Friday, April 20, 2007

Comrade Loulou and the Fun Factory Chapter 5: The anti-Beardist revolution

(by Cali Ruchala)

Chapter Five: The Anti-Beardist Revolution

One of the first unusual laws enacted was a complete ban on automobiles. No one without a permit was allowed to own one, and only two permits were ever issued outside of the Party. Public transportation was existent, though hardly extensive. On the one hand, bizarre laws prohibiting common things kept people from longing for consumer goods that Hoxha and the Party couldn't possibly provide. On the other, the poor communications structure (and with no cars, there wasn't much use in keeping roads smooth and repaired) necessitated a mastodon of a police state to keep an eye on everyone. The Sigurimi thus came into being.

The Sigurimi is one of the most shadowy secret police organizations in Eastern European history. They had little presence outside of the country (except in the doomed land of Kosovo), but so thoroughly did they penetrate Albanian society, no one could be sure that even your kindly grandfather wasn't filing reports over your preference for Barbie over Kobi, Official Doll of the Albanian Revolution™. After 1993, the Sigurimi made the transition from secret police force to mafia faster than any other organization of its kind, including the prodigious boys of the KGB. They are still implicated in frequent contract killings, and those who tried to furiously stomp out the fires of the gjakmarrje are the greatest agents of its revival.

The Sigurimi were not long in waiting for an opportunity to strut their stuff. In 1948, the Tito-Stalin break occurred, and Yugoslavia was thrown out of the Eastern Bloc. Albania, which had previously been little more than a client state of Yugoslavia, fell into the Stalinist line. Hoxha's parakeet press cursed the plague of Titoism and the Sigurimi swept down on all suspected Yugoslav sympathizers. Koci Xoxe, who as Interior Minister had lived up to his epithet as the Butcher of the Bourgeoisie, was the first to fall. In 1949 he was tried for treason and executed. Former "nationalist Communists" who had been removed at Tito's insistence for their supposed anti-Yugoslav leanings, such as Hoxha's former rival and collaborator Mehmet Shehu, were rehabilitated. Nako Spiru, whose suicide in 1947 has already been described, was rehabilitated posthumously as a national martyr. His widow Liri Belishova, who had been expelled from the Party for no other reason than that her husband killed himself, was given a position in the Politburo. All the excesses and "errors" of the post-war period were dumped upon the shoulders of Koci Xoxe and his evil puppeteer, Tito.

The infamous scribes of the Tirane Marxist-Leninist Institute, headed by First Lady Nexhmije Hoxha (kind of a Red Hillary Clinton when you think about it. "I didn't vote for a co-dictatorship!") went overboard attempting to disassociate themselves from Tito. They were hard put to eliminate the fawning statements from Enver's pen, such as this ditty published just after the war:

I've never felt stronger in my life before, when I saw beside me a Yugoslav brother, a comrade, prepared to sacrifice his own life like a hero for the sake of my own people.

Two new Commandments in the Canon of Enver were born after the break with Yugoslavia. The first was the national myth mentioned earlier - the idealization of Hoxha as a romantic, fiercely independent leader willing to die before he ceded an inch of his country's sovereignty to a foreign aggressor.

The second (not unrelated) part of the Catechism of Loulou was the pattern which Hoxha would use to prolong his existence far beyond most speculations. He balanced one power off of another, and broke with one completely just in time to reap maximum benefit. He broke with Italy and Greece (Albania's natural partners) for the Yugoslavs; sacrificed the Yugoslavs for the Soviets; and denounced the Soviets in favour of the Chinese.

Though even his opponents would laud his accomplishments in preserving the borders from allegedly hostile, aggressive neighbours, not a single imperialist bent on crushing Albanian "independence" ever fell in this forty-year battle. The Sigurimi never shot an enemy soldier. They did shoot many, many Albanians, thousands more than could by any stretch of principles be considered "necessary" for the country's centralization and survival. Hoxha used these constant upheavals in his country's foreign policy to eliminate rivals, purge the Party (Liri Belishova and Mehmet Shehu had the notable distinction of being purged twice, the second time fatally) and consolidate power in the hands of the Hoxha Family. Except for the break with Tito, all of these foreign confrontations could have been avoided, as they had much more to do with peculiar Communist fetishes than any really threatening actions. The smoke from the secret incinerators in Sigurimi headquarters was black and thick with the fumes of dead bodies, billowing with a greater profusion with each radical realignment in foreign relations. Proportionately, the slaughter was enormous, though with only three million rather wretched subjects to harvest corpses from, the prisons in the mountains would never challenge Siberia or Auschwitz (or even Goli Otok, Tito's floating gulag on the Adriatic) as a metaphor for man's capacity for satanic crime.

* * *

An extreme, amusing yet tragic example of the value of the ordinary Albanian to Comrade Loulou was the saga of one Ali Raxhedi. Ali was born under a bad sign and suffered from an incurable malady: he was a dead ringer, physically, for Enver Hoxha. It was humourous to some, and Ali liked to play practical jokes by donning the Maoist cap worn by Hoxha and making surprise "inspections" at local facilities. It was mostly harmless fun, and he never reaped any benefit from his genealogical accident.

