Albania's Communist Period: The Past and Its Legacy



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.

Birthplace of Enver Hoxha (now the Museum of Ethnography)

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.

The mosque in Gjirokastër

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.

Factory metal being reused

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 typical bunker near Gjirokastër

A bunker being reused in a garden

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(?)”.

The alleged spy plane of Gjirokastër Castle

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 back side of Enver Hoxha's residence

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.

Checkpoint Memorial to Communist Isolation

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.

Communist statues in Tirana

Uncle Joe trying to hail a cab

Looks like Lenin could use a hand

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.

Tirana Pyramid

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)

Photos from inside the Pyramid

Tirana: Albania's Capital


Tirana is the capital and biggest city of Albania.  It is a great city to stop through even though it does not have a large number of attractions for visitors.  An interesting history, a relaxed atmosphere, and a lack of tourist crowds are all reasons to visit Tirana.

The city center is easily walkable, clean, and attractive.  Tree lined streets in the city center add aesthetic appeal in addition to offering some protection from the summer sun.

Like the rest of Albania, the 20th century was turbulent for Tirana.  Having began the century as a relatively unimportant town under Ottoman rule, Tirana became the temporary (later permanent) capital of independent Albania in 1920.  This set it on a totally new trajectory.  When Albania came under Italian hegemony, Tirana was a focus for Italian projects.  During World War II the city was occupied by both the Italian and German militaries.  The end of the war ushered in nearly five decades of communist rule.  The end of communism in the early 1990s opened Albanian markets, politics, and culture.  All of these periods left physical marks on the city that make spending a day walking around a worthwhile activity.

The center of activity in Tirana is Skanderbeg Square.  A large statue of the national hero sits in the middle of the square next to an Albanian flag.  During the communist era the square was pedestrianized and largely covered in concrete.  Now several lanes of traffic surround the green space where Skanderbeg’s statue stands.  A statue of the communist dictator, Enver Hoxha, was pulled down during a mass protest in 1992.  This area is now a small park with benches and trees in front of the National Historical Museum.

Skanderbeg statue

Tirana’s most significant road is Bulevardi Dëshmorët e Kombit (Boulevard of the Martyrs).  It runs through Skanderbeg Square and a walk down it will allow you to sample all of Tirana’s architectural periods.

Very little of Tirana’s Ottoman past is still visible, however the Et’Hem Bey Mosque, built in 1823, stands prominently across several lanes of road from the Skanderbeg statue.  It was closed during the communist period because of Albania’s state atheism.

Et'Hem Bey Mosque on the left with statue of Skanderbeg

Several government buildings around Skanderbeg Square were designed by a handful of notable Italian architects during the 1930s.  

Further south down Bulevardi Dëshmorët e Kombit is the Lana River.  The river itself is not very wide and the water was low when I visited.  It was incredibly during and following the communist period.  Today it has been mostly cleaned up and a stroll along its banks is another worthwhile activity.

On the south side of the river is the unmissable Pyramid.  This eye sore was orginally designed to house the Museum of Enver Hoxha after the dictator’s death in 1985.  It sits mostly empty and covered in graffiti these days. An art installation out front, the Peace Bell, was made of metal from bullet cartridges used during the anarchic period in the mid-1990s.

Peace Bell

Near the end of Bulevardi Dëshmorët e Kombit are several communist era buildings  The well manicured Presidential Palace used to be the Soviet embassy until 1961, when Albania broke off relations with  the USSR.  The Palace of Congresses, where the Communist Party held its most important meetings is across the street.

The Palace of Congresses

At the very end of Bulevardi Dëshmorët e Kombit is Mother Teresa Square.  The buildings in this area are among the most noticeably ugly buildings in the city.  Structures here were built during the World War II  occupation by Fascist Italy.  Unlike earlier Italian constructions, these bland imposing buildings lack any charm.  The largest building is now part of a university.

Mother Teresa Square.  The middle area is a promotional plaza from T-Mobile.  

