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Atlantic Monthly Sidebar

As originally published in The Atlantic Monthly, November 1966

The Atlantic Report: Albania
by Peter Ustinov

It's impolite, and impolitic, to poke fun at poverty; a lack of resources is a fact which tolerates no argument. But theories may legitimately develop when it comes to putting an end to such a state of affairs. Yugoslavia has earned the hostility of the Chinese and of the Albanians, and up to fairly recently, of the other members of the Eastern bloc, by its so-called policy of revisionism, which is no more and no less on a practical level than an adaptation of rigorous dialectical theorems to the needs of contemporary coexistence. There may well be things for Yugoslavs to criticize and to argue among themselves, but from the outside it seems that their particular brand of government is ideally suited to the present needs and rate of development of the country. At all events, its policies are flexible, and it is open to new thoughts.

Whereas the foreigner may enter Yugoslavia easily, and wander about at will, Albania may only be entered by groups of at least twenty, or else by day excursions from Yugoslavia within the cordon sanitaire of a bus. As the road worsens, so the Yugoslav guide briefs the traveler much as the White House might brief an American athlete on his way to some goodwill meet. We were warned not to ask too many questions, and not to expect too many answers to the questions we did ask. We were requested not to repeat the mistake of a previous group which had made inquiries about the fence of electrified barbed wire which runs away out of sight across the hills in the frontier region. Apparently the Albanian guide had explained on that occasion that this was a precaution to prevent Albanian cattle from straying into foreign territory, only to have his statement greeted with gales of good-natured, if ironical, laughter. This act of treachery threatened to put an end to conducted tours altogether. In the interests of international harmony, we were asked to keep our laughter to ourselves.

Return to Albania: Enigma of the Balkans
By the time the road had become really bad, it was evident that we were approaching the border. It appeared in the shape of a pink house by the banks of Lake Scutari, and the now notorious line of barbed wire stretching to infinity to the north; while to the south lay the lake, with its carpet of water lilies and its reflection of arid mountains. A soldier saluted, entered the coach, saluted again, collected the passports, saluted again, and disappeared for half an hour. A muscular young man with a permanent smile and stern, abstract eyes bade us welcome to Albania, and said he was the English-speaking guide.

We were allowed to take pictures freely, he said, of everything save military objectives. The frontier, he pointed out, was a military objective. We could alight, stretch our legs, but cameras should be left in the coach. There were other soldiers around, and it became immediately obvious that in obedience to the Chinese initiative, badges of rank had been abolished. There was no telling the officers from the men. The man with the passports reappeared, saluted, saluted again with each passport returned to its owner, we got back in the bus, the soldiers saluted, and we were off.

Glory to Marx and Lenin

The road, what there was of it, took us through ideal "Injun" territory, flecked with extraordinary volcanic boulders. We expected the inevitable redskin chief to be suddenly and terrifyingly present on the skyline with his cohort of braves. Instead, we saw the name of Enver Hoxha, the First Secretary of the Albanian Communist Party, embedded on one mountain face in white pebbles, while on the other was the slogan Laudi Marksizm Leninizmit ("Glory to Marxism and Leninism").

The older people by the roadside just stared at us, while the children waved enthusiastically. The faces in general had that static and fragile quality of those depicted on Roman murals. The Albanians tend to be small but well built in a spare and economical way, and when they are not dark, they can be very fair indeed. There is great national pride in belonging to that ancient Illyrian race which furnished Rome with a few emperors and many other notables; and the very word "lavdi" is obviously the Latin word "laudi."

As the countryside flattened out into wide tobacco crops, the guide explained that before the liberation, the country was so backward that it exported tobacco but imported cigarettes. Now cigarettes are manufactured, some of them with filters. In 1944, he went on, Albania had 8 tractors. Now it has 7500, of which none were visible in the particular complex of collective farms through which we passed. There were, however, a couple of threshing machines, which seemed to be partially dismantled. The new buildings looked as though they had been built by the Turks three centuries ago and neglected. And everywhere slogans, one of which looked suspiciously like "Glory to our Potato Crops!" Anyone who has once known penury must feel slightly exasperated that so much energy has gone into painting and erecting slogans and embossing hillsides with names and messages while there is still so much to be done on a more constructive level.

As the coach neared the town of Shkoder, the guide pointed out what he described as an industrial area, electrical cable factory, cigarette factory, and so on, and we noticed a couple of distant chimneys belching a thin stream of black smoke into the sky. He went on to explain the policy of his country toward the imperialists and revisionists and declared that now, unaided, it was building socialism.

