The evening I finished Lea Ypi’s brilliant and moving new book, Free: Coming of Age at the End of History, I shared a meal in a famous Belgrade pizzeria with two Serbian women in their late forties. Like Ypi, they had also been teenagers amid the last gasps of twentieth-century European state socialism. One woman had been a junior in secondary school and the other a first-year student in university when the country in which they had been born and raised imploded.
As the younger of the two women, who had spent more than twenty years in the West, explained over a glass of Orangina:
I was in Novi Sad when the war started. My father was forty-nine, just young enough to be conscripted. He was supposed to deliver conscription notices to men in our neighborhood, but he couldn’t do it.
“Most of the boys in my class, they went to the army,” the second woman said in broken English. “Just dropped by helicopter to the middle of nowhere with Kalashnikovs. Many didn’t come back.” The first continued: “It happened so fast. We started killing our friends. It wasn’t the freedom we were expecting.”
Over the course of dinner, both women recalled fragments of their former lives, lives bisected by the sudden collapse of socialism. As an ethnographer of Eastern Europe, I have shared various versions of the same conversation with hundreds of people over the last three decades. An early euphoria at the possibility of a future filled with free, multiparty elections and a new cornucopia of consumer goods slowly gave way to disillusionment, disappointment, and despair.
Whether the advent of “freedom” brought ethnic conflict and genocide, as in the case of Yugoslavia, political collapse and civil war, as in the case of Albania, or massive social dislocation, unemployment, and poverty, as in almost all other former socialist countries, the lofty ideals of liberty ushered in an era of profound uncertainty and widespread suffering for many.
Fukuyama on the Adriatic
Lea Ypi’s gorgeously written text — part memoir, part bildungsroman — tells a very personal story of socialism and postsocialism. We meet the protagonist, a tween girl clinging to the bronze legs of a newly headless statue of Josef Stalin, just as the pro-democracy protests begin in her native town of Durrës, Albania.
In much the same spirit as Jana Hensel’s 2002 memoir of growing up in Eastern Germany, Zonenkinder, Ypi’s reflections on the stability and comfort of her youthful Marxist worldview speak to the experiences of hundreds of millions of individuals who had their entire lives overturned by the rapid succession of events that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989. “The End of History” in the subtitle refers specifically to Francis Fukuyama’s bold pronouncement that communism’s defeat at the conclusion of the Cold War marked “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”
Ypi is not shy in criticizing the many faults of Albania’s previous regime, particularly as they relate to the persecution of her own family, who lived their entire lives haunted by having the wrong “biographies.” But she avoids the simplistic, knee-jerk anti-communism of so many other memoirs of the children and grandchildren of the expropriated bourgeoisie. Ypi balances her condemnations of authoritarian rule with an equally critical view of the social, political, and economic processes that typified the arrival of democracy in the 1990s.
With the universalization of Western liberal democracy also came the imposition of “free” markets and the implementation of “shock therapy” — a package of neoliberal reforms aimed at the rapid integration of the former socialist countries into the global capitalist economy. As Ypi writes:
It came from psychiatry: shock therapy involves sending electric currents to a patient’s brain to relieve the symptoms of severe mental illness. In this case, our planned economy was considered to be the equivalent of madness. The cure was a transformative monetary policy: balancing budgets, liberalizing prices, eliminating government subsidies, privatizing the state sector and opening up the economy to foreign trade and direct investment. Market behavior would then adjust itself, and the emerging capitalist institutions would become efficient without great need for central coordination. A crisis was foreseen, but people had spent a lifetime making sacrifices in the name of better days to come. This would be their last effort. With drastic measures and goodwill, the patient would soon recover from the shock and enjoy the benefits of the therapy.
In the case of Albania, shock therapy had devastating consequences. Ypi details how the social fabric of her childhood — the solidarity and community that made the shared oppression of the communist era bearable — disappeared with the freewheeling entrepreneurial spirit of klepto-capitalism. Entire forests are cut down through a process she calls “bottom-up privatization,” babies are abandoned in orphanages, girls are trafficked to Italy, and boats full of her compatriots are sunk trying to cross the Adriatic:
The West had spent decades criticizing the East for its closed borders, funding campaigns to demand freedom of movement, condemning the immorality of states committed to restricting the right to exit. Our exiles used to be received as heroes. Now they were treated like criminals.
Worst of all, a handful of pyramid schemes wiped out the savings of hundreds of thousands of families, including Ypi’s, which led to civil war in 1997.
