already asinine economic policies of communism and it makes for struggle. When Mao died in 1976 and China began to reform Albania was left isolated.
Hoxhaist Albania was marked by hardline economic and social policies. Religion was banned. The possession of religious symbols, such a cross, was enough to warrant a visit from the authorities. Churches, mosques, and other religious buildings were destroyed. Gjirokastër provides one example of this. Over a dozen mosques existed in the city prior to Hoxha’s rule. All but one of them were destroyed during the communist period. The one that was allowed to remain standing was utilized as a training center for circus acrobats because of its high roof. Today the building is still standing and back to serving its original religious purpose. The Albanian population never quite returned to practicing their religions as before. Albanian society remains quite secular.
Gjirokastër houses several other physical reminders of the communist regime. Under the government’s industrialization plan Gjirokastër was the site of several factories. The primary factory produced metal goods such as tableware and cigarette cases. Leftover sheet metal from the factory can be spotted across the city being utilized as fencing, the obvious outline of forks, knives, and other items stamped from the metal clearly visible.
The Hoxha regime was extremely paranoid about the threat of foreign invasion and had over 700,000 bunkers constructed across the country. I saw a few of these while walking around the valley near Gjirokastër. Though many are crumbling, I stumbled on one that had a new life as a garden shed.
A beat-to-hell American plane is on display in one corner of Gjirokastër Castle. It’s a bizarre because it feels like it was only placed there as an afterthought. There does not seem to be any compelling reason for the plane to be in its particular location. However, it has an interesting history behind it that goes to show the regime’s paranoia. In 1957 the Italy-based plane was flying in the area when it developed mechanical problems and made an emergency landing in Tirana. The Albanian government claimed that the plane was spying on Albania and this was used as proof of the outside threat to the country. What the plane was actually doing is unclear, though the spying claim seems more an invention of the Albanian government than one based on fact. Even the sign at the museum references this ambiguity- “American Spy Plane(?)”.
Tirana, then as now, was the capital of Albania and the center of political life. Hoxha and the communist elite lived in a portion of the city known as Blloku (the Block) that was off limits to the general population. It is a trendy neighborhood these days, but still holds reminders of the regime. Hoxha’s residence can be seen, but not visited. From the outside it appears to be of a smaller scale than might be expected of a man who ruled the country for 40 years. By Albanian standards it must have been highly luxurious, but by dictator standards it seems fairly modest.
The Checkpoint Memorial to Communist Isolation can be found in a park in Blloku. A bunker, a section of the Berlin Wall, and concrete supports from the mine of a forced labor camp remind passersby of some of the consequences of authoritarian communist rule.
Skanderbeg Square, the center of the city, used to be the location of several communist statues. Lenin, Stalin, and ,of course, Hoxha held places of honor here. In fact, the statue of Stalin remained until 1990. It was, perhaps, the last public Stalin statue located outside of Stalin’s hometown of Gori, Georgia. The statue of Hoxha was toppled by a mass of citizens in early 1991. It was a major moment indicating the coming end of Albanian communism. Statues of Lenin and Stalin are hidden behind the National Gallery of Art and I was able to look at them up close. They have certainly seen better days.
One of Tirana’s architectural landmarks is the Pyramid. This monstrosity is a few blocks from Hoxha’s residence. Designed Hoxha’s daughter and son-in-law, it was built after the dictator’s death to house the Museum of Enver Hoxha. It didn’t serve long in this capacity. With the fall of communism it was converted into a conference center, but that concept was later abandoned. Its only occupant is a television station in the basement. It sits covered in graffiti, windows smashed, stripped of anything of value on its exterior. A physical representation of the legacy of a man and philosophy that kept the country isolated and impoverished for so long.
The transition to democracy and markets was bumpy for Albania. The communist party effectively surrendered control of the political system in 1990 by announcing that free elections would be held in 1991. The Communist Party was flogged in these elections and ones that followed in 1992. It might appear that people do not like living under repressive regimes which deny them basic liberties and keep them poor.
The economy moved to a market system and, for the most part, was successful in early period of liberalization. However, in one of the most episodes in any post-communist transition, a majority of Albanians fell victim to pyramid schemes which wiped out their savings and devastated the economy in 1997. The government did very little to control these schemes even after becoming aware of their existence. The country descended into chaos once the schemes collapsed. The prime minister resigned and a new government was eventually elected, however during this time over 2,000 Albanians died violently. The economy normalized once order was restored and growth returned.
As I write this, Albania is a functional democracy. It feels like Albania has escaped the shadow of its communist past and put the turbulence of 1997 behind it. Reminders of 47 years of communist rule remain, but they don’t dictate the country’s present state, instead serving as reminders of how not to do things. My brief exposure to the country has been positive and it makes me feel optimistic about its trajectory. I know I will be keeping any eye for out Albania in the news in the future.
Links Worth Clicking On:
IMF article on the pyramid schemes
A great primer on what they were, why they appeared, and how they grew. A little wonky, but nothing beyond some standard economic concepts.
Contemporary article on the 1997 unrest (NY Times)