Just beyond Mother Teresa Square is the Grand Park.  This wooded area is quiet and relaxing.  There are plenty of trails that will take you to restaurants, an artificial lake, and plenty of spaces you can make your own.

The artifical lake

Three distinct grave sites and memorials sit within a few hundred feet of each other in one corner of the park.  A memorial to German soldiers who died in Albania during World War II is off to the side and easy to overlook.  Some German soldiers are buried at that location.  

The German war memorial

The tombs of three Albanian brothers who were early activists in the Albanian indpendence movement are laid to rest in a shaded area.

Lastly, a small graveyard for British Commonwealth soldiers who died in Albania is along the trail and easily spotted.  This particular memorial site has an interesting backstory.  The British military had limited military activity in Albania during World War II.  Those servicemen who died in Albania and whose bodies were not immediately recovered remained in the country following the war.  Efforts to repatriate them were made impossible by the communist government.  When communism fell these Commonwealth servicemen were given a place of honor in the Grand Park and the site is officially looked over by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.  A large red granite slab sits in the middle of the cemetery.  This once stood over the grave of Enver Hoxha.  However, Hoxha's body was exhumed from its elaborate tomb in the Martyr's Cemetery in Tirana and moved to the public cemetery after the fall of communism.  The holes in the granite from where Hoxha’s name was fixed in place can be observed in the British monument.

The Commonwealth cemetery in the park

Commonwealth graves

The memorial monument that was once over Enver Hoxha's grave.  Notice the small holes above the middle plaque.

Two museums in Tirana worth visiting are the National History Museum and the National Art Gallery.  Both are located around Skanderbeg Square.  Unfortunately, neither museum allows photography inside, so you’ll have to settle for my descriptions.

The National History Museum is eye catching from Skanderbeg Square because of its prominent mosaic depicting Albanian history from early Illyrians to the post-communist era.  Parts of it are well signed in English, while other parts lack any English signs.  The museum is enjoyable enough, but English signs do make a difference.  A section on the victims of communist terror provided a glimpse into communist regime's brutality.  Mementos from individuals who were imprisoned or executed by the regime are on display.  It is apparent that this is one of the newer exhibitions at the museum.

Mosaic of the National History Museum

The National Arts Gallery is small.  Seeing as how the focus of the museum is on paintings and Albania does not have a long tradition of painting, this makes sense.  Most of the Albanian paintings on display are less than a century old.  Pre-communist realist paintings occupy a small alcove.  The bulk of art on display is of the socialist realist style.  Huge paintings of partisans fighting Axis forces and Hoxha during the liberation of Albania cannot be overlooked.  Admittedly, I am a bit of a philistine when it comes to art, but I can appreciate socialist realism because of its straightforward nature and my fascination with communist states. 

George W. Bush is a polarizing figure.  That feels like stating the obvious.  Some say his painting “lacks any sort of conceptual skill or depth”.  Another critic notes that Bush “has an uncanny ability to translate photographs into more awkward images enlivened by distortions and slightly ham-handed brushwork”.  One of the biggest surprises that may come while walking around Tirana is that the reclusive painter has a street named after him.  Rruga George W. Bush is located near Skanderbeg Square.  The street was named for Bush after his 2007 visit to Tirana.

Eat your hearts our Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schröder

It may seem strange at first, but Bush and the United States are very popular in Albania.  If you look around Tirana the flag you’re most likely to see after the Albanian one is the American flag.  There’s good reason for that.  Bush’s popularity, in large part, stems from that 2007 visit.  No other sitting president had visited the country before.  Besides the Rruga George W. Bush, Albania also issued a stamp of Bush and a small town erected a statue of him.  That can tend to make an American president popular in a locale that tends to get overlooked.  I saw the same phenomenon last year in Myanmar with Barack Obama.  As a relatively poor country with a complicated history, Albania can look to the United States aspirationally.  No matter how cynical your view of the United States is, as an idea it remains something that much of the world looks up to.

The pro-American sentiment is also a legacy of the American role in the Kosovo War.  Kosovo is majority ethnic Albanian.  The NATO campaign there and subsequent American support for independent Kosovo has bolstered American standing with the Albanian population.

