Musine Kokalari and the Albanian Silence
Albania’s most distinguished woman writer spent the last decades of her life as a street sweeper. ‘We were very isolated from everyone else,’ Musine Kokalari said in a secretly-recorded account. ‘They would say no more than “hello” to us, and that was it.’ Her secret police file contains a report that she has ‘exchanged two or three words’ with two other women in the street, and the informant is tasked to report if they meet again and what they say. Her precocious distinction – in literature, in politics, in ethnography, and as a woman in society – was swallowed up by the ignorance and fear essential to Europe’s most isolated and extreme communist regime.
The writer-politician Malëshova died a warehouseman. His funeral party comprised one relative and two secret policemen. Notoriously, if anyone dared speak to him, Malëshova would pinch his lips with his fingers. No one could be trusted. No word could be trusted. To say anything was to risk misrepresentation and betrayal.
The silence is a void which, three decades after the fall of communism and during Kokalari’s centenary year, Albania explores and fills but diffidently.
The first decades of Musine Kokalari’s life ascended and accelerated with optimism and possibility. The Albanian society into which she was born was in its early stages of evolving, of becoming. Seen from London, the country was the darkest and most backward extremity of Europe, the ‘land of the living past’ of the English anthropologist Edith Durham who had explored it at the beginning of the century. ‘The wanderer from the West stands awestruck… filled with vague memories of the cradle of his race.’
1 This translation by Robert Elsie, whose death last year was an irreplaceable loss to the preservation and awareness of Albanian culture, and whose great generosity and patience with younger Albanologists is unforgettable; pushofte lehtë dheu, o mjeshtër. Subsequent translation by the author.
Seen from the other end of the continental telescope, Albanian politics and culture were the product of a diverse network of idealists and enthusiasts stretching across and beyond the old Ottoman Empire. Albanians (proudly) and foreigners (sniffily) have always defined Albania by its isolation, an untouched mountain people speaking an unalloyed proto-European language. In truth, Albania’s is an extraordinary history of exchange, of existence between others.
Kokalari was born near the end of First World War in what is now Turkey, but her family returned to their native Albania when she was very young. The country had existed barely a decade, and was still more an idea than an administrative reality. Chopped out of the crumbling Ottoman Empire in 1912, it was validated by the European powers in 1913, and collapsed in 1914. It spent the First World War in a brutal limbo, and would have been forgotten afterwards but for the sponsorship of Woodrow Wilson.
Albania’s childhood in the 1920s was a jostling between the most progressive and sophisticated of European ideas and the feudal power politics of the mediaeval village, between poet-priests and mountain barons. Musine Kokalari was the product of a cultured and relatively cosmopolitan youth, in which the echoes of the ‘Rebirth’ movement of Albanian cultural nationalism only a generation before still resonated powerfully. Just before her twenty-first birthday she went to study literature in Rome. She wrote her thesis on Naim Frasheri, one of a triumvirate of literary-political brothers, gods of the national awakening. He was an apt idol for a idealistic young writer. As an old woman, in isolation, she was still confiding her veneration of him to her notebooks.
But if literary idealism had political impact in the creation of a new country, so too politics must overshadow literature. By the time Kokalari reached adolescence, a (Turkish educated, Vienna-imprisoned) highland chieftain named Zogolli had survived factional chaos, shooting and exile to make himself Prime Minister, then President and eventually King. King Zog was the first modern ruler of Albania who could credibly claim control over anything like the full territory of the country, but he spent his reign trying
to balance Italy’s badly-needed investment with her growing political influence. Shortly after Kokalari arrived to study in Mussolini’s Rome, Italy formally annexed Albania; within a year, the Second World War had begun. By the time she arrived home in 1941, Albania was under a puppet government and the war had reached neighbouring Yugoslavia and Greece.
Kokalari claimed that she wanted ‘only to write literature, and to have nothing to do with politics’. While Albania endured occupation and the side-effects of the Second World War, and British parachutists were trying to spur resistance against the Italians and then the Germans, between 1941 and 1944 she published three volumes of folk tales in Tirana.
Yet though her writing was deliberately nostalgic, her political sense was already acute, active and progressive. The sense of opportunity, of a plurality of possibilities, is hard to imagine from the other end of the cold war and the other end of the continent. (It was hard to imagine for the British soldiers who had parachuted in, trying to convince Albanian village headmen that they needed to pick a side, let alone the distant allied one.) But Albania’s monarchy had been short-lived, and Italian occupation would prove even shorter, and the Germans were already losing the war in Europe, and Enver Hoxha’s partisans had yet to become as predominant or as absolutist as they would prove. Albania was a state half-formed, and for a brief hopeful moment, in the eye of war’s hurricane, political and poetical idealists had the chance to flourish. ‘This word nationalism on its own can’t capture the hearts of the peasants and the workers,’ Kokalari insisted to a political acquaintance, ‘even as a false hope. Stripped bare, the word nationalism belongs to the past, while the future demands social and economic change’. In 1943 Kokalari drafted the programme of a new Social Democratic Party, and was responsible for its newspaper, Voice of Freedom. As well as an independent united ethnic Albania, the party programme emphasized social justice and political freedom.
