By Charlie Taylor
Free: Coming of Age at the End of History
Lea Ypi, Pengiun, 2021
Where You Come From
Saša Stanišić, tr. Damion Searls, Vintage, 2021
What happens when a nation disappears? Goran Gabrić, president of the smallest socialist nation in the world, may have an answer. In Vojvodina, northern Serbia, an unlikely father-son duo continues to fly the red-star of Tito’s Yugoslavia. Since 1991, following the failure of new economic measures that saw living standards plummet throughout the Balkans, independence and nationalist movements exploded. Slovenia and Croatia declared independence following elections in 1991; the Yugoslavian army, unable to contain the movements, collapsed. Soon, war broke out between the individual nation-states. For the next 11 years, a reactionary nationalism was used to justify war, mass killings, and genocide. Tito’s nation of partisans was dead and buried.
Comprised of a few hundred hectares bequeathed by Goran’s father Blasko in 2003, Yugoland — a self-described ‘thematic eco-park’ — gives permanence to nostalgia for the communist past. Speaking to writer Peter Korchnak, Goran makes clear what he is missing: ‘We had peace. We had brotherhood. They said we had artificial brotherhood.’ But, in Yugoland he prefers the ‘artificial brotherhood and unity hundred times more than the war between brothers!’ Here, Yugoslavia, or at least an idea of it, lives on.
Why do people still identify with these fallen national symbols? Didn’t Eastern Europe reject communism in the 1990s as a failure, embracing free-market capitalism, democracy, and freedom? The so-called ‘end of history’ proclaimed by US political theorist Francis Fukuyama in the wake of the East’s rejection of communism appeared to end the ideological warfare of the Cold War. The final victory of liberal democratic capitalism had come.
However, in the West, Eastern Europe is still depicted through a particular type of contemporary orientalism as a world of rural backwardness, a periphery which sits awkwardly within the European project. Yet as Eastern Europe experiences a new wave of prosperity brought by globalisation, as glass skyscrapers replace old concrete skylines, the region’s identity is eroding. Historian and journalist Jacob Mikanowski believes that ‘Eastern Europe is disappearing. Not the physical place, but the idea’. The statues of old communist leaders still standing in Moscow, Riga, and Prague offer an uneasy nod to vanished nations.
As integration with the orthodoxy of market-based economics destabilised local national identities, individuals across Eastern Europe have attempted to preserve, categorise, or salvage elements of the older communist projects. Emerging in response to the fast-paced reforms of the 1990s and the harshness of new liberal capitalism, a nostalgia for a past under communism, with its apparent security, social benefits, and cultural signifiers, still exists — the final product of these now non-existent nations. Citizens of these former countries are now trying to rewrite their past. To them, the Western narrative of breakdown, self-inflicted wars, and bubbling ethnic tensions deflects from the West’s own complicity in the conflicts of the 1990s.
Lea Ypi, Professor in Political Theory at the London School of Economics, details growing up under the shadow of Enver Hoxha’s Albania in Free: Coming of Age at the End of History. Here, the movement for democracy and the financial collapse of Albania in the wake of democratic reforms informs her own perspective on freedom and politics. For Ypi, the traditional narrative of liberal capitalism’s victorious march, bringing prosperity to the isolated ex-communist nation, is but a fable. Her memoir grapples with Albania’s transformation during the 1990s; the nation she remembers fondly in childhood unravels into a nightmare and becomes unrecognisable over the course of the book.
Saša Stanišić, a German-Bosnian writer born to a Serbian Orthodox father and a Bosnian Muslim mother, sees his own childhood unravel through visits to his grandmother in Oskoruša with her rapidly progressing dementia. In Where You Come From, the worsening condition of his grandmother prompts reflection on his own childhood in an attempt to identify his sense of belonging after fleeing the civil war and ethnic conflict that the former Yugoslavia faced in the 1990s. How can he find a place to call home when the literal sites of his childhood are eradicated? How can he make sense of the past when ‘the country where [he] was born no longer exists’?
In both memoirs, a dual phenomenon takes place. An immense nostalgia for these non-existent nations is reconstructed, through memories of a childhood deep in the communist past and an enduring fondness for its symbols and language. In the present, the problems of coming to terms with a disappearing identity are central; but, the act of committing memories to paper might just prevent these nations and stories from being forgotten.
In Where You Come From, Stanišić never directly confronts the Yugoslavian civil war but instead hints at it through fragments of everyday life. In April 1991, Stanišić watches Belgrade beat Dynamo Dresden in the European league. Two months later, ‘the first acts of war took place in Slovenia’. Facts of war seem prompted by chance encounters and introspection. Memories from before the collapse appear like myths, containing tropes of deadly snakes (the Poskok), lost family houses in the mountains, St George’s Day dances, and sheep who can herd themselves. Stanišić goes with his grandmother to the old well in the mountains where they begin their sentences with ‘Do you remember?’. The past is recorded and framed through memories. Perhaps reliance on the fictionalising power of myth and memory is necessary, when that is all he has left: ‘that’s Where I Come From Too: memory and imagination’. Stanišić is self-conscious, if not entirely ironic: fiction ties everything together, the only place where ‘invention, perception, and memory’ collide with real events, where ‘rivers speak and great-grandparents live forever’. These mythic childhood memories are punctured by the hardship of escape from ethnic conflict. The early fantasies give way to a colder reality as he moves on from childhood into life in Germany, the myths of his hometown in Oskoruša gradually fading into the past.
