Monument to the Partisan – Tirana

Monument to the Partisan - Tirana

Monument to the Partisan – Tirana

More on Albania …..

Monument to the Partisan – Tirana

The ‘Monument to the Partisan’, the work of sculptor Andrea Mano, was created in 1949. It is one of the oldest lapidars in Albania created in the Socialist period and is the monument that has survived (relatively undamaged) the longest in its original location.

The monument consists of a larger than life size figure of a Communist Partisan in full uniform and fully armed. He’s depicted running forward, the element of speed being indicated by the right edge of his jacket flapping in the wind. In his left hand he carries a rifle (his hand is gripped around the barrel in front of the trigger mechanism) but his arm is fully extended downwards so it’s not ready to be used – this rush of his is not to join the battle but to join the celebration of the victory.

His right arm is raised above his head, slightly bent so his hand is pointing behind him but the fist is clenched. This is a visual representation of ‘We have done it’, and a sight that is quite common in present day sporting events. His mouth is wide open and so we know he is shouting but to whom and what we do not know. However, we are given a clue to the event by the inscription – and also the actual location of the statue.

For it was in this area of Tirana, on 17th November 1944, where the last remnants of the Nazi invaders were either killed or surrendered to the Partisan army.

Bukurosh Sejdini - 17 November 1944 - 1957

Bukurosh Sejdini – 17 November 1944 – 1957

He’s not a particularly young man and might be an officer, his uniform is quite smart and over his left shoulder is a strap to which is attached a satchel – which rests on his right hip. However, he doesn’t have a pistol – a normal sign of an officer. (It might be worth commenting here that although the Partisan force was very much a Communist organisation, organised along Communist lines, there still existed a hierarchy of officers and ‘men’ – although a huge percentage of the ‘men’ were female.) On a belt around his waist are a number of pouches with reserve ammunition.

It’s difficult to see (without climbing up the plinth) exactly what he has on his feet but it appears to be the more traditional Albanian footwear than an otherwise more usual heavy boot of the majority of the armies fighting in the Second World War.

However, what we can be certain of is his political allegiance. On the front of his cap can be seen the star and around his neck a scarf, both of which would have been red in actuality. This partisan is a Communist. Perhaps, as his political status is clear – and would have been to all who knew this statue at the time of the reactionary uprising of 1990 – I’m slightly surprised he didn’t suffer any serious vandalism.

The statue of Enver Hoxha, which was pulled down on 20th February 1991, was only a few minutes walk from where the Partisan still stands and it wouldn’t have been too much of a surprise if some neo-fascist (having pulled itself from its hiding hole) hadn’t tried to damage a representation of Communist success. At the same time all the failings in Albanian society were being placed on Enver’s shoulders and personalising matters was a useful tactic for both the reactionaries and those in the higher leadership of the Party of Labour of Albania.

I’m afraid I’m not a big fan of this statue – and didn’t really like it when I first saw it just under nine years ago. At the time I thought he looked too angry – but not in a good way. That was before I fully realised what the statue represented – which was the liberation of Tirana and the soon to be victory of the Partisans over the fascist invaders.

However, it is still important in that it was one of the very first lapidars to be installed in the country – and the first one that attempted to tell the story of the National Liberation War (the earlier statues were of Joseph Stalin).

Bas reliefs

On either side of the statue, on the plinth, there are two bas reliefs. They are not in a particularly good condition and are showing the signs of wear but through time rather than any vandalism. Nonetheless they play an important role in the history of Albanian lapidars as they start to establish artistic ‘tropes’ which were emulated, with various adaptations, by later Albanian sculptors.

Monument to the Partisan - Bas relief 1

Monument to the Partisan – Bas relief 1

The one on the right of the monument as you look face on to the Partisan (i.e., on the left of the statue itself) depicts a small squad of Partisans – in this case seven – in the middle of a battle. However, the juxtaposition of the figures seem to represent more than one event.