In a place that had had politics and politicians for no more than a generation, and remained patriarchal, the prominence of this woman in her twenties was remarkable. Perhaps the lack of a political tradition helped. Albania
was young, and volatile, and hungry for influences. With fascism as the enemy, progressive politics was more appetizing. But the same lack of political tradition made easy the rapid success of the communistic partisan movement led by Enver Hoxha.
Albania’s insular experiment in backwoods Stalinism would eventually crumble with the rest of the Eastern European regimes, at the end of the 1980s: a brittle oligarchy of old men who had been deft enough and mediocre enough to survive four decades of purges. Today, the movement’s optimistic youth can only be glimpsed on the walls of one room of the National Gallery in Tirana: some of the socialist-realist pictures are glorious, with cheek-bones like Albanian mountains and colours fired by the national programme of electrification; some, in their adopted approved style, are very bad indeed. They all capture the energy of the movement, its pretence at universal popularity, its synthetic hope. In 1944 the partisan movement proved unstoppable: it had husbanded its strength during the occupation, refusing British prodding towards an active attritional guerrilla campaign, until the moment when Germany’s fighting sap began to withdraw towards its core and the partisans could launch northwards over the country and fill the void; it offered enough socialism and optimism to inspire a people who had no alternative model of successful democracy to fall back on; it was ideologically coherent, stiffened by some discreet guidance from Yugoslav comrades, driven, focused, and – in out-of-theway little massacres – ruthless.
The domestic opposition to the partisans was intermittently heroic, but negligible. The only other armed groups were a predominantly rural and northern gaggle, whose incoherence was confirmed by the diversity of labels attached to them, whose ideology was limited to general and diverse inclinations towards the way things used to be, and whose undoubted heroism was burned out in early half-cocked rebellions or exile. That left Musine Kokalari and her like: a tiny class educated enough to be able to perceive more than basic survival, and optimistic enough to believe that pluralism was possible. In November 1944 two of Kokalari’s brothers were shot by ‘liberation soldiers’. She herself was arrested a day later
and interrogated, accused of provoking dissent by her advocacy of the Social Democratic movement. In elections at the end of 1945, the largely unopposed communists won 93% of the vote, and all of the seats in the new People’s Assembly.
‘Whatever pressure may have been brought to bear prior to the elections, during the voting no intimidation whatever was noticeable’, runs the report from the British Military Mission now in the UK National Archives. In 1945, as today, the leaders of Albania had accepted international observers of their election, as a handy external validation:
In the North an air of boredom and bewilderment prevailed on voting day; in the South there was a cheerful atmosphere and in some localities drinking and dancing… It became apparent a week before the Elections that the Opposition lacked the courage, programme, organisational powers, unity and finally the time to express itself in any way.
Buried in the complacency and generalisation was Musine Kokalari’s supreme act of defiance, distinction and courage. In November 1945, in an atmosphere of suspicion and fear and hopelessness described powerfully in her secret account, a diverse group of non-communists met furtively to discuss their predicament as elections loomed. On their behalf, Kokalari drafted and put her name to an appeal to the allies to push for a postponement of the elections, to give the various opposition groups time to muster credible alternatives to the communists. The note was passed to the British and the Americans and, taking a further risk, Kokalari pushed the point in a meeting with a British officer.
But this phase of the underwhelming history of British attempts to influence Albania according to some external principle or goal was ending. Just as Europe looks different from its opposite corner, so does its history. Britain had consistently failed to persuade any of the factions in Albania of the
dubious proposition that they should pick a side in the world war, and risk their existence by early campaigns against the Germans as a contribution to the allied effort rather than biding their time and concentrating on their own civil war. At every stage the British had pulled back from taking a decisive position, for fear that it would accelerate some undesired reaction – Italian entry to the war, the fall of Greece, open civil war in Albania – which in the end happened anyway and was probably inevitable. By the end of 1945 Britain was trying to adjust to the new Albania; by the end of 1946 relations had been broken for good.
Eventually, Britain could do nothing but burnish its role as spectator with the delusion that, one way or another, British influence had been decisive: the vain hope that British prompting and support could persuade the partisans to a more active role became the regretful myth that British support had enabled the partisan victory in the civil war; a few years later, the fantasy that infiltrating a few handfuls of British- and American-trained Albanian exiles might topple the communist regime became the assertion that the mission had only failed because of a British double-agent, Philby, rather than because of its inherent incompetence and futility.
