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Author says memoir of communist Albania met with ‘vicious’ abuse | Communism

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A memoir about growing up before and after the fall of communism in Albania has won rave reviews in the west but has prompted “vicious” abuse from a vocal minority of Albanians, its author says.

Free by Lea Ypi, a Marxist Albanian professor of political theory at the London School of Economics, might seem an unlikely bestseller.

But in its first full month on sale in November the memoir sold 10,000 copies. It has been shortlisted for the Costa biography of the year and will soon be available in 17 languages including Korean and Mandarin. Despite its criticisms of the disastrous impact of market changes in Albania, the book received five-star reviews in the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph, and was named the Sunday Times book of the year.

But in Albania the book generated such a torrent of online abuse that Ypi had to appeal to Albanians to stop sending her “offensive, accusatory and defamatory” messages.

She told the Guardian she usually enjoyed engaging with her detractors. But she said this abuse was different because it came from people who had either not read the book or misunderstood its criticism of capitalism and communism.

The book is told from her perspective as a child in 1980s Albania, when she was taught to worship the dictator Enver Hoxha, and her family’s dissident views became clear only after the regime fell.

Girls in young pioneers uniforms walk down the Boulevard of the Heroes of the People in Tirana in 1987. In the background, adorned with a picture of the late party chief Enver Hoxha, is the city’s university
Girls in young pioneers uniforms walk down the Boulevard of the Heroes of the People in Tirana in 1987. In the background, adorned with a picture of the late party chief Enver Hoxha, is the city’s university. Photograph: Rudi Blaha/AP

“One of the most important messages in the book is that however oppressive a regime, it never completely crushes human dignity,” she said.

Some of Ypi’s Albanian critics have mistaken such ideas as an apology for communism and have accused her of experiencing Stockholm syndrome. This has been particularly hard for Ypi to take. “It touches you personally if you have a grandfather who spent 15 years in a communist prison to be told you are somehow trying to rehabilitate communist murderers,” she said.

Some of the reaction has been sexist – in one message Ypi was told she looked “more like a showgirl than an academic”. Another dredged up an old newspaper cutting that quoted Ypi as an 11-year-old expressing a desire to help her country, and accused her of turning against her former self.

She said: “It’s a minority but it’s so vocal and so personal and so vicious, it affects you a lot more than the other responses which have been overwhelmingly positive.”

In the book, she recounts being bullied as a child in part because she spoke French. “It’s exactly the same kind of people who were bullying me when I was a child that are doing it now,” she said.

Ypi says much of the criticism came after she launched the Albanian version of the book at Hoxha’s former house in the capital, Tirana. “For me it was like imagining Hoxha in hell, having someone from a family of dissidents promote a book about the Albanian legacy. It was symbolically really powerful,” she said.

But the irony of the location was lost on some, who feel the property should be destroyed and suspected Ypi of trying to rehabilitate the dictator.

The presence at the launch of the Albanian prime minister, Edi Rama, and many of his ministers was also misconstrued. Ypi said: “I’m very critical of the Albanian government, but people felt I was being manipulated or appropriated by them.”

Such perceptions have even fuelled false rumours that Ypi is to become the next president of Albania.

She said: “If you keep repeating fake news like that it almost becomes like real news. And then it erodes constructive criticism. What should happen to Enver Hoxha’s house is a valid debate, but if you start basing it on fake news and misreadings the debate never happens.”

Ypi, who wrote the book in parallel in English and Albanian, feels that for all the negative online comments, the book has succeeded in sparking constructive discussions about the merits of socialism and capitalism.

She said: “Through family histories I try to engage everyone in a big conversation about freedom – my mother has one idea of freedom and my father has another. When it works it opens up big conversations not shuts them down. And there’s a younger generation who are concerned about what kind of system we live in.”

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