The backdrop to the scene is the Communist flag. This is a red flag upon which, in the centre, is a black, double-headed eagle. This symbol was taken from the emblem used by Skenderbeu in the nationalist battle against the Ottoman’s in the 15th century. It was brought into the 20th century with the addition of a gold, five pointed star, which sits exactly in the central space between the two heads. This flag was later adopted as the national flag of Albania after the defeat of the fascists on 29th November 1944. (The present national flag has exactly the same arrangement but without the gold star.)

The principal figure in this panel is a full length, left profile of a Partisan officer. He’s in a full partisan uniform, military jacket and trousers, with the jacket unbuttoned and the left edge being pulled away from his body by the action of his raised left arm. As is usual we know he’s a Communist as there’s a star on his cap – but he doesn’t have a scarf around his neck.

Hanging from his left shoulder, and going across his chest, is an ammunition belt. We can see three clips with five bullets each which are for the rifle he holds in his right hand. We can’t see it but his right arm is fully extended downwards and he must be holding the rifle around the trigger mechanism as we only see the spurting end of the barrel and a small piece of the strap attached to the wooden stock.

The rifle could be a Delaunay-Belleville Model 1907-15 (there’s an example of it in the National Historical Museum (National Liberation War room) in Tirana). The company was a luxury car maker before the First World War but went into war production after 1914. The fact that the Partisans used, in the main, either such old weapons or those they took off the fascist invaders (first Italian and the German) gives an indication of the nature of the force that destroyed Nazism in Albania – using anything and everything to defeat the invaders.

On the belt around his waist there’s a pistol holster thus indicating his officer status (as mentioned above when talking about the statue). His left arm is raised fully above his head and his partially open hand is indicating for all those behind him to come forward for battle.

Finally for this figure we can see that although in full military uniform he is wearing opinga on his feet – the traditional Albanian shoe with a distinctive turned up nodule at the toe.

Above the left shoulder of this officer we can see two partial faces of two male Partisans. Neither is wearing a cap. The figure at the back is the standard bearer as we can see his right hand gripping the flag pole just beneath where the material is attached to the pole. The other figure has a gun raised closed to his face as if he is aiming. Part of the gun is seen running parallel to the top of the officer’s shoulder and the end of the barrel appears behind his face, at the level of his mouth.

This could be a Bereta, 1938, 9mm calibre, automatic rifle. Again there’s one of those in a glass case in the Tirana National History Museum, just in front of the impressive ‘Death to Fascism’ mural. This would more than likely have been taken off a dead Italian invader earlier in the campaign.

The Partisan with the automatic rifle seems to be wearing the traditional trousers called tirq, which don’t quite extend to the ankle and are split the last few inches. He also appears to be barefooted.

Behind of, and seen below the raised arm of, the officer is a female fighter – the first of two on this panel. Her face is in profile, she has long hair (tied up) and she appears to be wearing a cap and I think there’s a hint of a star on the front of the cap. (The problem here is that wear and tear makes some of the detail difficult to make out.) She’s dressed in military uniform but all we can see is an ammunition clip (the same sort as we saw on the officer’s belt) at her waist. We can’t see anything else of her as she’s hidden by the other figures but we have to assume that she too is armed.

The next part I don’t fully understand. This is, if you like, a tableau within a tableau and is reminiscent of the sculpture in Permët Martyrs’ Cemetery called ‘Shoket – Comrades’ by Odhise Paskali.

In the centre is a male figure who has obviously recently been seriously injured as he is slumped backwards although still (just) on his feet. He is depicted as if he were crumbling, without the strength to stand up by himself. Both his knees are bent and his body is so close to the ground his left hand almost touches the earth. The reason he is not on the ground is that another of his comrades has his hands linked so that he provides a supportive loop around the body of his wounded comrade’s waist. The other reason the wounded Partisan is not on the ground is that a female fighter has her left hand gripping his left arm, high up by the armpit and we have to assume her other hand, unseen, is supporting him on his right side.

There is no evidence of any weapons for the two males and it’s difficult to make out exactly how they are dressed. They appear to be in uniform but the male really struggling to keep his comrade from falling down has the sleeves of his shirt rolled up to the elbow. Again strangely, for me, he is also looking forward, in the direction of the advance rather than looking down at his comrade.

There’s also a difference in what they are wearing on their feet. The wounded man is wearing the opinga whilst the ‘healthy’ fighter has the more recognisable military boot.

