Thursday, February 18, 2010

On Communism in Albania

I was honored by being asked by Harvard Club Member Roxana von Kraus to speak on the subject of "Communism in Albania" at a presentation of the award-winning Vaclav Havel Documentary Film at The Downtown Harvard Club in Boston on February 18, 2010. I have posted my talk below. Since, as I have stated in my opening remarks, I am not an authority on that subject, I invite viewers to the Frosina Blog to post their own Comments or first-hand experiences of life under that repressive communist dictatorship in Albania.


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On Communism in Albania
Van Christo

At the outset, let me state that I am not an authority on the subject "Communism in Albania" but I can share with you some of my firsthand impressions of life under a communist government in that country.

After some 33 consecutive years of applying for a visa to visit Albania, the land of my birth, I was finally successful in 1981 so, accompanied by my wife, Jane, and our then 4-year old son, Zachary, as part of a closely supervised tour group of Albanian-Americans, we traveled throughout Albania - from Shkodra in the North to Saranda in the South. And here are some of my perceptions:

After we arrived in Tirana, I was immediately struck by the grimness of seemingly unfinished, yet inhabited buildings where we saw block after block of apartments that appeared to be of poor construction. And, after visiting the apartments of several relatives, we were astonished to learn that water and electricity in the apartments were available only a few hours each day, so in their kitchens and bathrooms, we saw bottles and jugs full to the brim with water. In many cases people had to rise as early as 3am to get as much water as they could before the supply was shut off, generally before 4am.

The electricity was sporadic and during the winter, families frequently went to bed shortly after sunset as there was no heat, and no light with which to cook, eat or read.

There were few shops, and many of them had very little to buy. For example, if a shipment of shoes came into a shop, people converged in a frenzy to buy whatever they could lay there hands on.

Also difficult to watch were the long lines of people, assembling as early as 5am, waiting to purchase milk on a first-come-first-served basis only to see the disappointment on their faces when the milk supply ran out. Indeed, my wife and I along with other members of our tour group quickly noted how difficult life was in communist Albania.

After the communist government of Enver Hoxha was established in Albania in 1945 at the end of WWII, diplomatic relations between Albania and America soon broke off, and ties between the Albanian communities in the USA and Albania ended. Travel between the two countries was prohibited, at first, by the communist government, and later by the USA. Private telephones in Albania were forbidden (as was the ownership of automobiles) and the only communication that existed between Albania and America was the exchange of heavily-censored mail. And, then, letters from America were delivered first to Yugoslavia and then-rerouted by the Yogoslavs to Albania.

In 1957, small Albanian-American tour groups, closely supervised, were finally permitted to visit Albania. They were happy to visit their motherland after almost 30-40 years of separation. And what did they see?

Instead of dirt roads, outhouses, and other primitive living conditions in Albania (because of its almost 500-year subjugation under the Ottoman Empire), they saw, instead, tall, multi-storied apartment buildings with indoor plumbing, asphalted roads where none had existed before, schools, a university, hospitals, clinics, libraries, and then, a few years later, even a "skyscraper" hotel in the center of Tirana, and other eye-openers that were to the American-Albanian visitors unbelievable achievements. When the tour groups returned to America, they related with some enthusiasm to the Albanian communities the positive changes that had occurred in Albania. To them, the before-and-after contrasts were dramatic. Quite naturally, a few of those American-Albanian enthusiasts were immediately - and unfairly - labeled communist sympathizers to be scorned for touting the wonders of a brutal communist dictatorship

Now, I want to contrast the life experiences of those first Albanian immigrants who came in numbers to America in the 1920s with the more recent arrivals. As I was growing up, I was always intrigued that when Albanians met each other on the streets of Boston, they invariably ended their conversations with the nostalgic expression "Mot, ne Shqiperi - next year, in Albania."

Yet, when after 45 years of an absolute dictatorship, Albanians from Albania began coming to America in 1990 after the downfall of communism, of the thousands that I have spoken to, their comment was almost always "We escaped from Hell.”

