Peze Conference Memorial Park

Peze Conference Memorial

Peze Conference Memorial

The Peze Conference on 16th September 1942 was important in establishing the organisational structure for the forthcoming struggle for liberation against the Fascist invaders, first the Italian and then, when Italy fell to the Allies, the Germans. This important meeting took place in the home of Myslym Peza who had a large house and land on the edge of the small village of Peze, about 20 kilometres south-west from Tirana and this is now the location of the Peze Memorial Park.

Peze Conference - Fatmir Biba

Peze Conference – Fatmir Biba

When the Italian Fascists invaded on 7th April 1939 there was no resistance from the self-proclaimed ‘King’ Zog 1 who ran away with his family to Britain where, as they said at the time, ‘he had a good war’ – far from the death and destruction that was being inflicted on the country of his birth.

Different nationalist groups, but especially those organised by the Communist Party of Albania (CPA) after its foundation on 8th November 1941, fought against the invaders but by the middle of 1942 it was recognised that the struggle for liberation needed co-ordination and with that in mind the Communists invited all nationalists to a conference to create a structure that would defeat the materially superior foreign forces.

Peze Conference Room

Peze Conference Room

The home of Myslym Peza was chosen as though relatively close to the capital Tirana the struggle in that part of the country meant that it was a no-go area for Fascists and the meeting could be held in relative security. From this conference came the formation of the National Liberation Front. Probably the most important decision was, as it says in the History of the Party of Labour of Albania, that:

National Liberation councils should be set up everywhere as organs uniting and mobilising the people in the war, and as organs of the people’s power.

thus paving the way for the construction of socialism after victory over the invaders.

Peze Conference - Fatmir Biba

Peze Conference – Fatmir Biba

After the war this area became a memorial park to those who had made the ultimate sacrifice in the struggle against fascism and as well as the house, part of which became a museum of the partisan struggle, the grounds also became the location for three separate memorials.

The first was the memorial to the conference itself which is close to the villa buildings (the Peza family were obviously wealthy but Myslym adopted the Communist cause and became a commandant in the National Liberation Front).

Peze Conference Monument in happier days

Peze Conference Monument in happier days

This monument (inaugurated in 1970) is constructed of breeze block and faced with marble and is in the form of a stylised rifle standing butt end on the ground. This is surmounted, as on virtually all monuments celebrating and commemorating the War of National Liberation, a large star. This was the symbol of the CPA and appears on many monuments produced in the socialist era. The victory against the fascists was overwhelmingly due to the efforts of the Communists (although other nationalist hangers-on, supporters of Zogu and even the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) all wanted to claim the credit). On the left of the central tower, on the wall that forms the other element of the sculpture, is the date is stylised numbers, 16 9 1942. On the right the words ‘Konferenca e Pezës vuri themelet e bashkimit kombëtar në luftë kundër pushtuesve’ translate to: ‘The Peze conference laid the foundations for national unity in the fight against the invaders’.

To the left of the monument, and a few metres in front of it, is a bowl that once would have hosted an eternal flame. Unfortunately, as the fight of the Albanian people has gone out so this flame of resistance has also been extinguished.

I’ve seen monuments in a worse condition so there must have been a determination in the village of Peze at the time of the chaos following the counter-revolution of 1991 to protect the structures in the park. None of the major sculptures show signs of vandalism but the monument to the conference is suffering from neglect and some of the marble slabs have fallen off exposing the breeze blocks beneath.

(As I’ve travelled around the country I’ve been surprised at the ready to hand materials that have been used in the construction of the memorials and statues. Simple and cheap materials were imaginatively used to produce interesting works of art – few were made at huge cost such as the monstrosities that litter British cities in homage to the monarchy and other exploiters of the people.)

The other two main monuments in the park are the Memorial to the 22nd Brigade and the Peze War Memorial.

To the right of the stairs to the first floor of the villa, facing the roadway, is a plaque which commemorates the conference. The translation reads: In this house, on the 16th September 1942, was convened the Peze Conference for national unity in the fight against the invaders.