The female Partisan is the only one we see in full face. In supporting the fallen soldier she has turned so that she is the only one not looking in the direction of the battle, whether taking place or about to start – although the injured Partisan indicates that bullets have already started to fly. She is also in full uniform, seems to be wearing boots but not a cap to cover her long hair. There are two straps coming from both her shoulders across her chest, one of which supports a bulging satchel resting on her left hip the other on the end of which is a huge rifle (almost like a cannon) the end of the barrel of which points to the edge of the panel.

What I don’t understand here is why are they supporting him in the middle of an attack. The bulging satchel indicates she might be a medic but the big rifle indicates she’s definitely a fighter and not a non-combatant. Are they, perhaps, taking the wounded man away from the action but if so, again, why? Yes you want to look after your fallen and injured comrades but if the two carrying the wounded man are also combatants then three, and not just one, fighter is being taken out of the fight at a crucial time. Perhaps he represents the last to die in the liberation of Tirana and only days away from the liberation of the whole country. Whatever the idea it’s a bit of a mystery to me – and something I’ve not come across elsewhere, as far as I can remember.

Finally we have more of a silhouette than a bas-relief. Between these last male and the female, and just above the body of the falling man, is the shape of another male Partisan. Again the figure is in left profile and appears to be in uniform, including a cap. But further than that it’s difficult to say.

Monument to the Partisan - Bas relief 2

Monument to the Partisan – Bas relief 2

If the story in the first bas relief is, at times, difficult to follow the second one is much more basic and straightforward. Here we also have seven partisans (this time all male) in a full on attack. Here no one is holding back and it’s full of action.

All seem to be in full Partisan uniform. Half of them have caps, with signs of the red star, but half do not.

Mallakaster Partisans - possibly 1943

Mallakaster Partisans – possibly 1943

(Here it might be worthwhile to say that before the beginning of the organised Partisan onslaught against the Italian invaders, following the Peze Conference of 16th September 1942, the Albanian forces were more of a guerrilla force. Their tactics were very much that of hit and run – and they were very successful at that even before the Conference. However, the Conference gave structure to the struggle and as part of that uniforms started to become more common. Whether that brings with it certain negatives is a debate for another time but what it did lead to was a more organised opposition and by the time of the liberation of Tirana, on 17th November 1944, most of the troops that entered the city would have been in uniform.)

At the front we have two Partisans, one kneeling one standing, both with their rifles on their shoulders and they are firing whilst looking through the sights. Those two are heavily armed, both have extra ammunition on their belts and the one who is kneeling has a pistol holster on his right hip.

Behind them, also standing and firing with his rifle at his shoulder, is another Partisan. Again heavily armed but this time with a grenade attached to his belt. This is, in fact, a Mills bomb, a British made grenade. This is the grenade that looks like a very small (yet lethal) pineapple. The end of the barrel of his rifle pokes out behind the standing marksman in the front rank.

As the British weren’t fighting the Nazis in mainland Europe until June 1944 – whilst the Albanian Communists had been fighting them for almost two years – the Partisans were more than happy to take any weapons that came their way. Consignments of Mills bombs were part of that ‘support’. The problem was that the British thought that by providing such assistance they had the right to determine what sort of society should be developed in Albania after the end of hostilities. The Albanians didn’t agree and had to endure decades of attempts by the British imperialists to subvert Albanian Socialism.

We only see part of the head of the next fighter so we can only speculate what he is doing, but probably the same as the first three.

The next figure is the most dynamic of the lot. The strap across his chest is for his rifle and the top of the barrel can be seen over his left shoulder. He is leaning back and his right arm is slightly bent but extended behind him. In his hand he holds a Mills bomb and his stance is one that will give his body the greatest chance of throwing the grenade with the greatest force to where he wants it to land. To make sure he is steady he has his legs wide apart giving extra stability as well as more force for his throw. As on the other panel there is a variation in the clothing and this ‘grenadier’ is wearing traditional tirq trousers (short of the ankle and split at the bottoms) as well as wearing the opinga. He is also the only one with his mouth open – announcing to the Nazis what they could expect from his British present.