In view of all this chaos, it is rather remarkable that 24.3 percent of Albanians still believed that “most people could be trusted” in the period between 1995 and 1998. When the World Values Survey asked again between 2017 and 2020, after more than twenty years of attempts to build a so-called civil society, less than 3 percent of Albanians reported the same.
Free to Choose?
While Ypi is not nostalgic for her childhood and does not romanticize the past, her powerful narrative forces us to ask ourselves whether atomization and isolation are the inevitable by-products of a system obsessed with private profit and individual liberties. As the Russian artist and writer Svetlana Boym opines in her prescient 2010 book, Another Freedom: The Alternative History of an Idea:
The experience of freedom has not been valued equally throughout history and across cultures. Even today freedom is out of sync with other highly desirable states of being, such as happiness, belonging, glory, or intimacy. While those states suggest unity and fusion, freedom has an element of estrangement that does not by definition exclude engagement with others in the public world but makes it more unpredictable.
Like Boym, Ypi fundamentally questions the concept of what it means to be free. She tells us that she initially planned to write a book about “the overlapping ideas of freedom in the liberal and socialist traditions,” but that her ideas became personified in different members of her family. Still, lurking beneath the lighthearted prose of the memoir are serious interrogations of how a specific set of idealized notions about liberty proved disastrous to those whose lives were ruptured by the largely unexpected collapse of communism in Eastern Europe.
In Ypi’s view,
Freedom is not only sacrificed when others tell us what to say, where to go, how to behave. A society that claims to enable people to realise their potential but fails to change the structures that prevent everyone from flourishing, is also oppressive.
Here Ypi’s concerns echo the work of the Nobel Prize–winning Indian economist Amartya Sen, who argues that the aim of economic development must include the expansion of public programs that allow people to flourish. Criticizing a narrow focus on the growth of the gross national product or the rate of modernization of local industrial capacities as the ends of development programs, Sen proposes that true human freedom requires certain social guarantees:
Despite unprecedented increases in overall opulence, the contemporary world denies elementary freedoms to vast numbers — perhaps even the majority — of people. Sometimes the lack of substantive freedoms relates directly to economic poverty, which robs people of the freedom to satisfy hunger, or achieve sufficient nutrition, or to obtain remedies for treatable illnesses, or the opportunities to be adequately clothed or sheltered, or to enjoy clean water or sanitary facilities. In other cases, the unfreedom links closely with the lack of public facilities and social care, such as the absence of epidemiological programs, or organized arrangements for health care or educational facilities.
Ypi’s recollections of her childhood in isolated, Stalinist Albania reveal that while the regime brutally squashed liberal freedoms, it provided many of the public programs Sen believes necessary for enhancing human flourishing. If you pay careful attention, Ypi documents the surprising lack of deprivation that characterized her childhood while also highlighting the inordinate value placed on empty Coca-Cola cans and gum wrappers from the West.
Despite heavy doses of indoctrination, Ypi received a primary and secondary school education that was broad and rigorous. Even her father, who was not allowed to study math because of his family history, still attained a higher education at a public university for forestry. Ypi describes two happy weeks at a summer Pioneer Camp, gives us details about her cozy home (in which she cries alone in her bedroom), and expounds upon the friendly relations with her neighbors and the easy camaraderie of those who cooperated to hold each other’s places in the long queues for rationed goods.
In the background of her tale, you might also notice the functioning public transportation, or the relative autonomy of her mother, who had been a national chess champion at the age of twenty-two and who
often emphasized that there was only one thing to be proud of when assessing the legacy of the communist past. It was the way the Party had enforced strict equality between genders without making any concessions; the fact that everyone, male and female, was expected to work, and that not only was every job accessible to both groups, but both were actively encouraged to take it up.
Her father, who had severe asthma, was never without the necessary puffer to ease his symptoms, and Ypi’s own premature birth resulted in an extended hospital stay attached to an incubator, which did not bankrupt her family with astronomical medical bills.
Ypi forces the reader to question whether the right to vote in multiparty elections really means freedom when material circumstances out of one’s control so severely limited one’s life opportunities. “What, if anything, must we be certain of in order to tolerate uncertainty?” Svetlana Boym asked back in 2010. “How much common ground or shared trust is needed to allow for the uncommon experiences of freedom?” Ypi reflects on this dilemma by documenting her “country committing suicide” in the 1990s. Without a basic floor under which no person is allowed to fall, without basic stability and security, the abstract liberal concept of freedom may be meaningless.
