Text resize: A A
Change contrast

Land of contrast: a review of John Watkins’ “Enver Hoxha’s Long Shadow: Travels in Albania”

Albania still remains a rather unique subject of travel writing today. In his new work, John Watkins uncovers the country’s communist past and its many legacies, comparing and contrasting his own visits to the nation across the decades.

January 22, 2024 - Antonia Young - Books and Reviews

The Pyramid of Tirana, a former museum of dictator Enver Hoxha. Photo: Shutterstock

Albania was the last communist regime to fall in Europe, in 1991.

Watkins’ unique overview of Albania’s first 30 years following the moment of the demise of Europe’s strictest communist state, illustrates with relevant historical explanations the extreme contrasts from which the country is still reeling.

The author’s first sight of Albania, from Greece at age 18, roused his lifelong interest in the country, leading to research through whatever means were available at the time. His first visit to the country was in 1987. As part of the BBC Science team at Bush House, Watkins worked in the room next to the Albanian Service. He then found an oasis of support for Albania’s leader of 45 years, Enver Hoxha (and other Marxist-Leninists), in John Buckle Books in Stockwell.

A review of various early guidebooks to Albania is followed by comments on the rapidly changing situation in the country and some specific downsides of the changes: the destruction of collective farms, olive groves and deforestation, and the lack of state support affecting the county’s irrigation systems. With the fall of communism, pensions were no longer paid, healthcare facilities disbanded and schools vandalized. While theoretically, under communism, no one was paid more than twice as much as anyone else, the meagre incomes were not taxed. Much work was enforced, unpaid “actions” for specific projects.

Despite attempts by the Albanian government of the late 1980s to show the world its remarkable domestic production and its classless population of equals, visitors such as Watkins glimpsed the fault lines. To capture these, he took a great number of photos, which now have proven their great value in reconstructing that time of transition through the huge changes which he recorded 30 years later.

Throughout the text, the author relates a variety of locals’ interview responses to these changes in Albania, detailing how these have affected their lives. But he notes the population’s lack of any reflection on Albania’s recent history. Instead, there is a kind of acceptance of the past, with interest focused mainly on the present and future. Many born after 1985 have no knowledge of that “long shadow” – the experience of Hoxha’s extreme oppression of his people. This is due to a lack of any lessons concerning the country’s immediate history for today’s schoolchildren. Indeed, the ambition of many young people is to emigrate, as have an estimated 1.4 million since 1990 (still leaving approximately three million in the country). Of the emigrants, Watkins notes, around 140,000 Albanians now live in the UK.

The starting point for Watkins’ first visit to Albania (1987) was as part of a group walking across the northern border after landing at Titograd airport (then in Yugoslavia). They were met at night by a bus to take them south, to Shkodra. The next morning, walking from their hotel, they faced Stalin’s statue. These early visitors were also taken, in Tirana, to see Hoxha’s grave in the Martyrs Cemetery, guarded by two soldiers. Watkins explains how Hoxha’s body was subsequently exhumed in 1992, then reburied in a public graveyard.

In showcasing the national hero, Skanderbeg, a chapter is devoted to the town of Kruje and its relevance throughout Albania’s history, as seen through the struggle waged by the Party of Labour of Albania.

One of the most dramatic changes in the 30 years has been to the coastline outside Durres, where there had been pine trees and sand dunes, encompassing masses of concrete defence bunkers, along the miles-long stretch of coast. By 2018 these were replaced by rows of high-rise hotels and beach apartments. The pine trees had disappeared.

Shkodra’s surrounding landscape in 1987 was still intensively cultivated, with innumerable irrigation channels “creating a watery lattice” serving varying crops. Collectivization and land drainage reclamation, using forced labour, increased Albania’s agricultural assets and production. This was reversed when a 1991 law redistributed collectivized farms. This uncertainty was made worse during the anarchy and vandalization of the major destructive crisis in 1997 (in which 2,000 died, many killed by firearms looted from arms depots).

Flooding remains an issue, despite outside financial help to address it. By 2019, any assets related to local cultivation had been abandoned and overtaken by new buildings. Sadly, what had been a thriving silk industry, collapsed after 1990.

Alternating between Watkins’ visits 30 years apart, he brings out the dramatic changes that took place all over the country. Returning to Hotel Rozafat in Shkodra, in 2019, whilst the lower floors were modernized, the upper floors were derelict, blocked by fallen plaster and lots of scattered bird feathers. Outside were new multi-storey buildings and streets full of cars, where the 1987 photos showed only drably dressed pedestrians. Only Shkodra’s castle was left unaltered.  

Watkins notes that about 20 per cent of Shkodra’s citizens were either persecuted or killed during Hoxha’s years in power, and that there had been more than 20 prisons in the city (out of 82 throughout the country). He also notes that of the 17,900 political prisoners in Albania, over 14,000 were killed or died in prison. However, only one person (Hoxha’s wife, Nexhmije) was ever imprisoned (for four years), atoning for the deaths of thousands.

An attraction that used to entertain early tourists to Albania was the Italian Count Ciano’s hunting lodge. This was built on the northern coast at the time of the Italian occupation during the Second World War – though probably never actually used by Ciano.

Watkins covers many aspects of Albania’s capital, Tirana, noting numerous changes. Especially significant is the large main square, where Hoxha’s ten-metre tall statue had dominated in 1988. It was felled in 1991, during major political demonstrations, and now, the area is pedestrianized, a venue for various entertainment events.

Under Hoxha, the Southern Butrint Roman-era sea port remained. Like those elsewhere, these were archaeologically developed to fit the communist narrative; yet Watkins found some evidence that Khrushchev, upon visiting, apparently discussed turning it into a naval base. Watkins also visited what had been Albania’s hidden military airport at Gjader, which was used from 1969. This included a bomb-proof bunker with space for more than 40 fighter jets plus fuel and weaponry to deter Yugoslav incursions.

Comparing the nearby southern resort town of Saranda between the first and last visits, Watkins found that despite many new high-rise apartment blocks, the town had retained its delightful seafront and promenade, with statues, both communist and post-communist, along the streets and harbour, originally laid out during King Zog’s reign (1928-39).

Watkins does not cover the Northern Albanian Alps – or “forbidden mountains”. A favourite route for him was the mountain drive from Dropull in Southern Albania. Before 2022, when a new highway was built with EU funds, he recorded how the hugely increased traffic using this only connection between Saranda and the interior had made it almost impossible to pass.

In Gjirokaster, Hoxha’s birthplace (declared in 1961 a “Museum City”), Watson questions current attitudes towards the cause of the town’s celebrity, and how that will develop, especially given that most of its young people have migrated away. On the other hand, he notes that tourism has boosted local crafts, and that its museum, part funded by private donors, is one of very few to attempt to address the communist narrative.

Watkins refers frequently to various “lapidars” (memorials to people or places, commemorated during the communist regime) placed all over the country, many now destroyed, but also several (of the hundreds) still remain. A remarkable listing of these was made by Vincent W. J. van Geuven Oei in his Lapidari. The three volumes of this work were translated by Jonida Gashi.

A strange story is told about the changing fortunes of Ksamil in Southern Albania, founded in the mid-1970s to become a centre for citrus production, only to suffer under successive and opposing governments.

There are ample photographs, all showing multiple contrasts over the 30 years. There is a map of Albania, though some of the places mentioned in the text, are not included (e.g., Ksamil, Gjader, Apollonia and Myzeqe). Overall, this is a stimulating overview of a changing society complete with all its future uncertainties.

Antonia Young is a Honorary Research Fellow with the Research Unit of the South East European Studies Division of Peace Studies and International Development at the University of Bradford and a Research Associate with the Department of Sociology / Anthropology of the Colgate University in Hamilton, New York State. 

Please support New Eastern Europe's crowdfunding campaign. Donate by clicking on the button below.

, , , , ,


Terms of Use | Cookie policy | Copyryight 2024 Kolegium Europy Wschodniej im. Jana Nowaka-Jeziorańskiego 31-153 Kraków
Agencja digital: hauerpower studio krakow.
We use cookies to personalise content and ads, to provide social media features and to analyse our traffic. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. View more
Cookies settings
Privacy & Cookie policy
Privacy & Cookies policy
Cookie name Active
Poniższa Polityka Prywatności – klauzule informacyjne dotyczące przetwarzania danych osobowych w związku z korzystaniem z serwisu internetowego https://neweasterneurope.eu/ lub usług dostępnych za jego pośrednictwem Polityka Prywatności zawiera informacje wymagane przez przepisy Rozporządzenia Parlamentu Europejskiego i Rady 2016/679 w sprawie ochrony osób fizycznych w związku z przetwarzaniem danych osobowych i w sprawie swobodnego przepływu takich danych oraz uchylenia dyrektywy 95/46/WE (RODO). Całość do przeczytania pod tym linkiem
Save settings
Cookies settings