Up these stairs there used to be a small museum related to the liberation war and the part the local men and women played in its victorious culmination. That has suffered from neglect (and no doubt some looting of anything that might have had any value) and the two rooms only have a few paintings and some photo cards on display. The rooms are really used as a storeroom to the expensive looking restaurant that occupies the ground floor space. The ‘museum’ is not normally open to the public but if the caretaker sees the opportunity of a 500 lek note he will open up (but perhaps only when there are few people around).

The ground floor is decorated and furnished as a wealthy land owners house would have been before the Second World War with an interesting portrait on the wall in the room off to the left of the entrance hall of Myslym Peza – if you get that far note the red star on his right lapel with the flag of Albania beneath it.

Like so much public property this villa has been privatised and although I didn’t see the menu this restaurant looked expensive, if not just because of the location and environment.

Once the Italian Fascists got news of the Conference they came and took their revenge on the building and it was destroyed. It was then rebuilt in its original form after liberation.

Peze Conference Building destroyed by Italian Fascists

Peze Conference Building destroyed by Italian Fascists

The, now, seemingly abandoned building just down from the main villa also has a plaque. This states that it was from this building that the partisans operated, from 1940, in the liberation war. You can’t miss it as it’s the building with a rusting anti-aircraft gun and a small howitzer outside. They are from the war period, the car, I assume, although equally abandoned, is of a more recent vintage.

Despite the fact that the park has some of the best preserved socialist memorials in any one place I’ve seen so far that doesn’t mean it’s not suffered the ravages of the post socialist period. Just up hill from the villa is the remains of a large fountain. This has not entertained visitors with its cooling display for a long time.

Further down hill, closer to the entrance gate and to the right of the road as you come into the park is what looks like another, smaller – perhaps drinking – fountain. It seems there was some structure on both sides of the stone pillar as there are brackets fixed into the ground which must have supported something. As of yet I don’t know what.

For bunker hunters there are quite a few scattered around this small park, especially close to the park entrance. And, unfortunately, the whole area is covered with litter, a fate from which all Albanian parks suffer. The number of bars and restaurants in the village are too great for such a small population so it seems that this is a popular day trip for people from Tirana in the summer months, They have, regrettably, the habit of not taking their litter home but even worse, letting it sit where it lay which then gets subject to the wind.

In the fight back, that is there even if at a relatively low-level, someone has painted a large red star on a fuel tank close to the gate.

GPS:

N 41.21549997

E 19.70020898

DMS:

41° 12′ 55.7999” N

19° 42′ 0.7523” E

Altitude: 96.7m

How to get to the park:

This is simplicity itself. From the main road that comes from the direction of Tirana take the side road opposite the Post Office, heading downhill. Within a few steps you’ll see the gates the other side of a bridge over the river. This is the entrance to the park and once through the gates you’ll see the main monument just up the hill.

Getting to Peze by public transport:

Getting to Peze is not difficult but it does require a little bit of pre-planning and a bit of organisation as the starting point in Tirana is slightly out of the centre and it’s not a particularly frequent service. The bus stop is on Rruga Karvajes, opposite the German Hospital and just a few metres east of Rruga Naim Fresheri. The journey takes between 45 minutes and an hour, depending upon traffic and the driver, and costs 50 lek each way.

Departures from Tirana: 09.00, 12.00, 13.30,

Departures from Peze: 10.00, 12.45, 15.15

These times can be flexible in the sense of leaving later than stated. I suggest you allow at least an hour to explore the park. There are a number of bars and restaurants close to where the bus turns around so you can move quickly if necessary.

National Art Gallery ‘Sculpture Park’

Uncle Joe - Art Gallery 'Sculpture Park'

Uncle Joe – Art Gallery ‘Sculpture Park’

Each time I’ve been to Tirana I’ve made it a point to visit the impromptu ‘sculpture park’ that has been created behind the National Art Gallery, just down from the main Skanderbreu Square in the centre of Tirana.

The Art Gallery itself has only a very few actual sculptures on display inside the building, the emphasis being on paintings, especially those from the period from 1945 to 1990, where the dominant style was that of Socialist Realism.