Unfortunately he made his declaration on the worst patch of road, and had to be asked to repeat it, since the lurching of the coach had rendered him inaudible. He did so with bad grace, and the anxious look of the Yugoslav guide suggested that we were on the verge of another diplomatic incident. In this kind of country, inadvertent ironies keep coming out of left field. To utter is to criticize.

Lunch at Scutari

The town of Shkoder is a collection of pale, low, dilapidated houses flanking a few powdery asphalt roads. Everywhere the dust has forced its way through, and little stones lie all over the place, like confetti after a wedding. In the center, there is a relatively imposing theater, which was, of course, closed for the summer but did not look as though it did much work during the winter. A pleasant park surrounds it, spattered with wooden benches and trusts of heroes. Lunch is taken in the tourist hotel, and here once again the garden is the most pleasant feature.

Four cars pulled up during our stay, the only four cars we saw. Two of them were old Russian Pobiedas, painted a venomous khaki, out of which a great many Albanian officers streamed, while the other two were brand-new Fiat 1800's in shining midnight blue with brilliant chrome, from which six Chinese officers emerged. There was a banquet indoors, with toasts and speeches, and a line of Chinese military headgear on the rack in the hallway.

The lunch was simple but excellent. The local wine is very good, the brandy ferocious but potable, and the cigarettes quite up to any made anywhere. However, the table napkins had dragons printed on them, while the toilet paper, rejecting such subtleties, had "Toilet Paper, Manufactured in the People's Republic of China" inscribed on the packet. In the gift shop, there were huge portraits of Mao and of Enver Hoxha, with many more slogans in evidence than gifts.

During the course of the lunch, a tall fellow in a red shirt with a corduroy cap on his head rose from a neighboring table to toast the foreigners. He looked very much like Raymond Massey in an inspired character performance. His shirt billowed over his belt on one side, and we could just see half a loaf of bread concealed next to his skin. He was slightly intoxicated. He sat down with us, and speaking in Serbo-Croat to the Yugoslav guide, began running down the Albanian government.

We all behaved with admirable restraint, but the Albanian guide became nervous and shifty. Speaking in rapid Albanian, he threatened the man discreetly, using a rational, calm tone of voice, but unfortunately for him the word for police is pronounced that way even in Albanian, so there was no disguising his intention by a casual manner. The man became more and more aggressive, and the guide went away with a menacing glance. Soon two policemen arrived at the garden gate, one dressed in white, the other in a dark tunic, and bent to study the scene through the foliage. At first they seemed the very epitome of what the movies have led us to expect from dictatorships, but all of a sudden they appeared to be smiling. The smiles were not particularly good-natured, but rather expressed satisfaction.

The drunk occasionally forgot to be quite as drunk as he had been before we had plied him with wine, and fixing his eyes on the Yugoslav guide, he asked off the cuff with a churlish kind of grin allied to a penetrating look whether the latter had been sent into Albania to do some spying, whether he was, in fact, a member of the UDBA, the Yugoslav secret police. We were able to ask him in Italian why he was so interested. Was that, by any chance, his line of work also? He remembered to be drunk again instantly, but then he hit us on the back, rose, stretched himself, and walked away without too much difficulty.

We will never know the truth about him, but a little while later, we saw him bicycling steadily down the street. There was no sign of any policemen.

The Pride of Possession

After lunch we were bundled into the coach again and taken to see the Castle of Shkoder, built, according to the guide, in the tenth century B.C. Since he also said that the third Five-Year Plan had gone into operation as recently as 1975, it was necessary to take all his statistics with a pinch of salt.

He took us to the least photogenic side of the castle, which sits on its hill like a broken tooth on a swollen gum, and informed us we could take a photograph of it. We were then taken to see what was termed a typical lakeside village. The poor guide could not have foreseen that on this particular day about twenty people, some old peasant women, a few naked children, and regrettably, a handful of able-bodied men, would be lying down and dozing in the main road. He went over to them and furiously told them to get to their feet, since they evidently represented the new Albania, and Lavdi Marksizm Leninizmit, and the rest of it. We were able to photograph this patriotic operation.

Inside the shack, which went for a pub, the local elite were most hospitable, offering us drinks and toasting the eternal friendship between nations. "It's a pity," said one middle-aged enthusiast, in French, "that you can't go to Tirana. Tirana!" His eyes shot heavenward, and he blew the capital a kiss. "Tirana, c'est comme Paris! The streetlights are lit all night!"

