Friday, April 20, 2007

Comrade LouLou and the Fun Factory chapter six: Paradise

(by Cali Ruchala)

Chapter Six: Paradise

After the break with China in 1978 and the accompanying purge, Hoxha entered into a sort of semi-retirement. He emulated the paternalism of the hated Tito, whose grandfatherly demeanor was holding his country together and keeping the young from complaining too much. Before anointing a successor (and thus guaranteeing that the country would continue to develop in his own image - a Stalinist afterlife, you could say), he took care of some unfinished business.

The first item on the agenda was Mehmet Shehu. As old as Hoxha (who was then 73), Shehu had been his second-in-command since his rehabilitation in 1948. The rumoured story (and it is impossible to verify) has it that Hoxha and Shehu were having a drink of cognac when the chief of the Sigurimi and two burly lieutenants burst in. The thugs held Shehu down, but the chief refused to pull the trigger on a man who was an icon deferential only to Stalin and Hoxha himself. Thus Hoxha was the one who pulled the trigger on the closest thing to a friend this cloistered troll could ever have.

Dreaming of one last grasp for glory in his twilight, Hoxha gave serious consideration to a plan to invade Yugoslavia and take Kosovo and other lands inhabited by Albanians. It would have required an invasion force of about a million men (a full third of the total population), his Chief-of-Staff Veri Llakaj estimated. It was madness, but no more than any of the other ornaments and slogans of Hoxha's megalomania. Eventually, though he got cold feet. The plan was scrapped, and Llakaj was thrown in jail for having the audacity to know about it.

With Shehu out of the way, Hoxha spent his last few years in seclusion. There was almost no doubt who was in charge, but he liked to give the impression that he had sacrificed his life for his country and now wanted to spend his dotage reliving his youth. The former bohemian thus surrounded himself with lackeys and secretaries and began outlining the Holy Commandments of Hoxhaism in book form. Indeed, he left guiding instructions on just about every facet of Albanian life and wise statecraft, not unlike Marlon Brando giving Superman advice from beyond the grave long after the destruction of Krypton. He began with a denunciation of Titoism in Yugoslav Capitalism: Theory and Practice and The Titoists. To those with questions about his other former friends, there was Reflections on China, With Stalin, and The Khrushchevites (Loulou fondly remembered Koba as "warm and generous"; Khrushchev as a "manipulating blackmailer" and "blackguard for the bourgeoisie"). Enver then moved into a more geopolitical mood with Reflections on the Middle East and The Superpowers. He left a final warning to his xenophobic kingdom with the masterpiece, The Dangers of Anglo-Americans in Albania, which "recommended" to the new leaders that all men with beards be prohibited from entering the country, as beards were crafty devices the clever American and British agents used to conceal their shiftiness.

Ramiz Alia, Hoxha's hand-picked successor, approved this law and added it to the others. He had grown up in the wacky world of Comrade Loulou and the Fun Factory as the chief of ideology from the 1960s onward, overseeing most aspects of the Cultural Revolution. While the old man was alive, Alia was as meek as a sheep.

No reliable record is available of Hoxha's last hours. The Institute of Marxist-Leninist Studies put out a touching story of his serenity and confidence in the fidelity of his children to the Hoxhaist Way. In any case, on April 11, 1985, Enver Hoxha breathed his last. The Party issued a press release announcing that the Great Teacher had passed and invited the Albanian people to share in the loss. Long lines formed outside the Enver Hoxha Museum, weeping openly and saluting the memory of the only leader most of them had ever known.

* * *

Ramiz Alia attempted to keep a steady hand on the prow, but events soon spiraled out of his control. There was that Berlin Wall thing, sure, but more than that, the tightly controlled society that Hoxha had built as a shrine to his ego was disintegrating. The economy was collapsing, shrinking by roughly 50% from 1985 to 1990. Wages were set at $300 to $700 per year but were quickly falling. The lek currency was untradable on any foreign exchange, and the country had no foreign export markets to speak of. In addition, for the first time in forty years there were street demonstrations. The Sigurimi reacted brutally, beating protesters savagely, killing several and chasing the rest over the walls of foreign embassies in Tirane which Alia, in an unprecedented concession, had allowed to open just a few months before.

The inevitable collapse of Loulou's Utopia would not take long, especially since Alia was proving far less bloodthirsty than his predecessor. Eight years after Hoxha become wormfood, more extensive and sophisticated protests forced Alia out of power in favour of Enver's former physician, Sali Berisha. Albanians, so grateful to Hoxha for having preserved their Albanianness, celebrated not by dancing in the streets but by trying to escape from his devastated Elysium. They constructed homemade rafts like so many Cubans, which proved more sea-worthy than the sinking ship of their country. Thousands washed up on the beaches of Greece and Italy in the largest exodus in Europe since the closing days of World War II.

Hoxha's descendants did not make out well in the Brave New Enverless World. His widow, Nexhmije, was arrested for having done an Imelda Marcos with the resources of the country. Their daughter's spouse Klement Kolaneci was also arrested for corruption, accused of having stored millions of dollars laundered by corrupt Sigurimi in his home. All in all, it wasn't much by Marcos or Ceausescu standards, but the Hoxhas didn't have a very fallow field to pilfer from.

Enver himself didn't do much better than his heirs. His tomb in Gjirokaster was a prestigious joke in the Socialist Realist manner. In early summer, 1992, it was destroyed. Newly planted grass now marks the spot where the grandest of the stone Envers looked down sternly from on high. His body was disinterred and buried in a commoner's grave with the downtrodden masses he so loved.

The Kombinat, the industrial quarter of Tirane, such a symbol of one of Enver's few successes, is in ruins. Power plants throughout the country are collapsing for lack of obsolete Chinese parts. The power plant in the Kombinat is inhabited by squatters more miserable than any seen on late-night infomercials. They live by selling copper filaments and whatever else they can scavenge from the wreckage around them. They too are grateful for having been saved from the Titoists, Khrushchevites and the decadent Gang of Four.

Hoxha's mushroom bunkers still cause problems in the countryside. For the nation to become self-sufficient in foodstuffs, it needs more grazing lands, and the bunkers take up a whopping 10% of all arable land. The transportation infrastructure is falling apart, not only the roads but also the ports on Albania's extensive coastline, used now mainly for the country's main export of desperate human beings.

But there's no greater symbol of Enver's destroyed legacy than the hideous Enver Hoxha Museum in Tirane. The catastrophic poverty of the country and the desperation of its citizens made the New Sphinx a hot commodity in certain industries, and a new tenant appeared immediately after Alia's fall from power.

Yes, this hideous landmark dedicated to Enver Hoxha's megalomania is now the local headquarters for the United States Department of Aid and Internal Development, providing handouts to the people Comrade Loulou raised to self-sufficiency.


Ingolfson said...

Interesting read. I knew Albania was loopy, but this really seems like a parody (and yet, so believable). Have to ask my father about it some day, he worked there for a very short time, setting up a TV studio in the 70s.

Where did you get all that info from?

Summerisle said...

The piece comes from a now defunct webzine called "Diacritica". They had a series called "Degenerates" which looked at dictators and would be dictators.

My impression from reading their website is that the authors were a mix of American expats to Eastern Europe and people living in Eastern Europe who these expatriates befriended.