Although he doesn’t wear a cap he has a scarf around his neck indicating, yet again, that he is a Communist. Always, on Albanian lapidars, the star and scarf, both of which would have been red, indicate a Communist. Although not all Partisans were Communists they were the majority in the National Liberation Front.

The next figure is also rushing forward, indicated be the bottom edge of his jacket being thrown back in his haste. This allows us to see that he, too, has extra rifle ammunition clips (two) on his belt. But he’s not seen with a rifle but with another grenade.

However, this is not one ‘kindly donated’ by the British, this one is a present he is returning to the original owners as this is a German made stick grenade. He isn’t ready to throw yet so he just grips it tightly in his right hand, his arm extended downwards. The advantage the stick grenade had over the British version (unless the thrower was good at cricket) was that the long stick provided a lever motion and so increased the distance thrown. However, its size went against it as less could be carried. But here we are shown that the Partisans used weapons from all sources, none being rejected.

Finally, and barely discernible, behind the two grenadiers is part of the head of another male Partisan. The star can be made out on his cap but there’s little else that can be said about him.

Establishing the artistic ‘tropes’

The ‘Monument to the Partisan’ was, as I’ve already said, the very first true sculptural lapidar. The sculptor, Andrea Mano, also spent a great deal of his working life teaching his art – first in a High School and then at the finest Art School in the country, the University of Arts in Tirana (from 1954-1982) – and therefore coming into contact with the young and upcoming, post-Liberation trained sculptors. So there’s no real surprise that some of the images he used in his early work re-appeared in an often more sophisticated manner.

Those artistic ‘tropes’ I think can be seen in this monument are;

the raised arm, often with the individual looking in the opposite direction to where the action was taking place, signalling for those unseen in the work of art to come and join the fight, battle or general struggle. This can be seen in the Arch of Drashovicë,

armed women, of all ages. If the lapidar (be it a sculpture, bas relief or mosaic) is telling a story of armed conflict then the women (if not all the men) will be armed. This references the fact that if women want true liberation they will have to be prepared to take arms to achieve and/or retain those gains. This can be seen in ‘The Albanians’ mosaic on the facade of the National Historical Museum in Tirana, the Martyrs’ Cemetery in Lushnjë and the statue of Liri Gero, in the ‘Sculpture Park’ behind the National Art Gallery in Tirana.

the footwear telling a story. The traditional opinga mixing with the European boot (indicating the changing culture as well as a connection with the past), or even sometimes individuals will be barefooted, referencing the extreme poverty of a huge part of the population, yet still prepared to fight for freedom and liberation from oppression.

images of traditional clothing. This is similar to the issue with the footwear but from a slightly different angel. Clothing would indicate from which part of the country an individual might call home. This was in an effort to indicate to the viewer that the revolution, and the war against the invader, was something that involved all of the country, with its different ethnic groups. This also helped to show that the struggles involved men and women of all ages, with the older perhaps still hanging on to the traditional when it came to dress but prepared to fight together with the young with more modern ideas of fashion.

its quite interesting to see how often the clothing being shown as if it has been caught in the wind so as to give the impression of speed, especially when rushing to a battle. This was often seen in conjunction with ‘the hand calling to action’ motif.

Although I wouldn’t go as far as to say that visiting the ‘Monument to the Partisan’ will mean you have seen all that the lapidars have to offer but it would be a good place to start to compare with any you might encounter in other parts of the country.

Inscription

Plaque on the Monument to the Partisan

Plaque on the Monument to the Partisan

If you look at the picture at the very top of this post you will notice the inscription (although the same wording) is different from what is in place today. I have no information about when the old, stand alone metal letters and numbers might have been removed. It might have been political vandalism at some time in the 1990s or it might have been simple theft – all societies will always have scumbags who will steal the smallest items for a minor profit – in the past, the present and the foreseeable future.

Whatever the fate of the inscription what is noticeable is that the star did not reappear on the replacement marble plaque. I have seen it in other locations, where a carved star will be at the top of the new plaque but not here. (I’ll have to write a post one day bringing together the fate of the ‘Communist Star’ in Albanian lapidars.) Here it might be enough to just say that for the reactionaries in Albania the Red Star is second only in the hate league table to Enver Hoxha. But as Chairman Mao said ‘To be attacked by the enemy is not a bad thing but a good thing’.

