Outdoor partisan Albania environmental museum – researching border monuments

Text: Agata Rogos

“Wherever you cast your glance in Albania you see a stone, marble, bronze landscape. It is the new landscape of the homeland that has a glorious history, which counts hundreds and thousands of exploit feats for freedom, for the people’s power, for their defence. In this landscape there have been engraved names and events which we honour, we recall them with respect because they increase our forces, they add to our pride. And we continue on the road of the monuments. We read in them about the Albanian insurgents who answered in the language of arms to every invader. These commemorative symbols recall us in Albania conventions where oath was taken and decisions were adopted for the good of Albania. We have before us commemorative tablets, busts and lapidaries, which raise high the names and activity of our fighters for National Revival and of their predecessors. Partisan Albania is entirely an environmental museum. We have erected and shall continue to erect such memorials because they promote the revolutionary education of our youth, army and of all our labouring masses”. (From Përmendore të heroizmit shqiptar, photographic album)

The few existing monuments and statues in Albania entering the communist era were either connected with Ottoman tradition or to the Italian influence period that with no doubt played a very important role in the visuality of the public space, also in modern Albania. The significant changes of the city scapes were not only on the aesthetic level or the choice of particular language and forms chosen to represent the new state and power, but most of all it was about constructing the inexistent national narratives that would be ‘ours’ not implemented through invaders, to use the rhetoric of the socialist and nationally-driven Albanian discourse. And it was obvious that the New Albania was to be created from absolutely different tradition, thus it was about to replace not only the model of representation but to replace religious cult objects with secular elements that were about to retrieve the role of the first ones. The process couldn’t be implemented immediately but successively the whole landscape was enriched with new sculptural monuments, architectonic-sculptural ensambles (like national martyrs cemeteries), lapidaries and museums of National Liberation War (Lufta Nacional Çlirimtare) and art galleries in Tirana and other districts. 

I made my fieldwork in Albania mapping some border monuments – remnants of the WW2 partisan movement. The first impression was a feeling of abandonment or to say – unwanted heritage. However  in the collective memory of Albanians as I was told many times during my interviews – these memorials/monuments were referred to as a commemoration of the partisans’ struggle and not as such as socialist monuments in contradiction to non-exiting nowadays monuments of Enver Hoxha – the main figure of communist Albania. I made my fieldwork in the chosen locations where high in the mountains or in the outskirts of the cities are located these artifacts. 

The lapidars (post-war monuments of partisans and heroes of the WW2) present in Albanian landscapes became cultural systems of communication that create a significant part of the post-communist collective memory and elements of common knowledge, common memory, and foremost of a common Albanian identity. Lapidars and other socialist monuments, together with the cultural landscapes they shape, are part of Albania’s cultural memory. Therefore, all cultural landscape-shaping elements from the socialist period automatically become elements of historic cultural landscapes in a post-socialist environment. A historic cultural landscape that mainly consists of or is dominated by a high density of socialist cultural landscape elements might then be called a historic socialist (cultural) landscape[1]. The historic socialist landscape in Albania comprises far more than bunkers, the ruins left by socialist economic policy, such as industrial complexes (kombinati), agricultural cooperatives (kooperativa), socialist urban design and its functional correlations and architecture, or propaganda elements like slogans on factory chimneys, walls, and mountains, are some of its most visible and significant elements. At least equally striking and omnipresent elements in those landscapes are the widely visible socialist monuments such as the lapidars. Thus, lapidars were, for socialist Albania, serving as an instrument to define its territory and to border off its ideology from other dictatorships of the communist block. As an example one might refer to the no-man’s land between the Albanian–Greek border at Kakavij or the Albanian–Kosovo (former Yugoslavian) border at Qafë Prush.

As my interviews with the artists of the socialist period in Albania show the biggest explosion of the new monuments and in consequence the construction of the new system of national symbols happened from the beginning of 70’s which might be linked to the separation from Soviet Union and a need to strengthen the national narrative. That is also the moment when Enver Hoxha and his circles started to reconstruct the memories of the partisan movement, reinforcing local impact of the communist system.

A very important component of this new symbolic construct was performativity of celebration in the outdoor partisan Albania environmental museum. During the newly established national holidays these monuments have been successively transformed into the pilgrimage places, where school children, students, soldiers and peasants of state-owned kooperativa have been coming for the commemorative ceremonies. 

[1]M. Bickert, Lapidars and Socialist Monuments as Elements of Albania’s Historic Cultural Landscapes, in Lapidari I, Punctum Books 2015, p. 105-114.