One day the Sigurimi abducted Ali and demanded that he answer for his crimes. He was guaranteed a better life if he simply confessed to aping the Supreme Comrade. He did, and the Sigurimi delivered on their promise: he was not thrown in jail or executed. Instead, he was taken to Tirane, given powerful anesthesia and wheeled into an operating room. He woke up to discover that his face had been surgically altered to make his resemblance to Enver Hoxha into an exact likeness. He spent the next ten years living like a troll in a dungeon of the presidential palace. Hoxha's plan was to keep Ali around in case of an invasion, whereby he would be sacrificed to enemy soldiers. Hoxha would then retreat to the mountains to relive his glory days of partisan warfare.

But it was during his alignment with China that Hoxha's true derangement bloomed in full flower. Following Mao's lead, Albania in 1967 - on the eve of the great uprisings of 1968 when Europe burned like a torch - began a great Cultural Revolution. The party ranks were purged for the umpteenth time. Young intellectuals were dragged from their beds and forced to undergo a humiliating public "self-criticism". Some were merely abducted by the young red mobs and denounced to the Sigurimi. Children who informed on their parents were championed in newspapers. Hoxha smiled contentedly as his "grandchildren" performed every act of crime and blasphemy. The whole programme, he said, had been put forth by students at a school he visited in the city of Durres. It was not his idea, but the grand plan of the Socialist Youth, untainted by their parents' capitalist history.

As a part of the Cultural Revolution, Hoxha made all foreign travel illegal. Albania from this point forward became an enormous penal colony. Huge iron gates with the double-headed eagle of Skanderbeg were lengthened until they stretched into the sky. Only with government permission, and only when guarded by several trench-coated agents of the Sigurimi, would people be allowed to leave the country.

But the proclamation of 1967 which earned Enver Hoxha his own miserable dacha in Hell was the decree with the seemingly banal title of "The Religion of Albania is Albanianism".

The Supreme Comrade was unable to sleep at night, plagued by the suspicion that even his most loyal subjects swore an oath to One even greater than himself. Said Supreme Comrade thus adopted the rather capitalistic strategy of eliminating the competition. He informed Albania and the world that the opiate of the masses, God Himself, was now illegal. While the Soviet Union had confiscated church property, shut down monasteries, harassed clerics and made a very prominent show of recording each and every person to enter a church, synagogue or mosque, no state in the world had gone so far as to ban a believe in a power higher than the infallible Supreme Comrade. High-ranking priests were attacked and tortured until they either renounced their belief in God or were broken. Mosques, cathedrals, and village churches (Albania, though predominantly Islamic, still has considerable Catholic and Orthodox Christian minorities) were sometimes demolished, but more often turned into barns or warehouses. Young proletarians armed with hammers and chisels disappeared inside ancient buildings and didn't emerge until all medieval frescoes on the church walls - in some respects the only evidence that Albanians lived here at all in those times - were blown away by the wind. It's shocking to think that at this very moment, Czechs were dying in Wenceslas Square, and young students elsewhere in Europe were rising against the politics of their fathers. In Albania, meanwhile, they were attempting to demolish the one facet of life that Enver Hoxha couldn't regiment: Hope.

The Albanian Cultural Revolution didn't wind down for several long years. In 1973, Albanians rubbed the sleep out of their eyes and awoke to a fractured landscape, bleak as anything that could be imagined. The whole country and everyone in it had become Ali Raxhedi. Every vestige of pre-Enver history had been erased. The void was filled with an intense Cult of Loulou, the likes of which one would have to go to North Korea to emulate.

A futuristic, ziggurat-like structure known as the Enver Hoxha Museum opened for business, and the media proclaimed it a landmark which rivaled the Sphinx among the glories of human civilization. Gigantic statues of Enver were everywhere, including a settlement called Stalin City. In an obvious though unintentional nod to Orwell, it was impossible to escape the disapproving gaze of Enver Hoxha. Where Albania's mountainous geography prevented his likeness from being erected, just his name was sufficient. From the city of Berat one looked out at a skyline of ENVER! crafted from stone and stretching across the peaks like a pep rally banner for a high school football team, or a crude parody of Hollywood.

The changes were not just aesthetic in nature. During the Cultural Revolution, Hoxha had become convinced that Albania would be the place where the battle between Good and Evil would be fought. To prepare his hunk of rock on the fringes of Europe for the final conflagration, he ordered the construction of a great multitude of enormous and ugly concrete bunkers built throughout the country. No one is sure exactly how many of these bunkers exist, but the estimate of about 300,000 is usually cited. Inside was room for about twenty soldiers, and the structure peeked above ground a few feet like a cement mushroom, with a slit for a carbine to slide through and mow down the imperialist enemies.

No comments: