Cultivated Illusions: On Lea Ypi’s “Free: A Child and a Country at the End of History”

By Cory OldweilerApril 18, 2022

Cultivated Illusions: On Lea Ypi’s “Free: A Child and a Country at the End of History”

Free: A Child and a Country at the End of History by Lea Ypi

“REAL FREEDOM EXISTS only where exploitation has been abolished, where there is no oppression of some people by others, where there is no unemployment and begging, where a person does not tremble because tomorrow he may lose his job, housing, bread. Only in such a society is real, and not paper, personal and every other freedom possible.”

As Edenic as Joseph Stalin sounds explaining nastoyashchaya svoboda — real freedom — in this March 1936 interview in Pravda, he would soon begin overseeing the Great Purge, imprisoning or executing hundreds of thousands of political opponents, military members, clergy, and ethnic minorities, thereby giving the lie to his lip service about a society where “there is no oppression of some people by others.”

One man not disaffected by Stalin’s many shortcomings, murderous or otherwise, was his dictatorial comrade in Albania, Enver Hoxha. For more than four decades, from soon after World War II until his death in 1985, Hoxha determinedly led Albania on a unique, and increasingly lonely, path toward Stalinism. When Marshal Tito broke with Stalin in the late 1940s, Albania pulled away from Yugoslavia. When Nikita Khrushchev repudiated Stalin after his death in the 1950s, Albania pulled away from the Soviet Union. When Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia to break the spirit of the Prague Spring in 1968, Albania withdrew from the Warsaw Pact. And when Hua Guofeng was seen to be turning toward the West after Mao Zedong’s death in the 1970s, Albania pulled away from China, too.

Lea Ypi was born into this isolated environment in 1979, but as she relates in her trenchant autobiography, Free, Albania was proud of its solitary path, defiant in showing “the rest of the world how even a small nation on the edge of the Balkans could find the strength to resist.” Ypi, who is now a professor of political theory at the London School of Economics, left Albania after completing secondary school in 1997, the wounds of her homeland’s brief civil war still bloody. Her writing relates both the personal and the political milestones of her youth with clear-eyed hindsight, yet she never allows her younger self to take credit for feeling or realizing more than she felt or realized at the time. The result is an engrossing coming-of-age narrative with the aura of a Cold War thriller, as slowly the scales fall from Ypi’s eyes and she must find her own unique path toward freedom.

Albania did “resist the siren call of [both] the revisionist East and the imperialist West” for longer than almost everyone else in Europe, with the communists holding on to unchecked power for more than five years following Hoxha’s death. By December 1990, however, when Ypi’s book opens, there was increasing discontent in the country. Heading home from school, 11-year-old Lea gets caught up in one of the widespread protests and, seeking shelter at the feet of a statue of Stalin, admits to wondering what all the fuss is about: “I tried to think like my teacher. We had socialism. Socialism gave us freedom. The protesters were mistaken. Nobody was looking for freedom. Everyone was already free, just like me.”

While she didn’t see the rationale behind the shouts of “freedom, democracy, freedom, democracy,” she did sense that something consequential was happening: “For the first time I wondered whether freedom and democracy might not be the reality in which we lived but a mysterious future condition about which I knew very little.” That dichotomy, between what Lea had been taught, at school and at home, about “the reality” of life in Albania and what she would experience and witness as the country’s “mysterious future” unfolds before her, gives Free both its structure and its motivation.

To that point in December 1990, Ypi’s life lessons had stemmed from two main sources: the state, which often takes the guise of teacher Nora in the book, and her family, including her paternal grandmother who lived with her parents. Teacher Nora offers guidance on much more than the four Rs. She opines on religion, which was outlawed in Albania: “We must never return to those backward customs. There is no God anywhere. No God, no afterlife, no immortality of the soul. When we die, we die.” She philosophizes, à la Stalin, on the shortcomings of socialism versus the end goal of communism:

When people grow up in a humane system, and children are educated in the right ideas […] they internalize them. Class enemies become fewer in number, and class struggle first softens, then disappears. That is when communism really starts, and why it is superior to socialism: it does not need the law to punish anyone, and it liberates human beings once and for all.

Teacher Nora even has opinions on Lea’s parents, adjudging them, with a “vaguely disapproving look,” to be intellectuals.

And indeed they were, having both been educated at university, though “biography” prevents them from pursuing the careers they desire. Ypi doles out clues to these biographies, without letting on what she didn’t know at the time. Her father, who went by Zafo, was born Xhaferr Ypi, the same name as the “Albanian quisling, the country’s tenth prime minister, the national traitor, the class enemy, the deserving target of hatred and contempt in class discussions.” Every year on May 5, when Albanians commemorated their war heroes, Lea had to explain to her peers how the identical names were just a coincidence. (Spoiler alert: they weren’t.) Her mother, who went by Doli, was born Vjollca Veli. She grew up in the port city of Durrës, where Lea grows up as well, and was a national chess champion at age 22. At home, neither parent pushes back much against the teachings of teacher Nora, seeming, as Ypi writes, almost indifferent to politics.