For Jacobin readers, the final chapter and epilogue of the book will be particularly interesting. Ypi turns her attention to the blindness and insensitivity of self-proclaimed Western socialists who refuse to recognize that twentieth-century experiments with state socialism in places as diverse as East Germany, China, Cuba, Vietnam, Yugoslavia, or Albania were socialist projects that got some things right and from which valuable lessons can be learned. From this perspective, there was “nothing socialist” at all about these experiments:
They were seen as the deserving losers of a historical battle that the real, authentic bearers of that title had yet to join. My friends’ socialism was clear, bright and in the future. Mine was messy, bloody and of the past.
One of the greatest freedoms achieved by East Europeans after 1989 was the new possibility to travel and emigrate abroad. Like so many other young Albanians, Ypi flees her country to find better fortunes and higher education in Italy and the United Kingdom. She is also the lucky beneficiary of restituted coastal land sold to an “Arab property developer,” which suddenly makes her financial situation much less precarious. She goes on to become a postdoctoral researcher at Oxford and a professor at the London School of Economics, where she teaches courses on Marxist theory and joins reading groups parsing through Das Kapital.
Ypi tell us that she is frustrated by her Western socialist comrades who automatically dismiss the relevance of the experiences of those who grew up under what was once called “really existing socialism”:
The future that they sought, and that which socialist states had once embodied, found inspiration in the same books, the same critiques of society, the same historical characters. But, to my surprise, they treated this as an unfortunate coincidence. Everything that went wrong on my side of the world could be explained by the cruelty of our leaders, or the uniquely backward nature of our institutions. They believed there was little for them to learn. There was no risk of repeating the same mistakes, no reason to ponder what had been achieved, and why it had been destroyed. Their socialism was characterized by the triumph of freedom and justice; mine by their failure. Their socialism would be brought about by the right people, with the right motives, under the right circumstances, with the right combination of theory and practice. There was only one thing to do about mine: forget it.
The Second Way
Ypi is absolutely correct that those interested today in building a more just, equitable, and sustainable future must take seriously these previous attempts at building socialist societies: the obstacles they faced, the poor choices they made, and the reasons they failed. Equally as important is to “ponder what had been achieved.”
In Albania, for example, before the advent of socialism in 1945, the majority of Albanian women were illiterate, but by 1955, the entire population under forty could read and write. By the 1980s, when Ypi was a child, half of Albania’s university students were already women. In 1945, the average life expectancy at birth for Albanians was just forty years old, but by 1990, it had climbed to 70 years old.
This was partially the result of massive communist efforts to reduce the child mortality rate. In 1945, 302 out of every thousand children born in Albania did not live to see their fifth birthday, but by 1990, only 46 out of every thousand died in early childhood. Although child mortality has continued to fall in Albania over the last thirty years, it must be recognized that it was an oppressive authoritarian regime that first put in place the public programs necessary to ensure the health and well-being of its future generations.
Similar statistics can be cited about many of the former socialist countries, but what makes Ypi’s book so important is its lack of didacticism and her ability to let the narrative flow without too many political asides. Too often, life in former socialist countries is imagined as one long totalitarian nightmare of famines, purges, and gulags. Ypi reveals how ordinary her life was under socialism, a life complete with all of the usual events and rituals that mark the passage of youth to adulthood: cramming for exams, worrying about grades, choosing outfits for graduation parties, fantasizing about your crush, and dreaming about what you will be when you grow up.
And while it is true that Albania was an “open-air prison” for many who crossed the regime or had the wrong biography, for others, like young Ypi, it was simply home. When these regimes suddenly collapsed, bringing poverty, dislocation, crime, corruption, civil war, or genocide, the human costs of the so-called transition were largely ignored by Western elites eager to champion the “end of history” while also expanding their markets and outsourcing their manufacturing facilities to countries with skilled but cheap labor.
As I walked home through the busy streets of Belgrade that night, passing the brightly lit storefronts of West European chain stores like DM, Zara, Deichmann, and H&M, I mulled over Ypi’s book, the life stories of the two Serbian women at dinner, and their palpable frustration with the memory politics surrounding a past through which they had all lived. I recalled something that the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek once wrote back in 1999 when NATO forces were bombing Serbia and Montenegro during the Kosovo War.
Žižek proposed that out of the ashes of East European communism would rise a new political and economic system, not just some Third Way, capitalism-with-a-human-face, toothless version of social democracy, but a genuine alternative. Žižek argued that this new utopian vision, which he christened the “Second Way,” would most likely emerge from the minds of those who had experienced both socialism and democracy and knew their relative advantages and disadvantages. Just maybe, Ypi’s poignant and timely book will inspire a much-needed East-West conversation about the most effective ways to resist the hegemony of liberal definitions of freedom and their complicity in upholding the savage rapacity of global capitalism today.