In 2012 I moved to Kombinat, a neighbourhood in the capital of Albania; one noticeable feature was the static view of its buildings inherited from the communist regime, alongside the greyness of the abandoned former industrial complex located in its outskirts. Kombinat was built with the aid of Soviet funds in the early 50s as a continuation of the Stalinist philosophy of planned socialist towns all across Eastern Europe. Back then, communist propaganda referred to it as the symbol of the socialist revolution. In terms of its historical meaning, Kombinat represented processes such as internal migration, industrialization, the emancipation of women, and aesthetically, an architectural innovation in the Eastern Bloc. As such, the neighbourhood had a deeper meaning than just a part piled in the capital’s corners.
In recent decades, however, a particular lack of interest from the institutions has been inspired against Kombinat’s built heritage, portrayed by decline and collapse in a pool of dust on the way to the country’s democratization. The ruins of the neighbourhood started to become gradually invisible to the eyes of the public and the people responsible for their restoration, deteriorating in silence while carrying within them the memory of a different era.
Yet more than a case precisely correlated to Kombinat, this abandonment demonstrates a broad cultural behaviour against an unwanted past as part of a harsh political transition of the post-socialist Albanian society. Kombinat and other communist spaces, associated by many with the ideology that shaped them, became a testimony of change and human ruin that followed. Elidor Mehilli, the author of “From Stalin to Mao: Albania and the Socialist World,” referred to this process as “an urban chaos and lawlessness that became known as tranzicioni (transition to capitalism).”
But before the condemnation of this societal attitude, we should understand that these places symbolize a traumatized past for many people, and their ruination serves as a liberator of Albanians from the communist rhetoric embedded in them. Memories of harsh realities of life in communist Albania, paranoia, persecution, severe censorship, and extreme poverty make a lot of people associate places like Kombinat with symbolisms of oppression. The attempt to demolish the Pyramid of Tirana in 2010 by the former leader of the anti-communist Democratic Party (in which I am an active member), for example, a symbol of communist architecture, was mainly seen in the light of erasing a painful past. Despite our post-socialist discourse of positive change that intended the mental release from behavioural dependence of the past, corruption, lack of attention, and a sense of self-destruction characterized our behaviour.
Additionally, the ongoing war against socialist historical landmarks serves as a counter-balance against another Albanian societal group, who view the transition to democracy as unfortunate. To these people, primarily represented by the Socialist Party, the successors of the Communist Party, buildings and neighbourhoods that symbolized a meaning in the previous regime, such as Kombinat, draw emotional attachment, a surge of nostalgia, and an actual desire to return to the past.
In reality, communist historical landmarks, putting ideology or any debate aside, have a great value. The reason is simple. There is a growing global interest in tourism for the ex-eastern bloc. As an ex-communist country, Albania should take advantage and transform its drama into a resource, revaluating the socialist heritage and showing it with dignity to tourists. This approach can be a crucial economic strategy for poor communities, such as Kombinat, that found it hard to integrate into the global market economy after the fall of communism. Therefore, benefits from these sites can be an ideal model for today’s society which has to abandon the bad or good taste of the old politics and direct its goals towards a more tolerable way of thinking, considering the past as a resource in itself which has to be used in all the possible ways it offers.
The erasure or ideological glorification of these landmarks is equal to the erasure of history because, in these ruins, history has physically merged into the setting. The materiality of these sites, in an unbiased way, is thus essential to the possibility of reflection, not as nostalgia, commemoration, desire to return or erase it, but instead as a display of what we can learn and, most importantly, what we can benefit from it. Albania’s post-communist turn needs to be a cultural turn in the idea that it should change how people reflect and think about their built heritage, in the light of more than just political representations of the past, but sustainable resources for the future.
Bekim Bruka is a student of Political Science at Columbia University.