The wording on the front of the monument, originally and at present is

in Albanian;

Populli i Tiranës partizanëve të rënë për çlirimin e kryeqytetit 28/X–17/XI/1944

which translates as;

The People of Tirana to the Partisans who fell during the Liberation of the capital, 28th October to 17th November 1944

Sculptor

Andrea Mano (1919-2000) was a pre-liberation sculptor, in the sense that he was born in 1919 and followed his education in Italy – before the Italians decided to invade Albania on 7th April 1939 as part of the Fascist plan to take control of Europe. That would seem to indicate he came from a relatively privileged background. He returned to Albania in 1942. I have no information whether he took an active part in the National Liberation War – or not. He couldn’t have been all that bad as, in 1946, he was given a scholarship to study in Zagreb, Yugoslavia – before Tito decided that he could take the country on a road to ‘Socialism’ different from that of the one indicated by Marxism-Leninism. This meant Mano had to return to Albania in 1948 and that must have been when he was awarded the commission for the Partisan Monument.

He was involved (together with Odhise Paskali and Janaq Paço) in the major sculpture of the equestrian Skanderbeu, which was installed in the central square in Tirana which bears his name in 1968 – the 500th anniversary of his death. In the process ousting the Soviet made statue of Joseph Stalin to a little bit down the road.

He was also one of the sculptors responsible for ‘The Four Heroines of Mirdita’ (1970) – together with Fuat Dushku, Perikli Çuli and Dhimo Gogollari. Tragically this amazing structure was one of the first victims of the reaction and was destroyed in 1993.

Four Heroines of Mirdita, Rreshen

Four Heroines of Mirdita, Rreshen

Although he produced smaller works that have been displayed in the National Art Gallery in Tirana he seems to have devoted most of his time to the teaching of his craft.

Location

Sheshi Sulejman Pasha

Tirana

This square is behind the building that houses the Opera House and the National Library and also where the buses leave to go to the airport and those that will take you to the cable car of Dajti.

(This is just beside Rruga George W Bush – which makes me almost want to vomit to type the words. There’s even a statue to ‘GW’ in Fushe Krujë, can you believe it?)

GPS

41.32813901

19.82198697

DMS

41° 19′ 41.3004” N

19° 49′ 19.1531” E

Altitude

113.1m

More on Albania …..

Death to Fascism Mural in the National Historical Museum, Tirana

The complete mural

The complete mural

More on Albania ……

Death to Fascism Mural in the National Historical Museum, Tirana

The mural that covers the whole of one wall in the room of the National Historical Museum in Tirana that’s devoted to the War of Liberation against the invading fascists of 1939 to 1944 is one of the few which can still be appreciated at leisure by any visitor. There’s another which can be seen, but not fully understood, as it’s in a room which is undergoing renovation at the moment. Whether it will be covered in some way as part of this renovation is unknown – but hopefully not.

Since the end of the 1990s, when relative stability was regained in the country, various Albanian governments of various colours have sought to slowly but surely eradicate the period of the construction of Socialism, from 1944 to 1990, as if it had never existed. Those of the neo-fascist right (some of whom were even members of the Party of Labour of Albania for many years but changed their allegiance once the opportunity presented itself – therefore justifying the idea of Joseph Stalin that the Party constantly needs to purge itself of opportunist elements) want the past eradicated so that their names cannot be associated with those actions and tactics which they now deny.

Those of the opportunist now social-democratic ‘left’ don’t want to show themselves in their true colours, offering ‘easy’ options to difficult problems and denying that the efforts to construct a wholly new world order had any value whatsoever. They look for comfort in the ‘tinkering’ of the system as they are totally inadequate in the task of substantially changing society forever. Efforts by those who have tried to do so in the past – whatever the failings and the mistakes that might have been made – only show them up for the weak and cowardly opportunists that they are.

