Albania is hurtling forward into a future that looks brighter all the time, but as the most recent country to shun communism, it is haunted by a repressive past. This is true for many ex-communist countries of course, but for this one its entire post-WWII history is dominated by one leader: Enver Hoxha.
Some dictators get a softer image over time, or at least part of the population still views them as heroes (like Tito in Bosnia). You won’t find a lot of Hoxha fans in Albania though, at least not under the age of 40. This is in stark contrast to the national hero Skanderbeg, who managed to defeat the Ottoman army for decades before he finally died and the country became part of that vast empire. Independence was a long time coming, but in 1913 Albania became a recognized free nation, though its Kosovo territory was ceded to Serbia. After the ravages of World War II, Hoxha rose to power in the Socialist People’s Republic of Albania, closely modeled on the oppressive Soviet system.
When Hoxha died in 1985, Ramiz Alia tried to keep the machine running, but the Iron Curtain was collapsing, the Soviet Union was breaking up, and he found (as Maduro is finding now in Venezuela) that you need lots of charisma to keep fooling people for decades. Eventually the economy is going to collapse due to the double lack of incentives and efficiency. When there’s nothing worth exporting and you can’t afford to import, you’re only going to stagnate or move backward. After a dark period of transition, Albania eventually opened up to the world and became a democracy, joining NATO and the World Trade Organization. It’s still one of the poorest countries in Europe, but its economy is more stable than some of its neighbors and inflation is low.
Visiting the Mega Bunker of Tirana
On your own you can visit several sites that give a peek into the reclusive history of the communist era, but it’s best to go with a local guide who can put it all in context. I took a Tirana communist history tour with Good Albania that visited several attractions, starting with the Bunk’Art Museum.
Albania’s history is on display all over the country in the form of its concrete bunkers. There were bunkers along the whole coast and around all towns as the country became more isolated, to protect the citizens from the attacks that Hoxha scared people into thinking were just around the corner. From the museum explanation:
In this period were planned to be built 221,143 bunkers, but were built “only” 173,371. More or less, one every 11 residents.
He obviously believed there was something to hide from because he built a huge secret bunker complex for the top government officials. It’s open to the public now as a museum. It’s partly a traditional history museum, with rooms displaying historical photos and artifacts from 1939 (under Italian rule) until 1990 (the end of the communist regime). The most fascinating parts, however, are the rooms showing equipment from the bunker itself, like the communication system to stay in touch with the outside world.
You also get to see where the government officials would have bunked down if they had to go underground. Hoxha had the best digs, of course, with his own living room.
You have to duck a lot to get through the doorways that could be sealed off from other sections, but the place is surprisingly spacious. They put a lot of money into planning for disaster. The disasters ended up being slow-paced and internal, however, so the bunker never got filled with anyone except maintenance workers.
The “House of Leaves” Museum of Surveillance
It’s easy to chuckle about the bunkers, but the Museum of Surveillance shows the truly grim side of life under communism in Albania. The domestic spy operation was huge and invasive, to the point where nearly everyone was under surveillance of some kind. Virtually everyone was considered a threat, including those doing the spying. One room at this museum shows how people working there were turned upon on flimsy or fabricated charges, then tossed in prison or executed. Security agents were considered “secret microphones” and nothing you said or did had any promise of privacy. Even your own relatives could be informants.
A vast array of surveillance equipment is on display: listening bugs, video recorders, cameras with huge zoom lenses, and cameras hidden in coat buttons. One room shows videos filmed in peoples’ homes via hidden cameras, which another shows videos of sham trials where the defendant’s fate is sealed no matter what he or she says.
Communist Albania was a land of paranoia. With no allies in the world—the country had cut off relations with both China and Russia—the rulers felt absolutely nobody could be trusted and they needed the party state to be omnipotent.
Much like the House of Terror in Budapest, this is not a place to go if you’re already feeling depressed. It shows you how easily a system can suck the humanity out of us and turn a whole population into paranoid, complicit drones who will do anything to stay out of trouble. Saying the wrong thing to the wrong person could mean a knock on the door in the middle of the night and you’d disappear into a labor camp.
Happy Communists in the National Gallery of Arts
You can’t have communism, fascism, or a dictatorship without pervasive propaganda. So you aggressively slant the textbooks, brainwash everyone through state television and radio, and of course make sure that none of the art is subversive. Paintings must show the state in all its glory.
In communist Albania’s case this meant following the playbook set out by Mao and Lenin where the manual workers were glorified and they were all extremely happy to serve. In the National Gallery of Arts in Tirana, one whole section displays art produced in the Hoxha era. To us now it seems silly and laughable, but it was no laughing matter if you produced a work of art that didn’t meet their standards. It could literally get you killed. So you went along and depicted happy factory workers and farmers, all muscular and smiling, so overjoyed to be contributing to the collective good.
Tirana Has a Pyramid?
After the dictator died, his daughter Panvera Hoxha commissioned a grand monument in his honor. Co-designed by her, it’s a bizarre pyramid building that was planned as a museum but was short-lived since the country was moving on. After stints as a conference space and brief NATO headquarters during the Bosnian war, it’s mostly a ruin now. It’s covered in graffiti, some windows are broken, and it’s a favorite place for teens to either slide down or sneak off to smoke weed. (Hey, you can see anyone coming long before they get to you.)
A TV news station uses part of it as a production facility and there have been talks of putting it to use for various things, but eventually it’ll probably be demolished. It’s sitting on prime real estate in downtown Tirana…
See the Good Albania website for information on the communist Albania history tour and other tours in Tirana and the surrounding areas. This tour starts at a very reasonable €29, including some food along the way.
On a cheerier note, Americans can stay a whole year here (minus a few days) on just a tourist visa. Go to this post to see the cost of living in Albania.