Posts Tagged ‘communism’

Lea Ypi: Free

July 11, 2022

     I have a rather strange relationship with Albania, and I have never been there. Some forty or more years ago, during the days of would-be socialist nations, I discovered the nightly English propaganda broadcasts on Radio Tirana, which were preceded by the strident call-sign With Pickaxe and Rifle, and always ended with the words, “Goodbye, dear listeners!” followed by a rousing version of the Internationale. The broadcasts were so over-the-top that they caused much amusement. And there was the Albanian Shop, purveyors of propaganda and the party daily from a basement shop in a Covent Garden back street. Then I discovered the astonishing novels of the only Albanian novelist I’m aware of, Ismail Kadare. You will find reviews of some in these pages, if you care to look.

I think I’ve also read some travel writing about the country. So this book, about growing up and coming of age in Albania at the time of the transition from the age of socialism to the age of capitalism, caught my attention, and it’s both an interesting and a disturbing read. It seems to have received many positive reviews, not all from readers who seem to have understood the complexity or the subtlety of what appears to be Lea Ypi’s message.

The first part, which is at times annoying to read as it’s from a child’s perspective and written in the present, describes the last days of the old regime and the demonstrations and transition to something new and different; the second part is after the change and the attempts, in many different ways, to come to terms with it. It is strange to read of a young person and her family discovering ‘our’ world, the ‘real’ world, learning its ways for the first time and interacting with it, as well as gradually discovering truths which had been concealed in her past, in many ways and for all sorts of reasons… the importance of ‘biography’ which only becomes clear as the author learns about her family’s real past and bourgeois origins.

The weirdness of the country’s isolation is striking, as is the innocence of an 11 year-old and her perspective and the lack of it, from inside the regime. There is a sense of utter confusion as changes begin, there are no anchors, there is no reliability in anything: the craziness is portrayed from within, with a naive yet questioning tone behind it all; there are serious potential consequences if a child is overheard saying the wrong thing. We can see how people within the system came to think, to rationalise and to explain things to themselves, and the compromises they had to make to remain safe. It’s a bizarre, looking-glass world that makes perfect sense when seen only from within, exactly like our own, if you just stop to think about it.

The author’s tragedy is that she, as an 11 year-old, believes in that now crumbling world, in which it seems that the adults were only going through the motions. The consequences of ‘freedom’, ‘shock therapy’ are truly awful; huge numbers try to emigrate. They were heroes when they were fleeing ‘communism’, but fleeing capitalism they are an unwanted nuisance. You see how millions of innocent and naive people were fleeced by capitalist plunderers, taken in and fleeced by spivs because they were naive and gullible; all sorts of Western plagues and diseases – like AIDS – arrive: we see the meaning of ‘freedom’, and its price.

The author is older now, and she reflects on the new, and different, dilemmas those close to her are faced by. Her family are among the hundreds of thousands ruined by various pyramid selling schemes: how were they to know? And then there is a civil war, frightening from a young person’s point of view but which I remember hearing almost nothing about.

It’s a thought-provoking book, a challenging book, which faces us with the two sorts of freedom we are never really aware of here in the rich West, freedom from and freedom to: each has its (very different) price.

Svetlana Alexievich: Second-hand Time

January 1, 2017

31-sknsa7il-_ac_us200_I really don’t know where to start with this book: it’s probably the most harrowing thing I’ve ever read, and will go around in my head for ages. I’m not really sure it’s anything a Westerner can fully comprehend…

Some context first: Svetlana Alexievich is a Belarusian writer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015. She’s written about Soviet veterans from Afghanistan, the consequences of the Chernobyl accident, and, in this, her latest book, the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. She’s not a novelist or a poet: she gets ordinary people to speak, and presents the reader with their words. Hardly the stuff a Nobel laureate is made of, I found myself thinking, but then, she actually does the same as any other writer: she selects, orders and presents; only most of the words aren’t hers. Only twenty-five years have passed since the Soviet Union ceased to exist, and already a serious amount of annotation is needed for the reader to begin to understand much of what is said.

In one way, the book stands as a tribute to those who really believed in their ideals and strove against the odds to bring them to fruition; their memory deserves to survive. Not everyone who lived in Soviet times repudiates those times, though we are often led to believe they do. We hear from real Russians: they are given voices and allowed to speak; they deserve a hearing and respect. They speak of comradeship, of common efforts, of how they defeated fascism, of how they built a great and powerful nation in far less time than any western land.

Some recount the almost unbelievably bloody past of Stalin’s era; some are proud of their part in it (!): I reminded myself of every nation’s bloody past – the British Empire, the United States’ treatment of the original inhabitants of that land, their treatment of non-whites… fill in the blanks for yourselves. Some recount the horrors of ethnic conflict once the Soviet umbrella disappeared, and it’s incredibly scary how quickly and easily everything erupted and how savage it became. Many are appalled at the savagery of the dog-eat-dog capitalism that was released with the advent of the market, how they were deceived, deluded and robbed. And, as well as the voices of the losers, we hear from some of those who came out on top.

It’s when I try to make sense of the book at a deeper level that I’m utterly thrown: was it Lenin, Stalin, communism that allowed such misery and such horrors to be perpetrated? Were all those people who thought they were slowly and painfully building a better future utterly deluded fools? In the end, is all human existence a bitter struggle for who gets to the top of the pile and sh*ts on everyone else? If so, we really are not a very intelligent species, and perhaps do not deserve to survive.

I can’t accept such a simplistic analysis, in the end. Mistaken struggles for a better world are still attempts to make something better, and the genuineness of the wishes and beliefs of many ordinary Russians shines through. And Russia has not been blessed with an easy history, has not followed the same tracks as the ‘democratic’ West. Capitalism was determined to bury the Soviet experiment, and did so through the arms race; it cost the West a fortune but it cost the Soviets everything. And when the Union collapsed, the West supported the sharks in the sidelines. Most importantly, the example, the alternative, though dreadfully flawed other way of looking at things was abolished, no longer an danger, no longer able to support other experiments around the world: ‘There is no alternative’.

I have to emphasise, this is my current take on a monumental book. I think anyone who wishes to express an opinion on those times should read it.

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