In our family, my nephew’s grandmother and grandfather were imprisoned for being dissidents. His grandfather was tortured, died in prison, and buried in some unmarked grave, and, Nona, his grandmother, was let out of prison after two years because she held an Italian passport. Jane and I were pleased to be able to help sponsor our nephew’s family including Nona to come to the United States in 1997. It was gratifying to see Nona spend her final years (she died in 2008) in a free Democratic country.

I will never forget Nona's descriptions of life in a brutal communist prison, and her life in Albania afterwards. For Nona, and many others, Albania was Hell!

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1 Comments:

At February 19, 2010 at 1:15 PM , Anonymous Papa Lazo said...

Thank you, Van, for this insightful piece, which of course, fits in nicely with everything I ever heard growing up about Communism in Albania. Privation, suffering, paranoia, psychological warfare at every turn.... I'd write letters to my cousins in Korce and tell them all about what was going on in my young life, what I was up to, etc., and I'd get back these one paragraph notes which basically said 'everyone's fine, thank you'.

One time, my family and I were invited by some friends to visit the Albanian Mission to the UN to watch some films and have a meal, and it was a great occasion. There was plenty of food and drink and the film, a travel documentary about Albania, was interesting. We met lots of other Albanian-Americans from the greater NYC area. But honestly, all I could think looking around me was - these people at this Mission have it pretty damned good, don't they? They lived much better on the Upper East Side of Manhattan than they would have in Tirana. I'm sure they felt it was like dying and going to heaven to be stationed in New York. Back in Albania, people were queueing for the bare necessities.

A short time after our visit to the Mission, our family mysteriously began receiving copies of New Albania magazine, a surreal publication if ever there was one. Page after page of smiling, jubilant factory workers; a photo still comes to mind of a group of old women hastily fixing cups of Turkish coffee and serving them to Enver Hoxha when he 'popped by their village for a visit'. I'm sure Enver Hoxha popped over to villages for a visit all the time (yeah, right!) In the voting statistics published in New Albania, I think there was something like 100% turnout and 99.9% of Albanians voted for Enver Hoxha. It was the 80s, and I simply couldn't square the exhuberance of the people depicted in this magazine with the letters my grandpa had started to get, asking for money to buy things as varied as wedding attire and motorcycles.

Much later in life, in 2004, I made my first visit to Korce. The only photos of the city I possessed were two black and white postcard views taken in 1916, which I scored on e-Bay, from someone in Thessaloniki. Though the entire economy was functioning on remittances from abroad, from what I could ascertain, things had finally begun to change for the better for the people of Korce. The entire city was a construction site, and although there was much cynicism about who was doing what to whom, who had been part of the problem, who was obstructing x, y or z, people seemed to feel themselves to be far better off than they had been under the Hoxha regime. A return to the open practice of religion was everywhere apparent. A beautiful new Cathedral and churches, a new mosque, little roadside shrines and restored cemeteries restored - or in the process of restoration. Recently I saw that the the Iljaz Bey Mirahorit mosque, the oldest mosque in Albania, had been fully restored, and its minaret reconstructed. Korce is continually giving back to itself. Birra Korca has entirely refurbished and modernized it's operations. There's even a museum of East Asian art, the Bratko Museum.

Since my initial visit, a new shopping center has been built and numerous historical buildings renovated. There are lots of cafes and little shops, and the bazaar is teeming with merchants and shoppers. There is tempered optimisim, but also nervousness about the economic downturn. However, nobody is afraid that their neighbors are spying on them, mail isn't opened and people's individual property is not confiscated. Nobody's being sent to concentration camps to be tortured or killed. Food is plentiful and first quality.

The paranoia is gone, and in its place there is hope and there are dreams which are being dreamt and realized. The process is slow, and it's sometimes painful. But things are undeniably going in the right direction. Albania is emerging as one of Europe's most exciting destinations.

 

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