Gjirokastër: The Stone City


Panoramic from the valley floor

The Drino Valley is a beautiful place.  Near Gjirokastër the valley floor flat and wide open.  The Drino River isn’t much to look at at this time.  Although, that’s not a problem.  The valley that has been carved through the Gjerë mountains is still stunning.  Green, tranquil, and idyllic.  It’s a perfect spot for the town of Gjirokastër.

If one word were to be applied to Gjirokastër it would probably be charming.  I don’t know what it takes to make a town “charming”, but Gjirokastër has it.  The old town is built on the hillside and its distinguishing feature are the hundred of old stone houses.  These stone buildings have led the entire old town be named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  These buildings were constructed during the period of Ottoman rule over Albania, mostly between the 17th and 18th centuries.

A typical street

It is possible to tour several of these old houses.  I only toured one of these, the Skenduli House.  This three story mansion was built in 1700 for one of the wealthiest merchants in the area.  It is still owned by the Skenduli family today.  Even though it is clear that a significant amount of restoration work has already been done on it, it still needs more.  The interior offers great perspective on the living conditions of the upper class during the Ottoman period.

The Skenduli House [apologies for the low quality]

A model of the Skenduli House

A room inside the Skenduli House

Across the street from the Skenduli House is another stone house containing the Museum of Ethnography.  The house itself is good condition and, while less extravagant than the neighboring Skenduli House, it is still quite large and its inhabitants would be have been well to do. The museum contains examples of traditional dress, crafts, and household items.  Unfortunately, there are no signs anywhere, but there are guides that can assist.

Traditional dress on display in the Museum of Ethnography

Carvings in the Museum of Ethnography

The dominant feature of Gjirokastër is Gjirokastër Castle which sits on an isolated outcrop above the bazaar area.  The passageway next to the entrance is lined with captured Italian and German artillery and other heavy weapons from World War II.  There is even a small Italian tank among the objects on display.

The open areas of the castle afford arresting views of the valley, the craggy mountains, and the countless stone buildings.  It makes the journey up the hill worth it.

The castle yard

Looking down from the castle

A clock tower sits at the edge of the fort.  This was built when the area was controlled by Ali Pasha (he’s the one that Lord Byron met) to assist in keeping track of the Muslim call for prayer.  These days it doesn’t function, but provides some aesthetic appeal.

The castle clock tower

The fortress is home to two museums.  The Museum of Gjirokastër is small, but well assembled.  All the signs are in English and provide a significant amount of background on the area and its long history from the Bronze Age through the modern era.

Displays in the Museum of Gjirokastër

The other museum, which is adjoining, is the Museum of Armaments.  There isn’t much English signage in this area.  A large portion of it is dedicated to the World War II period during which Albania was occupied by Italy and then Germany.  A number of small arms used by the occupying forces are on display, as well as those of anti-occupation partisans.  Statues, paintings, and photos provide a small amount of context.

Statue of a partisan fighting a German soldier

Armaments on display

The Museum of Armaments is located in the part of the castle that used to be a prison.  It was first used in this capacity during the rule of King Zog in the pre-World War II period.  Every successive regime used the prison until it was closed in 1968 during the communist period.

Hallway of the castle prison

While old town Gjirokastër is the main draw, a modern town exists down on the valley floor.  Though not large, it is a hive of activity compared to the sleepy hillside.  There is not much in the area to draw travelers other than the bus station, but it is still a pleasant area to walk around and remind yourself that modern civilization still exists.

View from the new town

My accommodations were basic, but for about $8 a night to have a private room I cannot complain.  As well, food was cheap and satisfying.

I think we can all agree that this qualifies as "basic"

Gjirokastër was a great place to spend a few days.  Just walking around the old town is a treat in itself, though there are enough attractions to hold your attention for a couple of days.  If you are in the region I highly recommend it.  It is easily accessible from Greece or elsewhere in Albania.  

