“I never asked myself about the meaning of freedom until the day I hugged Stalin. From close up, he was much taller than I expected. Our teacher, Nora, had told us that imperialists and revisionists liked to emphasize how Stalin was a short man. He was, in fact, not as short as Louis XIV, whose height, she said, they – strangely – never brought up. In any case, she added gravely, focusing on appearances rather than what really mattered was a typical imperialist mistake. Stalin was a giant, and his deeds were far more relevant than his physique.” (p. 3)

You might imagine that Free would be the driest of books. Lea Ypi is around my age, but the parallels stop there, as she is also an intimidatingly successful Professor of Political Theory at the LSE, who speaks about seven languages fluently. Her other books have titles like The Architectonic of Reason: Purposiveness and Systematic Unity in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.

Free is much more accessible (I assume: I can’t say I’ve attempted the Kant book!), a 2021 memoir of Ypi’s childhood and adolescence growing up in Albania, one of the most isolated former communist states in Eastern Europe, during the ’80s and ’90s. It was on many “best of” lists at the end of 2021, as well as being shortlisted for the Baillie Gifford prize for non-fiction (basically the non-fiction Booker).

I was always going to be drawn to this memoir, since I hoover up life writing like an addict and I’ve been compiling, commissioning and editing books on South-Eastern European politics for the past 20 years. This personal account has wide appeal outside my corner of niche nerdery though, as the young Ypi is hugely engaging and often very funny, while as political events unfold from a child’s-eye viewpoint she becomes gradually aware of the contradictions of socialist dictator Enver Hoxha’s political ideology.

The governments and international financial institutions that jumped in to advise on Albania’s “shock therapy” transition to capitalism and Western-style democracy don’t come away scot-free. There is a great passage flagging up the way that communist jargon is replaced almost overnight by a similar breed of essentially meaningless IMF-ese:

“‘Civil society’ was the new term recently added to the political vocabulary, more or less as a substitute for ‘Party’ … It joined other new keywords, such as ‘liberalization’, which replaced ‘democratic centralism’; ‘privatization’, which replaced ‘collectivization’; ‘transparency’, which replaced ‘self-criticism’; ‘transition’, which stayed the same but now indicated the transition from socialism to liberalism instead of the transition from socialism to communism; and ‘fighting corruption’, which replaced ‘anti-imperialist struggle’.” (pp 215-2016)

Effortlessly mixing bathos, humour and tragedy with intimate personal history – Ypi’s family are fully-realised, well-rounded people, with all the affection and exasperation that implies – and wearing her enormous erudition lightly, this is an endlessly informative and most importantly, perhaps, incredibly enjoyable account. Given current events though, it may be that Ypi was growing up not at the end of history, but at the beginning.

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