Socialist Albania was a colourful place in its time. Banners would decorate cities on anniversaries of important occasions, such as the Day of Liberation from Fascism, and when conferences and congresses were taking place banners and posters would celebrate these events. Slogans, often quotes from Marxist-Leninist leaders, would call upon the people to work to build Socialism in opposition to a hostile world surrounding the small Balkan country. Many of these symbols of the building of a new society were temporary and would be replaced when another anniversary arose or a different meeting was taking place. However, there were a number of more permanent works of art transmitting this message and one of them is the bas-relief over the main entrance to the local Kukesi Radio Station in the eastern town of Kukes.
(Such decorations would be branded and dismissed as ‘propaganda’ in capitalist countries. They don’t seem to accept or recognise that the advertising hoardings and the signs that abound in city streets to encourage people to buy – often things they don’t really need and often with money they don’t really have – are that social system’s propaganda tools to ‘sell’ the consumer society that is a fundamental of the capitalist system.)
As with many socialist realist artistic creations there is a common theme running through them so images appear again and again with the slight change being determined by the context. Here the central figure is of a worker marching forward. He is dressed in his working clothes with his jacket loose and flowing behind him as he goes forward.
He is the personification of Albania as it confidently marches forward to a new future. He is fit and healthy and the muscles show on his bare arms. And he needs to be fit as he is carrying a flag pole to which is attached a large national flag – the red flag in the centre of which is a black double-headed eagle with a golden star above the two heads.
This flag is held high, over his right shoulder, with his right arm, slightly bent, as he grips the pole at the point where it meets the flag. His left hand is holding the bottom of the pole, the left arm being bent at 90 degrees across his chest. In this way he keeps the banner steady as it gets taken by the wind and streams out, from left to right, above his head.
So here we have Socialism, especially Socialist Albania, with the workers being the only class that can take society forward to a new society.
The bulk of the rest of the image puts this into the specific context of the radio station. In the top left hand corner there’s a large five-pointed star, the two right hand points being obscured by the body of the worker and the flag. From this star radiate the lines and the concentric circles that have been the international symbol of radio since the very first days.
To complete the original work the words ‘Radio Kukesi’ appear in stone, spanning the whole of the narrow edge of the rectangle which holds the bas-relief. It’s also good that those who have been in charge of the decoration of the building have expanded the idea of radio waves continuing to go outwards, with green arcs on a red background, getting gradually longer and thicker, as they move away from the bas-relief.
Originally we would have had the idea not only that the building is a radio station but also the idea that this is Communist truth that is being broadcast. Again, this would be called propaganda by the capitalist and imperialist countries something which they never broadcast, all news in their media being entirely balanced, objective and having no political context whatsoever.
And here, coincidently, we have an example where the different post-Socialist governments (which one exactly I don’t know) since 1990 have used art to distort the truth. Or better to say have distorted the original message by changing the elements on show.
If you look at the top left hand corner you’ll see that there’s a solid star within the bigger star. This seems strange and really you have to ask yourself why would the original artist would have included something redundant when it breaks up the clean and flowing lines of the rest of the bas-relief.
The answer is that this second star hides what was originally in the central circle of the main star.
It’s not immediately clear, and almost impossible to see with the naked eye from street level, but here there are the remains of two elements that were very important in Albanian Socialist iconography. Peaking out on the left hand side of the top point of this new star is the end of a rifle barrel. Needing a little bit more imagination, but obvious when you know what to look for, on the right hand side of this point you can see the end of the cutting edge of a pickaxe.
This is in reference to the revolutionary slogan of the Party of Labour of Albania, which was: ‘To build Socialism holding a pickaxe in one hand and a rifle in the other.’ This means that Socialism can/could only be built by the efforts of the workers through their labour but any advances would have to be defended by the gun if necessary. (This symbol is more evident on the neglected, but still existent, emblem over the erstwhile Party HQ in Peshkopia.)
This particular act of vandalism was done with some forethought, the texture of the new star in some ways mirroring that of the flag. A work that was done through ignorance but not with a total lack of intelligence.
(Reactionary attempts to alter history can, perhaps, be better understood if you consider the monstrosities that go under the name of art that have been placed in public spaces in Tirana (especially) in recent years or the travesty that seeks to honour a young female partisan, Liri Gero, in the town of Fier.)
I don’t know why the new capitalists in Albania do this, appropriating the past but in a vandalised form. Probably because they lack the imagination to put a real artistic alternative in its place. The problem for capitalism is that it cannot put symbols of its political position on such public display as it would only serve to remind the majority of people that they are missing out on something. And there’s only so many times you can place a Coca-cola bottle in such a location before even fans of the poisonous concoction get fed up.
This sort of vandalism is not unknown in ‘free’, capitalist Albania. The most glaring, and most criminal, example is the way the mosaic on the façade of the National Historical Museum has had part of its political message torn from view. That act of political, state sponsored vandalism only being surpassed by the present criminal neglect that sees more and more holes in, and damage to, the mosaic as time goes on.
Individual, mindless vandalism also take place and one example that springs to mind is the way that the name ‘Enver’ (from Enver Hoxha, the leader of the Party of Labour of Albania from its inception till his death in 1985) had been (partially) scratched away from the book in the arms of the young girl in the Bestrove mosaic, just outside the port town of Vlora.
I’d prefer that these examples of Socialist Realist Art were totally destroyed (as were the statues of Enver Hoxha) rather than the ‘new’ old capitalist society appropriating it for its own ‘benefit’. I believe that Albania has some wonderful examples of a new and vibrant art form that will be further developed in the future, if not first in Albania in some other country. But this new art form, and movement, can only benefit the working class when it’s in a position of power, without that power these images are devoid of meaning.
For reasons that are far too complex to go in to here Socialism in Albania failed because of a number of fundamental mistakes, similar but equally disastrous mistakes being also made in the Soviet Union, China and Vietnam. When that study is completed the role that art played in the past will be an important component in understanding those mistakes of the past to avoid making them again in the future.
Unfortunately, as is often the case, I don’t know exactly when this bas-relief was created or by whom. I only hope that the creator was not the one who vandalised his own work (as was the case in the mosaic in Tirana).
The Radio Station is at the bottom end of Rruga Dituria, the main street which leads to the bus station and the principal entrance of the town from the north and east.
N 42º 04.704
E 20º 25.048