But the area behind the gallery was constructed not for the display of works of art but as a service access to the building. And as the gallery is a public building this area shows the lack of care and investment in maintenance that is the general fate of public spaces in the whole of Albania, not just the capital of Tirana.

The statues that are now there would have previously held pride of place in some public square in different parts of Tirana but there is no indication of their provenance. Some have been damaged, either by accident or design, the statue of the great Marxist and first Soviet leader, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (possibly the one created by K Hoshi, in 1954, in bronze that once stood proud in Tirana), missing his right arm from the elbow.

Many of the statues of individuals from the socialist era take on the pose of some famous meeting and the stance that Lenin takes in this statue can be seen on a number of photos from his relatively short time as leader of the first socialist state (his life no doubt being cut short as a consequence of an assassin’s attempt in 1918 which failed in its aim but which meant that a fragment of the bullet could not be removed from Lenin’s brain).

When it comes to the great Marxist leaders they are always (at least here in Albania) depicted with their right arm making some sort of gesture or greeting whilst slightly behind their bodies, in their left hand, they hold a roll of paper as if they are about to make an important proclamation.

Although this damage is unfortunate at least it allows an insight to the form of construction of these statues. They are not made of solid bronze, as many would think, but of a hollow bronze that’s only about a couple of centimetres thick. This relatively cheap construction technique explains why so many statues were erected in virtually every town in the country (it also explains why it was so easy to topple these statues in the counter-revolution).

Although few in number this small group provides quite a deep insight into the thinking of the Party of Labour of Albania during the 45 years it was the dominant political force within the country and attempting to construct a socialist society.

Socialist Albania gave women a role in society and assigned them an importance that has never been surpassed, either in the Soviet Union which proceeded the victory of Socialism in Albania or any other country that has attempted to construct socialism since. This is not the role of women in the higher echelons of society, the breaking of the so-called ‘glass ceiling’, the breaking of which only benefits a minuscule percentage of women in any society yet which gets most coverage in the capitalist media.

In Albania it was the women from the working class and peasantry whose lives were changed beyond recognition. In a patriarchal society where women were oppressed by virtual feudal social and economic conditions, as well as by the stultifying traditions of the church (of various trends) by the taking up of the gun during the war for national liberation against the Italian and German Fascist invaders they stated unequivocally that they would no longer ‘live in the old way’.

In many of the extent monuments to the struggles of the past a woman takes a central position and virtually always with a weapon in hand. Albanian women weren’t prepared to have ‘freedom’ given to them, they would fight for it themselves, freedom that would have real meaning. The clearest example of this idea can be seen in the huge mosaic on the façade of the National Historical Museum in Skanderbreu Square in the centre of Tirana.

The woman depicted in the dirty shambles of the rear of the Art Gallery (in bronze) is of Liri Gero and exudes confidence in her own ability, looks the viewer straight in the eye (not looking down as ‘traditional’ society would have her do), has a gun strapped to her back and clutches a small bunch of flowers in her left hand. Communists fight for bread but for roses too!

Female Liberation Fighter clutching flowers

Female Liberation Fighter clutching flowers

The smallest of the collection depicts a male fighter (also in bronze) from one of the ethnic groups from the mountains of Albania demonstrating that the fight for freedom is not restricted to the ‘sophisticated’ city dwellers or a self-selected intellectual elite but should involve everyone from all sectors and strata of society.

Another of the statues is a physical representation of one of the fundamentals of Albanian Socialist society, the Pickaxe and Rifle (H Dule, 1966, Bronze). Here we have a male holding a rifle, the butt resting on the ground, in his left hand whilst in his right he holds high a pickaxe. These two items are the equivalent of the Soviet Hammer and Sickle. Whereas in the Soviet Union the symbol represented the unity of the industrial worker and the peasant the Albanian Pickaxe and Rifle declares that the successful construction of a Socialist society depends upon physical labour protected by the determination of the population to defend any gains by force of arms.

The fact that far too many Albanians forgot this necessity during the counter-revolution of the early 1990s (and then seemed to lose all common sense in the chaotic years that followed, basically throwing out the baby with the bath water) doesn’t detract from the validity of this revolutionary concept.

