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There Was a Time in Communist Albania

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Albania used to be the most communist of communist countries – but you’d never know it today.

Evidence of the world’s strictest Marxist-Leninist regime has all but disappeared. What’s left are bunkers, thousands of ugly, concrete domes of which more than 700,000 were built to keep out ‘the enemy.’

Abandoned Albanian bunker

Many of Albania’s more than 700,000 bunkers still stand, decrepit and abandoned

They were expensive to make (cranes and helicopters were used to put them in place) and are even more expensive to destroy so they’re painted, chipped at, transformed into rooms or cafés, or just left alone in the hope they might somehow disintegrate. Not a chance.

Enver Hoxha (pronounced Hodge-ah) ruled Albania with a proverbial iron fist from 1944 until his death in 1985 and the bunkers are a sublime manifestation of his paranoia. The maniacal dictator felt threatened by the outside world and slowly withdrew his country into total isolation. He broke first with Yugoslavia, then the Soviet Union, and ultimately with Maoist China, until Albania stood alone, a bit like North Korea does today.

Communist Albania: Perfectly Agrarian

Hoxha designed Albania to become the perfect agrarian society, with happy peasants reaping the fruit of their labor, looking something like this.

Painting of Communism in Albania

These happy peasant women are how Communism saw itself; Communist art is now a collector’s item

He wasn’t that unsuccessful. Literacy rates soared, women in this male-dominated society were empowered, and Albania grew most of its own food (it had to since it had broken ties with everyone else).

Unfortunately the ‘Hero of the People’ had a few disreputable habits as well, like using chemical weapons, sending opponents to labor camps, or torturing and killing them.

To a university student in political science, as I was in the 1970s, Albania’s isolation made it magnetic.

I was desperate to get behind its walls but in those days the walls would only come down for comrades.

It took many years until I finally went and throughout my recent visit, I sought out vestiges of communism and of Enver Hoxha’s ironfisted rule. I found a disappointing pittance.

Of course there were the dwellings… Albania isn’t a rich country, nor is it a member of the European Union, so many former structures remain.

Communist era apartments in Albania

It looks a bit more cheerful now but it isn’t difficult to imagine the dreariness of communist architecture in Albania

Monumental architecture has always been popular in communist countries so the existence of massive palaces is no surprise, especially when they depict Albanian nationalism, as does the National Museum of Tirana.

Tirana's National Museum

Tirana’s National Museum – monumental and not unattractive

Tirana Opera

These days pleasant coffee shops fill the opera’s arcades

While I have nothing against communist architecture – I even like some of it – it can be both incomprehensible and ugly. The famous pyramid is one of these. Built by Enver Hoxha’s architect daughter and son-in-law at great expense, it started life as the Enver Hoxha Museum and has in turn been a conference center, a NATO headquarters, an exhibition center and a broadcasting station.

These days it sits on a site designated to host the new Parliament building so there’s every chance it will be torn down, despite some opposition from nostalgists. I’m not sure which camp I’m in. I find this so offensively ugly that on some level it should be preserved, if only as a warning to future architects.

Tirana pyramid

Once a museum and conference center, the Enver Hoxha pyramid lies abandoned in downtown Tirana

On the Rampage

The fall of communism was marked by political unrest, corruption and the crash of pyramid schemes, which drew people into the streets on a rampage of destruction. Down came the statues and plaques and much memorabilia ended up in the bonfire.

A few collectors kept mementoes but searching for antiques yielded only a few old-fashioned radios, some discarded ammunition, and some rusty military stars. When Albania decided to shed its past, it did so with a vengeance.

Bullets and antique radios in Albania

Finding communist antiques in Albania wasn’t easy; much has been destroyed

These days history is taking a back seat to politics, the economy and the future. Albania hopes to join the European Union at some point and the past is the last thing on most Albanians’ minds.

I spent time driving throughout the country and stopped for a while in Durres, the coastal city where Tirana residents escape to the sea for the weekend. These days it’s the premier destination for tourists from landlocked Kosovo and, like other coastal cities further South, Durres looks like any popular Mediterranean resort.

Durres

Durres, then and now

The past may be receding, but it’s not altogether dead.

Signs of Enver Hoxha

The past is discreet, but it’s still around

Once upon a time in communist Albania, citizens had no contact with the outside world. They had no passports, and when the Berlin Wall fell most Albanians hadn’t heard the news.

Today that’s hard to believe. If it weren’t for the bunkers, you’d hardly know that a few decades ago this was a Marxist stronghold that made even Maoist China look liberal.

Things every Woman on the Road should know

  • If you’re keen on Communist memorabilia, my friends over at Albania Trip have developed a one-day “Socialist Realism and Communist Tour of Tirana.” Sounds fascinating.
  • I stayed at the Villa with Star, which is owned by Albania Trip; they have a few rooms, and a wonderful collection of socialist memorabilia (I had the guided tour).

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