That indifference starts to nettle the five-year-old Lea when Hoxha dies in 1985: “The truth was that they didn’t care; they cared neither about visiting Uncle Enver’s grave nor about keeping his photo in our living room.” She starts probing her boundaries, trying to get answers by acting out, leading to two chilling episodes that could come from the fiction of George Orwell or Ismail Kadare. In the first instance, Lea’s grandmother tells her, “[Y]ou must promise […] that you will never again say, to us or to anyone else, that we don’t love or miss Uncle Enver.” Later, after a separate incident, her neighbor offers a similar warning, saying, “You must promise me that if you ever again have silly ideas like that about your family, you will come and tell me. Me — nobody else.”

Even faced with the protesters years later, Lea’s parents remain seemingly indifferent: “My questions about politics, the country, the protests, and how to explain what was going on found only curt, evasive answers.” She begins to “doubt” her family, “and by doubting, I found that my grip on who I was began to slip.” Ypi parcels out her parents’ duplicity with a pacing worthy of John le Carré, allowing the reader to sense that something else is going on, though it is only hinted at initially:

I could not explain to myself the lingering feeling I had then, and which I am able to articulate only now, that the life I lived, inside the walls of the house and outside, was in fact not one life but two, lives that sometimes complemented and supported each other but mostly clashed against a reality I could not fully grasp.

When Lea does learn the truth about her family, following the arrival of a tenuous multiparty system in 1991, her real soul-searching begins: “In the following weeks, I was assailed by doubts. I found it difficult to process the fact that everything my family had said and done up to that point had been a lie, a lie they’d continued to repeat so that I would continue to believe what I was told by others.”

With socialism gone, what emerged felt like “a dish served frozen […] Some wondered if we had been given leftovers.” Lea’s personal stories continue, including a Proustian trip into the family’s past in Greece and the political awakening of both her parents, and she relates a series of interactions with Western goods that highlight the gulf Albania was struggling to bridge. Lea sees a plastic bag for the first time when she is handed one on an airplane in case she needs to vomit. A neighbor receives a bottle of liquid dish soap that she takes to be “foreign lemon shampoo,” resulting in an itchy scalp. And in what is by far the most incredible misunderstanding, Lea’s mother hosts a group of French feminists wearing what she takes to be high-end fashion emblazoned with “Gloria” on the back, but which is in fact a negligée, a “knee-length piece of dark red silk […] adorned with black lace at the bottom, ribbons on the sleeves, and a V-shaped neckline.”

As amusing as these and other anecdotes are, the crux of the book’s second half is the failure of the West after 1991 to deliver the improved quality of life Albanians had been hoping for and, in many cases, were assured would be there for the taking. These failures are felt on both a personal scale and a national one. In the former, Lea’s close childhood friend Elona jumps on one of the first boats to Italy, seeking, Lea imagines, a better life in the West. The reality is tragically darker, however, as it emerges that the 13-year-old Elona has likely been trafficked by the 18-year-old neighbor boy who traveled with her. In the country at large, the influx of Western ideas includes a proliferation of financial firms designed to “compensate for the country’s underdeveloped financial sector.” These were really just pyramid schemes that, coupled with continued political upheaval, collapsed in 1996, wiping out the savings of more than half the population, and leading to civil war and utter despair the following year: “In 1990, we had nothing but hope. In 1997, we lost that too. The future looked bleak.”

Ypi’s narrative ends amid this bleak future, with her declaration that she wants to study philosophy in Italy, and her promise “to stay away from Marx.” Clearly, she broke that promise, emerging as “a prominent left-wing voice in Europe,” according to the book’s bio blurb. As Ypi explains in an epilogue, it is an affiliation her mother finds difficult to understand, but which perhaps can be explained generationally:

My family equated socialism with denial: the denial of who they wanted to be, of the right to make mistakes and learn from them, to explore the world on one’s own terms. I equated liberalism with broken promises, the destruction of solidarity, the right to inherit privilege, selfish enrichment, cultivating illusions while turning a blind eye to injustice.

That indictment of liberalism rings uncomfortably true in 2022, even for someone who grew up as I did in Ronald Reagan’s United States of America, in the land of the free, in the shining city upon a hill. Heck, we beat communism. We won the Cold War. But the past several years in the United States have seen the word freedom pressed and pretzeled into service by the opportunistic; bedecked in bunting or soaked in blood, as the circumstances warrant; trumpeted with blind certitude or whispered in assured fear, as dictated by the current rally-slash-threat level. The conservative co-opting of the word freedom has metastasized from the infantile “freedom fries” to the incendiary Freedom Rally, which precipitated a seditious conspiracy to overthrow our government.

Destroyed solidarity. Inherited privilege. Selfish enrichment. Cultivated illusions. Blind justice. Sounds like a bleak future, indeed. And a reminder that a multitude of questions surround the meaning of the word free.


Cory Oldweiler is a freelance writer and editor.

LARB Contributor

Cory Oldweiler writes about translated fiction and nonfiction for several publications, including Words Without Borders and the Southwest Review. His criticism also appears in The Washington Post, Boston Globe, and Star Tribune, among other outlets. He wrote the 2015 novel Testimony of the Senses, inspired by the symphonies of Gustav Mahler.


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