It was now time to visit the museum, a low building of yellow stucco, surrounded by an overgrown garden into which a few Turkish tombstones and bits of Roman brica-brac had been dumped. It is characteristic of impoverished and militant countries that they become possessive about everything which touches them even remotely. "Our birds, our bees, our flies," the guide will insist, and here the tendency is pushed to lengths we have never encountered previously.

The historical interest of the museum is low, but there is a large glass case with a couple of very ordinary-looking stuffed ducks in it. "Our ducks," we were told. Another impressive showcase is filled with bits of wire and fuses. "The products of our cable factory." Some very peculiar ladies' shoes and some gentlemen's ties of tubular shape are other items which have found their way into the museum, together with still larger busts of political leaders and some quite awful socialist realistic paintings by local painters.

Relics of Resistance

In the section of the museum devoted to recent history, there are so many photographs of patriots that one is led to the irreverent conclusion that it is sufficient to help an old comrade across the road to qualify as a hero oneself. Every face has the staring look which all Balkan museums specialize in. The patriots appear to have been caught at the moment of being hanged, even if they died in their beds of old age. The heads in these Balkan reproductions invariably seem to meet the necks in the wrong places, whereas the tidiest mustache manages to look like a nosebleed.

In another showcase, the visitor is solemnly shown a rusty typewriter, a pair of shoes without laces, a pencil, a bit of string, used by partisans on some undisclosed occasion. The piece de resistance is a bloodstained shirt "belonging to a twelve-year-old comrade who was caught and tortured to death by the Yugoslavs."

As we emerged from the museum, a battalion of children (eight-year-old comrades?) marched past, singing a song about partisans. They had evidently been mobilized for the occasion, but we were such an exotic-looking crowd that the song died on the children's lips after having gone irredeemably out of tune. One small girl had the presence of mind to cry out "Fascists!" and then smile coyly when we looked at her.

Every effort was made to get us out of the town by four fifteen. The shops open their doors again just after that, and it is obviously essential to rid the place of foreign bandits before they discover there is nothing to buy. That is a slight exaggeration, since one shop foolishly opened a little earlier than the others on that day. There is Chinese toothpaste, Chinese plastic shopping bags, Chinese combs, Chinese cosmetics, Chinese pen nibs, Chinese writing pads -- and Hungarian ink.

We went back the same way we came. At the frontier, there was another rash of saluting. Saluting costs nothing. As we left, the guide said, "Welcome to the People's Republic of Albania."

The Symbols of Compliance

The local currency is the lek. The five-lek bill has a steamship on one side, a steamship of 1940 vintage. On the other side a pre-war truck is happily racing with a steam train. These pictorial ideals of industrialization are symbolic of the desperately old-fashioned look not only to the country but to its aspirations.

The Chinese at lunch were like district commissioners in Africa some fifty years ago, humoring the local chiefs by partaking in their curious rites. Here is fertile ground for Chinese paternalism, and on this necessarily very brief and superficial visit we thought we could discern a certain Chinese revenge for years of patronizing attitudes from white races, now exacted on this proud but miserable people under the guise of fraternity. It is the fraternity of Big Brother.

Poverty, as was said at the outset, is not a field for criticism. It is only when you realize that Albania is the world's sixth largest producer of copper that you begin to regard such a degree of abject misery as gratuitous and foolish. Americans, Greeks, and Yugoslavs (guides and chauffeurs excepted) are not allowed into the country. Albania has chosen its friends and its enemies. The initiative has always been with Albania, which leads one to believe that, Marx, Lenin, and Senator Joseph McCarthy notwithstanding, there is no real conflict between Communism and capitalism because there is no point of contact. In an affluent society Communism can no longer survive without changing its face so completely that it is unfaithful to itself, whereas by definition, capitalism is impossible without capital.

There is no alternative for Albania but such a system, for the time being. But it is sad to see that its hopes are so limited and so out of date. For Stalinism to survive, it is essential that the country should make no progress on a personal level, for with progress, Stalinism is superfluous, as most of the other socialist countries have proved. It is a bitter irony that all the vices the Albanians discern in colonialism turn to virtues when applied to themselves by their own hand. Never, apart from Haiti, have we sensed people more despised by their own leaders. Albania is Haiti with slogans.

Copyright © 1966 by Peter Ustinov. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; November 1966; Volume 218, No. 5; pages 16-26.

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