JV Stalin - Skenderberg Square, Tirana

JV Stalin – Skenderberg Square, Tirana

Finally we have the statues of JV Stalin and VI Lenin, the great Marxist Russian leaders so admired by the Albanian leader Enver Hoxha. I’ve already mentioned the damaged statue of Lenin. This statue, along with one of Uncle Joe, was covered by a tarpaulin just prior to the 100th anniversary of Albanian ‘independence’ in November 2012. They have now been released from their dark penance but they have been joined by another new comrade who is, presently, covered with a white tarpaulin. I have been told that this is a damaged bust of Enver Hoxha.

The hidden stranger

The hidden stranger

I was pleasantly surprised on my visit in October 2014 to find that there had been a new arrival to the small, select group. This was another, but somewhat larger, statue of Stalin. The ‘new’ arrival is in a less formal stance, without cap and is depicted as if greeting the viewer with his right arm stretched out. This is made out of bronze and, as yet, I’ve not been able to discover from where it has come. It’s exactly the same as a statue that was placed in the oil and industrial town of Qender Stalin (now renamed Korcova, not that far from Berat) but the there statue was made from concrete, and unlikely to have survived the chaos of the 1990s.

The original design was by Odhise Pashkali (whose other works number the statue of Skanderbreu on the horse in the square to which he gives his name in the centre of Tirana, as well as another of the national (long time in the past) hero in the National Museum, this time not providing a burden to a poor animal but standing on his own two feet).

Perhaps one down side of a new Joe arriving is that the female fighter has been moved to make way for the Man of Steel and is now facing the other statues, with her back to the Art Gallery. Is this yet another example of the return of a patriarchal society or is it, the reverse, that the female fighter is going to give a lesson to the men?

If I will ever be able to find out more details of these statues, i.e., who was the sculptor, where they originally stood, how they survived the counter-revolution and why they ended up in the shadows of the National Art Gallery remains to be seen.

One slight difficulty that has arisen since my last visit a couple of years ago is the presence of a ‘security’ guard who has to be circumvented in order to get a close view of the statues. Why he is so conscientious in this I don’t understand. If the authorities don’t want anyone to see them why place them out in the open? However, he can only be in one place at a time and when he is watching the world go by at the southern end of the gallery grounds, just creep towards the north.

1st October – Declaration of the People’s Republic of China

Mao Tse-tung October 1949

Mao Tse-tung October 1949

In the autumn of 1949, in front of thousands of people in Tienanmen Square, Mao Tse-Tung, Chairman of the Communist Party of China stood on the podium over the Gate of Heavenly Peace (which gives its name to the square) and made a short speech which was to see the country follow a road for which millions had fought and died during the majority of the first half of the 20th century. The date was 1st October, the speech, the Declaration of the People’s Republic of China.

After a bloody war against the Japanese invaders and then an equally bloody civil conflict against the United States supported Nationalist forces of the Kuomintang, under the leadership of Chiang Kai-shek, the Chinese people had, as Mao declared a number of times during that period, ‘stood up’.

No longer would the Chinese people be treated as slaves for the invading powers; no longer would imperialist powers (both minor and major) treat China as a country they could do with as they liked; no longer would the people kowtow to the Emperors who ensconced themselves in the palace at his back; no longer would the workers and peasants live in abject poverty whilst the wealth of their country was being enjoyed elsewhere; no longer would peasants be abused by avaricious and cruel landlords; no longer would the fate of poor Chinese women be that of concubines or prostitutes; no longer would it be necessary for Chinese families to migrate and face racism and humiliation in far off countries in efforts to achieve a better standard of living.

Although there were still pockets of Nationalist opposition at the time of the declaration the new government set about challenging and changing what had become the lot of the majority of the Chinese people.

As had happened immediately after the Russian Revolution, another country with a peasant majority, one of the first tasks was to take the land from the landlords and distribute it amongst the peasants who worked the land.