As Kokalari said later, the British and Americans could at least have demonstrated that multi-party elections were important, and that opposition was in practice obstructed. But she was an inconvenient anomaly, something to be swept under the carpet as the foreigners tried to adjust to the new reality. (The clumsiness was mirrored in the early 1990s, when the western rush to support anything anti-communist in Albania led to the validation of people and behaviours with short-term appeal but disastrous long-term consequences for the stability and political style of the country.) In the report on the 1945 elections, Britain’s inability to do anything about what was happening in Albania was masked by elegant disdain for the opposition no-show. Musine Kokalari – and the possibility of democracy in Albania – became an anonymous aside, on a flimsy page in Kew. ‘A small and unrepresentative clique signed a last minute petition to the British and American Governments to postpone and guarantee the elections. But the disgruntled elements in the State did not publicly contest the elections.’
Musine Kokalari disappeared into the silence. She was arrested in January 1946, just one among many in a wholesale assault on intellectuals and inconvenients. It is a familiar pattern; perhaps Albania’s fragility made the long-term damage greater. Kokalari’s speech at her trial was a triumph of defiance, of stubbornness in the face of ignorance and illegitimacy. The most famous photograph of her was taken at this apotheosis: the clothes are rough and monotone, the plain belted dress and the jacket and the scarf that frames her head; large eyes gaze up past the primitive microphone towards her judges, with something like insolence. A contrast with earlier pictures of her, their soft focus Sunday-best prettiness, the simple costume and dark beauty make this final image somehow timeless, and iconic.
She was sentenced to twenty years in prison. In the street outside the court, she was harassed by a warmed-up crowd. She served eighteen years, and in 1964 was transferred to internment in the northern Albanian town of Rrëshen. Even today, after a generation of democracy and capitalism, and served accidentally by the impressive highway to Kosovo, Rrëshen is a bleak place: a tumble of plain barrack-like buildings, beside a mostly dry river bed. Fifty years ago it was a forgotten purgatory, a place where life was scarce and rationed, hidden up a valley in an isolated, insecure and ever-suspicious land. Kokalari lived alone, watched, haunted. A rare visitor to the town who asked after her was warned not to speak to her; her dossier has details of her slightest exchanges with others, and exhaustive instructions for how the movements and opinions of this abandoned old woman are to be tested; one report wonders whether a suspicious movement of her coat, and her carrying an umbrella, might not portend some antistate activity. A worker in the town’s tiny library was once phoned by the Secretary of the local Party Committee who had seen Kokalari sitting in front of a pile of books: the ‘declassed old woman’ must be hustled out of the library, forbidden to take anything to read. ‘For the town, she was like a shadow.’ The enthusiast for her nation’s language and culture, the idealist for her people’s rights and aspirations, the image of brave and scornful womanhood who dared to defy her judges: all of these Musines
were buried. In this limbo, sweeping the streets, she lived a further nineteen years.
Musine Kokalari’s centenary has been marked with a certain dutiful diligence: some articles; some round tables. There’s a school named after her now, and a museum in her home town, and a library - though the library didn’t have any books, like her. But Albania’s preliminary attempts at coming to terms with its communist past have been wary, and uncomfortable. Many of the organized events come down to speeches by old men and women, to each other, bitter that their stories and their truths are still unheard. Wholesale compensation for property seized by the regime would be too expensive, and decisions about property are too profitable to be left to a truly efficient and impartial judicial process. After the fall of the communist regime a few of its surviving figureheads were given short prison sentences, but there has been no systematic process against those who prosecuted, those who framed, those who judged, those who tortured. ‘We know who they are!’ complains one speaker at a centenary conference on Kokalari, to an audience of frustrated fellow-survivors. A constituted agency is now responsible for managing access to the old secret police files - those that weren’t burnt - but interest in them is more concerned with gossip or today’s feuds. Albania’s brand of paranoid totalitarianism depended on everyone being willing to denounce their neighbour, their friend, or their parent. A substantial proportion of the population found it necessary, or possible, to implement this. How do you apportion guilt - what is guilt - when everyone was complicit?
On the foundations left by the Ottoman and communist societies, a wild west frontier capitalism has been built. Communism made selfishness essential to survive; capitalism has made selfishness essential to succeed. The inconvenient truths of history are irrelevant, unhelpful, and forgotten. In her isolation, forbidden to write publicly, watched suspiciously by everyone, Musine Kokalari confided her ideas and her enthusiasms to dozens of cheap paper notebooks, supplemented with reused scraps of