Revealing the fraught nature of his memory, Stanišić reflects on the different selves which write his story. He is a ‘thirty nine year old in Višegrad, Zurich, Split’, or a ‘forty year old on a balcony in Hamburg’. Stanišić is burdened by his inability to orient himself, by his lack of a nation or home, by his identity’s suspension between personal and historic pasts. He expresses this lack of orientation through temporal uncertainty: ‘It’s spring, Summer, autumn, winter, it’s today’. Breaking up the novel with memories that arise throughout his interactions with the world, a kind of unintentional quality to the narratives emerges and materialises into recurring concrete details. Stanišić alternates between ironic distance and intense closeness; from bizarre anecdotes to profoundly personal studies on loss, grief, and home-sickness. In the end, he questions writing as an appropriate means of remembrance: frustrated with the ‘betrayals of memory’, Stanišić grows ‘sick of the betrayals of fiction too’.
For Stanišić and Ypi, childhood is rendered a pastiche by the implosion of communities, families, and innocence along with the rest of the Soviet satellites. Here, both Stanišić and Ypi are in conversation with works like Svetlana Alexievich’s exploration of the Soviet Union in The Last Witnesses, the great patriotic war distilled into the stories of children forced to grow up too soon. For Ypi, childhood is a world of self-contained images: portraits of Enver Hoxha, summer pioneer camps, a Coca-Cola can proudly displayed on top of the television. By December 1990, as Stalin’s head falls, Ypi’s childhood disintegrates with the transition towards democracy. Within this new regime, freedom appears as an unkept promise for the new post-communist order. Much like Stanišić’s attempt to come to terms with the past, Ypi finds in her childhood a blissful alternative, writing that her community in Tirana ‘didn’t know greed, or have to feel envy’. These writers are left with only memories, however unreliable, to make sense of the past.
Ypi’s Albania had always been isolated. It broke with the USSR over Khrushchev’s exposé of Stalin’s crimes during the secret speech of 1953. In 1968, it left the Warsaw pact over the Soviet crackdown on the Prague Spring. A shaky alliance with China fell apart when the latter, too, came to adopt ‘revisionist’ forms of market capitalism. In conversation with David Runciman, Ypi describes Albania as ‘the lighthouse for all imperialist struggles’, becoming the last bastion of true Stalinism. By the early 1990s, Albania was one of the most isolated countries in the world. Here, the calls for democracy were life-changing, promising an almost complete transformation out of the darkness. Yet Ypi still questions it. She had ‘never given much thought to freedom’; in fact, freedom had been a ‘burden’. Albania’s rush from complete censorship to an influx of information made for a drastic transition. For Ypi, the morale crusade of liberal reforms appears out of place, relative and inconsistent.
Compared to Where You Come From, Ypi’s coming-of-age narrative is self-consciously more political. Ypi seeks to discredit the idea that market-capitalist reforms following the communist collapse were necessary or even ‘freeing’. In 1997, civil war broke out following the collapse of the country’s largest financial firms. One billion dollars disappeared overnight. Upon investigation, the guaranteed high-interest-rate loans these firms offered were little more than a pyramid scheme. Protests quickly turned to violence which soon reached the capital Tirana, engulfing the country in anarchy. Ypi narrates in her teenage diary when she hears gunfire, ‘There’s so much noise around, All I can hear is Kalashnikovs’. The promises of economic reform and liberalisation were proven a farce. Yet the West appears to easily forget the immense poverty, political collapse, and misery unleashed on countries they had proudly helped liberalise. How could creating a civil war ever be an ideal of freedom?
While socialism didn’t provide all the answers, liberal freedom, for Ypi, appears just as convoluted: it constructs ‘a society that claims to enable people to realise their potential, but fails to change the structures that prevent everyone from flourishing’, replacing one oppressive system with another. Coming to terms with her socialist past requires greater nuance than Western liberalism seems capable of providing. Instead, Ypi articulates a form of radical self-determinism, of fierce moral agency, an ability to ‘choose to make moral decisions whilst being aware of all the constraints around us and trying to rise above them’. Asserting a will and moral decision-making under even oppressive circumstances can allow for a new kind of freedom to prevail. Ypi’s grandmother seems emblematic of this conception of freedom. A woman born into immense wealth, related to a pasha in the Ottoman empire, and intimately connected with the old regime under King Zog, she saw her husband tortured and killed by Hoxha but stayed, refusing to emigrate to Britain. In a situation constructed to break her, she helped her community and her family and built what she could. Here, freedom did not take the form of submitting to the old regime but rising above it.
In these narratives, leaving is the most important act. It exacerbates the distance across which Ypi and Stanišić try to reach back. They take on new languages and become caught between an uneasy present and a distant past. Stanišić’s sense of home is displaced, trapped between his past in Yugoslavia and present in Germany — a nation to which he turns as a precarious refugee fleeing civil war. Germany both adopts and rejects him: he is ‘a boy from Bosnia having a girl teach him German in the Emmertsgrund vineyards’. Even as he attempts to assimilate, he is always singled out through his national identity. He is reminded of his status by continued conflict over immigration: ‘Today is August 29, 2018. In the past few days, thousands of people in Chemnitz, Germany, have demonstrated against open borders. Immigrants are being demonized and the Hitler salute hangs over the present’. Germany gives Stanišić a language and a voice, but it is never, and can never be, his home.
The collapse of communism is more than a set of political abstracts, even if unstable memories are all that remain of both Ypi and Stanišić’s histories. Their childhood and sense of home appear to have been destroyed along with the statues, symbols, and flags of the ex-communist satellites. The idea of Eastern Europe may be fading, but the citizens of states that no longer exist continue to write, in a radical attempt to reclaim their past.
CHARLIE TAYLOR is a second year reading History at Christ Church. He has been known to occasionally scream at Tom Tower to 'offset its negative energy'.
Art by Nia Large