Laws were passed to free women from the shackles of feudalism and patriarchy, where they were often treated as no more than chattel; education that had been denied to all but a privileged few was to be made universal; health care was to be made free for all and care of the elderly was to be an obligation of the State. This was the start of the era of the ‘iron rice bowl’, when State employees (which encompassed most workers in the cities as industry as well as ‘white collar’ jobs were all part of the nationalised structure) were guaranteed a job for life and access to the other welfare benefits.

But the construction of socialism is not easy. Within a year of the declaration of the People’s Republic thousands of Chinese volunteers went off, yet again, to war, this time to prevent the United Nations troops from intervening in North Korea.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s different movements sought to learn from some of the mistakes made in the Soviet Union culminating in the Great Socialist Cultural Revolution that started in 1966. Although these mass political movements sought to prevent the restoration of capitalism in China a very short time after the death of Chairman Mao in September 1976 those who had been denounced during the Cultural Revolution had engineered a successful coup against the revolutionaries and started to dismantle all those advances in the construction of socialism that so many had fought for after Mao’s declaration on October 1st 1949.

(Why they were able to do so, and in such a short space of time is an issue that Marxist-Leninists-Maoists need – at some time in the future – to analyse and try to understand.)

The 38 years since the death of the Chairman have not been good for China. In agriculture the communes and collective farms have been broken up and privatised – although not without resistance as news leaks out of countless battles between farmers and the security forces.

Because there is no work in the countryside the whole demographic of the country is changing. Young people leave the villages to find work in the Special Economic Zones where they work in the factories to produce all the consumer goods that working people in the west buy with money they don’t have. Any family life is more or less destroyed as children remain in the villages with their grandparents and only see their parents twice a year – at Chinese New Year and during the National Holiday which is celebrated at this moment, the beginning of October. (There used to be a third occasion, the May Day holiday, but that was reduced to a couple of days in 2007, too short a time for people to make the long journeys necessary to travel to their home towns.)

Industries have been privatised and State enterprises broken up and organised in a way no different from what exists under capitalism. The once proud People’s Liberation Army, set up under the principal of ‘serving the people’ has transformed itself into an oppressor of the people and generals and other high officials have gorged themselves at the trough of the people’s wealth.

Millionaires and billionaires abound and now the biggest market for luxury goods in the world is now the ‘People’s’ Republic of China, but a republic that is in the hands of the people in name only and led by renegades who besmirch the achievements of the once glorious Communist Party of China.

The Chinese people, in the main, have accepted these changes. They now have ‘things’, consumer goods which were in short supply in the early years of the Republic. But these ‘things’ have been ‘gained’ at a price. The ‘iron rice bowl’ has been smashed to smithereens; education is being privatised, as is health; the once independent country that ‘stood up’ in 1949 is now allowing itself to be controlled and influenced by the very same countries that spent the first part of the 20th century trying to destroy and humiliate the Chinese people in general; and – in some ways even more disgraceful – China is turning into an imperialist power and exploiting and using its military strength to oppress people in other countries, especially a number of countries in Africa.

Why the Chinese people have allowed this happen I don’t know. But then I don’t understand why this situation has been allowed to develop in a number of other countries where, at one time, the people had ‘stood up’, proud, independent and with a perspective on the future that wasn’t based on exploitation and oppression.

So if 65 years ago there was a sense of optimism at the time of Chairman Mao’s declaration what are the main subjects presented in the current edition of Beijing Review, the long-established foreign language publication of the People’s Republic?

A boasting of the level of Outbound Direct Investment; a celebration of the floatation of the e-commerce company Alibaba on the New York Stock Exchange in September, the largest amount of trading in one company in one day ever; a call for more private (read foreign) capital investment in China’s oil, natural gas, banking and railway enterprises; boasts about the unsustainable rates of growth in China outstripping those of the United States by factors of 5 or 6; and boasts of how the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of China will soon overtake that of the US and become the biggest in the world.

But this all comes at a price. And that price is always paid by the poorest in society. They can either accept it or pick up the baton that was carried by the Maoist Communist Party of China for many years but which has been dropped and trampled in the dust.

The people of China are yet again on their knees. How long will it be before a future leader stands over the Gate of Heavenly Peace and pronounce such inspiring words as the Chairman did on Saturday 1st October 1949?