photo & text by nacrowe
i was excited to read FREE: A CHILD AND A COUNTRY AT THE END OF HISTORY (NORTON, 2022) by LONDON SCHOOL OF ECONOMICS professor LEA YPI, which recounts her youth her native ALBANIA as it emerged from the COLLAPSE of its SOCIALIST government in the early 1990s and struggled towards a market-driven CAPITALIST economy. its an absolutely fascinating period of time from a largely FORGOTTEN and MISUNDERSTOOD country. and i should state my bias up front, since i served 27 months as a PEACE CORPS volunteer in ALBANIA between 2011-2013 and was primarily stationed and spent extensive time primarily in both the north (KUKES) and the south (VLORA) of the country. ive written about this experience extensively before so i will link to those entries if there reader is interested: HERE, HERE, HERE and HERE. that being said, im always interested in learning more about the country and its COMPLICATED past and FREE is a revelation.
one of the strengths of this book is YPI's capacity to personalize the ideology of the state during SOCIALISM through her depiction of not only teachers, family members and acquaintances, but also herself as a child. part of what made the fall of the government such a DISORIENTATING and DEBILITATING event for YPI personally was how it transformed the actions of others. she was led to believe that the SOCIAL, POLITICAL and CULTURAL COHESION of the country was founded on one set of ideals, only to see that none other than here own family had shielded her from their true beliefs and FAMILY HISTORY in order to safeguard everyone from backlash from the state. you really get a sense from YPI's personal narrative what a shock to one's strongly held sense of IDENTITY the fall of the state was for people. their sense of self and relationship to each other were irrevocably TRANSFORMED.
another compelling facet of this book that very much hit home for me was the portrayal of the influx of NGOs and foreign aid organizations post-collapse that had SOCIAL and POLITICAL AGENDAS that didnt necessarily coincide with the local population. in fact, YPI's mother was gifted at sifting through all the PRETENSE and BUZZWORDS and JARGON of these international organizations in order to secure physical entry for ALBANIANS during the mass EXODUS to ITALY. it was particularly draining because the problems being prescribed by foreigners did not intersect or cohere with how ALBANIANS actually self-identified or assessed their situation. in order to prosper under these new rules, one had to self-impose a new VALUE SYSTEM and participate in the construction of new SOCIAL INSTITUTIONS (i.e. 'civil society') that were completely derived from foreigners. this makes sense since PEACE CORPS encouraged its volunteers to initiate programs that addressed issues and problems they saw as worthy. i always felt such was completely backwards and worked with my ALBANIAN counterparts to develop initiatives that addressed problems derived from what they deemed worthwhile. i was vehicle for helping them help themselves is how i saw it, but this mindset of PATERNALISM that enfeebles the local population is such a common trait of foreign organizations dealing in aid and development. the fact that YPI delineated that TENSION on such personal terms very much hit home for me.
YPI also gets into the mass PSYCHOLOGY behind the pyramid schemes that collapsed in 1996 and led to a brief civil war in 1997. as a PEACE CORPS volunteer stationed at the UNIVERSITY OF VLORA, i initiated an oral history project in order to create concrete examples for my translation students to, well, translate and use as evidence for future employers. i had my students record their grandparents and parents answering questions about SENSITIVE topics that included everything from life during COMMUNISM to the KOSOVO WAR, but even i knew that the widespread PYRAMID SCHEMES that ultimately spiraled the country into civil war was completely TABOO and out of bounds. there was still such collective SHAME about the population being duped at scale by CORRUPT OPPORTUNISTS. YPI presents her parents as educated individuals that wanted to be involved in MARKET CAPITALISM and the INVESTING CULTURE they learned about from EUROPE. post-collapse ALBANIA in the mid-1990s was one where regular people were excited about the prospect of integrating economically with their neighbors and being seen as equals. the TRAGEDY is that the financial institutions were not in place yet and what were deemed "the firms" came in its place and became so integrated into the culture that they even prominently sponsored a political party. the population lost $1.2 billion (approximately half its GDP) and the PSYCHIC SCARS lasted well over a decade later when i arrived.
YPI covers so much ground in this book and i knew going in to write this that i would not be able to address most of it. suffice to say this book is personal narrative that gives voice to the EXPERIENCES, STRUGGLES, HOPES, TRIUMPHS and all too much DESPAIR of a population that is often DERIDED, MISUNDERSTOOD and outright DISMISSED. ALBANIA to many people in THE WEST is a non-entity, an open canvas, a tabula rasa for them to pin their uninformed assumptions and pet theories upon. that was my experience as a volunteer with my own organization and it frustrated me to no end. so the fact that FREE is an attempt to present the COMPLEXITIES that arrive out of this remarkable period in ALBANIA's history, from the perspective of the people themselves through YPI very much resonated with me.
im glad i found this book.