Stone buildings in various conditions

Albania: A Primer

The next few posts will be covering my time in Albania.  I realize that the average American's knowledge of Albania is somewhere around minimal to absolutely nothing.  To save you the trip to Wikipedia and that wormhole, I'll give you a quick rundown here on the country.

Albania is a mountainous country in the Balkans.  Early Albania was peopled by the Illyrians.  Through its history it has been a part of the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman Empires.  It gained independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1912.  During World War II the Italians followed by the Germans occupied the country.  At the war's end the country regained its independence and became a socialist state under the rule of Enver Hoxha.  The communist period was marked by extreme isolation, even by communist standards.  Hoxha died in 1985 and communism fell in 1992.  Albany moved to a market economy at that time.

Since the fall of communism Albania has embraced the West.  It is now a member of NATO and is a candidate for EU membership. 

Albania is a middle income country, but still poor by European standards.

The population is nominally majority Muslim, but religion is not a significant factor in the daily lives of most Albanians.

There are significant Albanian population pockets in most Albanian's neighbor because of the way in which Albanian borders were drawn by outside powers.

Здраво (Zdravo) from Macedonia


I left Albania today after spending four days in Tirana.  I really enjoyed my time in Albania.  I didn't know what to expect of Albania before arriving.  It was a pleasant surprise.  There will be more detailed blog posts on it to come (I promise!).


From Tirana I headed to Skopje, Macedonia.  It took about 8 hours via bus.  The time passed fairly quickly and the scenery was beautiful.  The biggest shock for me during the ride was to see rain.  I've gotten so used to the hot weather in Turkey, Greece, and Albania that I had almost forgotten that I might see rain while traveling.  It was only for a short period after crossing into Macedonia.  We'll see if encounter it again.

I expect that my time in Skopje and Macedonia will be brief and then I'll head on towards Kosovo.  As always though, my travel plans are subject change.

The mustache when it was just a wee lad.  [Feel free to forward this head shot to your talent agent friends.]

The mustache when it was just a wee lad.  [Feel free to forward this head shot to your talent agent friends.]

In a final bit of news that should disappoint everyone, my mustache stayed behind in Albania.  I'm clean shaven now.  It had a good run of nearly four weeks.  Perhaps it will reappear later in my travels when I again feel like scaring away women and children.

"Tjeta" from Albania


Childe Harold saw, like meteors in the sky,
The glittering minarets of Tepalen

-Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

My busy pace of travel has continued as I took an overnight bus from Athens to Albania.  It was a long bus ride and the comfort level wasn't particularly high.  Border procedures were simple, but took longer than I would have liked considering we passed through around 3 AM.  

I intended to take the bus from Athens to Gjirokastër, however I ended up sleeping through Gjirokastër.  The bus driver and the attendant also neglected to make any announcement.  I realized my problem once I saw signs going the other direction for Gjirokastër.  I got off the bus in the town of Tepelenë.  

Tepelenë is of some note because Lord Byron visited the town in 1809 and was received by Ali Pasha.  Ali was an Albanian who was effectively the governor of much of Greece and Albania within the Ottoman Empire.  He was a strong and wealthy ruler.  He also committed many atrocities.  He ultimately became too powerful and independent for the liking of the Ottomans and an Ottoman army was sent to eliminate him.  After dying in battle his head was sent to the Ottoman sultan.   Ali Pasha influenced some of Byron's characters and Tepelenë got name checked in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage.


There's really not much for me to say about my time in Tepelenë.  I didn't encounter any local pashas and the only thing I did do was spend about 10 minutes negotiating with a taxi driver to get me to my original destination.

The drive to Gjirokastër took about 20 minutes and the beautiful scenery made me feel a little better about paying to go where I should have already been.

Once in Gjirokastër I checked in to my hotel and passed out for a few hours.  I spent the next two days in the town and will have more about that later.  It was a great time.

Today I left Gjirokastër for Tirana, the capital city of Albania. It took about four hours by bus, but was not bad at all.  I've only the kilometer or so of Tirana between the bus station and my hostel, but I like it so far.