19 September 2017

Tales of Communist Albania


In the 1970s I was fortunate enough to share an office in the London Daily Telegraph with the veteran war correspondent, Clare Hollingworth, who died in January this year in Hong Kong at the age of 105. Clare was a wonderful office partner, kind, helpful, generous with advice, and full of good stories.

One was the story of her most famous scoop, achieved when she was just two weeks into a foreign correspondent’s job in Poland for the DT. It was the start of the Second World War. She had borrowed a boyfriend’s impressive car festooned with an official flag, crossed into Germany, bought some delicacies unavailable in Poland, and drove back to the border:

And then I was driving back along a valley and there was a hessian screen up so you couldn’t look down into the valley. Suddenly, there was a great gust of wind which blew the sacking from its moorings, and I looked into the valley and saw scores, if not hundreds, of tanks.”

She phoned the story to her paper as the British consul was simultaneously phoning the Foreign Office. The Germans invaded days later, giving her a second scoop and the start of a brilliant career in the most dangerous sort of reporting.

Photographs show the young Clare was a beauty, and not all of her stories were of war and revolution. She had been escorted to her first ball at the age of sixteen by a neighbour’s son, then at Cambridge, named Kim Philby, who had been as elegant and charming an escort as any girl could hope for.

Later, however, she was among those who came to suspect that Philby had become a clandestine Soviet agent. When he failed to turn up to a diplomat’s dinner party in Beirut in 1963, she did the detective work that showed he had defected to Moscow – probably on a Soviet freighter that had departed Beirut so hurriedly that half its cargo was left on the dockside. It was another world scoop, soon confirmed by Moscow itself.

Clare’s scoops never really stopped coming, and she was still ringing London editors with story suggestions into her second century. But one story she told me stuck in my mind for what it revealed of the human reality and unreality of Communism.

For almost all of the Cold War the Communist country least open to Western reporters, or Western visitors of any kind, was Albania, a small nation of two million people on the Adriatic, next to Greece and Yugoslavia. Given the extraordinary beauty of its coastline, Albania should have become a prosperous tourist paradise as its neighbours at different times had done. But under its unusually dogmatic dictator, Enver Hoxha, Communist Albania had decided on a policy of pure Marxist autarky, shunning such capitalist temptations as foreign investment and tourism. Tirana was probably the least visited capital city in the world.

Hoxha took his Stalinist purity to the extent of shunning even other Communist states that had flirted with revisionism, quarrelling first with Tito’s Yugoslavia on behalf of Stalin’s Soviet Union, and then with the post-Stalin Soviet Union on behalf of Mao’s China. Albania’s ideological self-identification with China was so extreme that when the Sino-Indian conflict broke out in 1961, wits claimed to have heard Radio Tirana announcing: Albania Invades India.

Clare naturally treated Albania’s self-isolation as a challenge. She found a tourist company called Progressive Tours (it still exists, I believe, under a different name) that offered trips to Tirana for true believers in Stalin-Mao politics, put on her drabbest clothes, and signed on. She skipped out of the opening dinner in a Tirana grand hotel and disappeared into the ladies’ loo. While she was washing her hands, a woman scrubbing the floor suddenly addressed her in perfect French: “Never did I expect to spend every night of my life praying on my knees for the Russians to invade.”

She was a woman of good family, thus a class enemy, forced by the regime’s theories to carry out this work as a form of humiliation. But she had also been trained in the West as a nurse. So whenever a senior figure in the regime was ill, she was always sent for to provide privileged care. (That kind of hypocrisy was almost universal in the Communist world.)

It was a grim introduction to a grim country. Albania had the lowest living standards in Europe, a brutally repressive intelligence police that intruded into ordinary lives, long prison sentences for religious worship, and all the usual shortages and privations of the Communist system everywhere. It also had one unique feature, born of Hoxha’s paranoia: thousands of concrete bunkers dotted around the country, including Tirana, that were a combination of home and defence fort for Albanians against a Western invasion.

That never happened, of course. And though Albania’s Communist system started toppling with the death of Hoxha in 1985, it did not actually fall until 1992 when free elections with only modest irregularities replaced the governing Socialists (i.e., the Communists after a light rinse) with the opposition Democrats and set Albania on the road to NATO membership (2009) and EU membership (promised by Brussels on condition of further election reforms in 2018).

It has been a rocky road. That is presumably why ACRE – an acronym for Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists in Europe which is the third largest party alliance in the European Parliament held its Liberty Summit of member parties in Tirana in early April on the topic of “The Damaging Legacy of Communism”. (More here http://www.thelibertysummit.org/) Few post-Communist countries have had such a poisoned inheritance of repression, backwardness and instability. How would Albania recover from it?

Slowly” must be the honest answer – at least when it comes to politics. The last 25 years have been marked by political instability, election fraud, riots, attempted coups, extreme partisanship, judicial favouritism, intervention by a Italian-led UN military force to restore order, diplomatic head-banging of local party leaders by the EU, and much else. These things still continue: a demonstration by the opposition outside Parliament was continuing after January for months, almost a tourist attraction. The society is also divided by clans, including their extensive criminal offshoots, which run massive smuggling operations, especially drug- smuggling, and which corrupt police and politicians turn a blind eye to.

Not entirely due to these activities, however, the Albanian economy has grown very dramatically since the early 1990s. The most visible impact of this growth is in the centre of Tirana which now boasts a upsurge of genuinely luxurious “luxury hotels”, night clubs and high-end consumer shops with all the usual brand-names alongside museums and official buildings. Outside the centre small-scale bazaars proliferate. There is a modern airport (with polite immigration officers) just out of town. Twice a day Tirana enjoys that rich cultural experience: the Mediterranean traffic jam. And though much of the country outside Tirana remains poor and relatively backward, the southern coast now boasts some of the least spoilt and most beautiful tourist resorts in the Adriatic. So get there early.

Jan Zahradil, ACRE’s president, and Dan Hannan, its secretary-general, were right to choose Tirana, on this 100th Anniversary of the October Revolution, as a positively dramatic example of what a country can achieve when once released from the chains of Communism. Though Albania’s democracy may still be a little, well, unorthodox, shaky perhaps, its freedoms and their results are undoubted. There is a positive fiesta of political debate and argument in the streets and newspapers. And if any doubts about this persist, a visit to one of Hoxha’s bunkers – some of which in Tirana have been turned into little museums of Communism – should remove them very quickly.

One descends from the bustling chaos of a modern Mediterranean city into a cold concrete hell. Its dank corridors open onto rooms showing how Hoxha’s repression worked in practice. There is the machinery for listening into everyday innocent conversations, the methods and machinery of torturing suspected dissidents, the photographs of priests arrested and marched through jeering crowds (themselves victims of intimidation) to prison and death for praying, the long lists of those caught (and shot) for attempting to leave, the contrasting films of the smiling dictator accepting bouquets of flowers from pretty young Pioneer girls … and then suddenly an oddly familiar name pops up.

On a wall listing the names of those Albanian patriots who were parachuted into the country to support the resistance to Hoxha’s regime by Western intelligence agencies between about 1947 and 1953 is a much smaller list of those who caught and killed them. Among the latter is the name Kim Filbi. His role was especially important to Hoxha. “Kim Filbi”, then in MI6, recruited and trained these men, and he knew them as friends, before he sent them off on missions about which he had already tipped off the Albanian secret police through the KGB. They were arrested as they landed and marched off to torture and death.

It is a relief to get out into the open air again, and to realise that in the end the martyred Albanian patriots were on the winning side after all.




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