When you’re a child, you know only what your parents and other adults tell you. As a small girl in the People’s Socialist Republic of Albania in the 1980s, Lea Ypi was taught to love the memory of Josef Stalin and Albanian leader Enver Hoxha. She believed her country was a communist paradise protecting workers against the West’s evils, and she thought her parents and beloved grandmother believed these things, too.
It turned out they were lying to Ypi, about pretty much everything, to protect her and themselves. When the communist dictatorship was forced out in 1992 and replaced by a messy transitional form of market capitalism, Ypi learned the confusing truth about her family’s history. She was also forced to grapple with deeper truths about freedom, equity and broken promises.
Now a prominent professor of political theory in London, Ypi says she intended to write Free: A Child and a Country at the End of History as a philosophy book about freedom. But her memories of people kept getting in the way: her idealist father, her tough mother, her grandmother whose stoicism hid her traumatic past. The resulting memoir feels completely fresh: a poignant, charming, thought-provoking, funny and ultimately sad exploration of Albania’s journey from socialism to liberalism through a child’s eyes.
Ypi’s book is filled with wonderful humor: the empty Coke cans that were considered luxury home decor, the mysterious stories of relatives sent to “university” (hint: the dorms were cells), the time her mother wore a frilly nightgown to meet with Western feminists because she thought it was a fancy dress. But these collected moments ultimately culminate in a terrifying chapter about the brutal civil war that erupted in 1997, during which half the population, including the Ypis, lost most of their savings in a pyramid scheme collapse. The adolescent Ypi hid in her house for weeks, reading War and Peace to the sound of gunfire in the street. The rest of her family shattered.
Ypi’s family and friends were smart, decent people whose dreams were crushed, first by an authoritarian dictatorship, then by cowboy capitalism. Ypi herself endured and ultimately thrived, but she knows the quest for true freedom is hard and never-ending.