Capitalism has, in the last hundred years, constantly criticised Socialist states of ‘re-writing history’. This is not the place to argue the truth of such accusations but what is certain is that this ‘holier than thou’ approach is mainly used as a smokescreen for the oppressive and exploitative system to justify the way it has, still does and will until the days it is destroyed forever, interpreted history in a manner which portrays capitalism and imperialism as the only possible system that can exist throughout the world – despite the innumerable crimes it has, still does and will commit in the future.

But back to the mural.

This one depicts images from the war against German Nazism. It does not pretend to be a view of a particular battle at a particular time and place. It’s more of a montage with images that attempt to record, in a visual manner, the struggle of the Communist-led Albanian Partisans against the Nazi invader.

It seeks to portray the Partisans as fearless and determined fighters who will do any and everything to rid their country of the invaders. In doing so the painter (and this has been repeated in an number of other places, both in paintings and in the sculptures of the Albanian lapidars) effectively has dehumanised the German soldiers.

This ‘dehumanisation’ is necessary to stress the difference between the moral authority of the Partisan fighters in resisting the invaders and the lack of such authority of the German forces who sought to dominate and enslave the Albanian population.

The depiction of the Nazis as no more than unprincipled and vicious animals also seeks to remind the Albanian people of the atrocities that were perpetrated by the invaders during their time in the country. In their frustration against their inability to defeat the Partisans (who carried out for the first part of the organised armed struggle after the formation of the National Liberation Front in Peze in 1942 a guerrilla war against first the Italian and then the German armies) the Germans carried out a total war which, among other things, involved such actions as the massacre and annihilation of the village and people of Borove after a particularly successful and stinging ambush carried out near-by.

The painting seeks to remind the viewer, in one relatively small space, of all of that and to value the sacrifice of those Partisans who gave their lives for the freedom of their country.

The fact that now, seemingly, the majority of the population of Albania don’t give a toss about that sacrifice is neither hear nor there. The reality of the struggle in Albania is that it was the Communist Partisans who liberated their country from the invaders without the assistance (other than material) of any external major ‘power’.

The mural tells that story by the use of images which can be seen in various lapidars throughout the country.

The armed, fighting, fearless, female, Communist Partisan

The armed, fighting, fearless, female, Communist Partisan

The principal and central character is a female Partisan. It is around her that all the action takes place. She’s physically the largest representation and in her image she tells a lot about the history of the success of the Albanians against the fascist invaders.

What I consider the most important aspect of the manner in which she has been portrayed is that she is armed, heavily. This is an aspect I have seen in visiting all those lapidars (monuments) and other art works produced during the Socialist period (from 1944-1990) – such as bas reliefs and mosaics – in that if a woman is represented in a military context she is always armed.

This can be seen in the wonderful mosaic (The Albanians) at the front of the very same building as well as in the Martyr’s Cemeteries in Lushnje and Fier, to name just a few.

Not only is this depiction of the female Partisan as an active armed fighter for the liberation of her country a recognition of the role that women played in the victory in Albania it also stresses what Mao Tse-tung expressed so succinctly ‘Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun’. True ‘female liberation’ will not be achieved until workers have freed themselves from oppression and exploitation and the system of patriarchy that has been strengthened and perpetuated under the economic system of capitalism. It won’t come naturally even then but will never happen unless this pre-requisite is achieved.

We don’t know if she’s the leader of this Partisan group but she’s in the vanguard of the attack and although she is moving forward she looks back to those behind and with her left arm she is signalling for others to hurry as the battle is being waged. The speed of her onward rush is captured by her cape, her long, black hair and her scarf which fly out behind her.

In her right hand she holds a light machine gun, she has a couple of stick grenades (captured from the enemy in a previous attack) tucked under the belt that holds ammunition pouches and there’s another ammunition belt across her chest. She’s also the only one of the Partisan fighters who wears what resembles a uniform.

The Communist calls for the attack

The Communist calls for the attack

We know she’s a Communist as she proudly displays the red star on her cap and the red scarf around her neck reinforces that declaration of political allegiance.

In fact the use of red in this painting is quite interesting. In general the palette used is quite mute but the bright red appears only from the dress and symbols of the Partisans – apart from a flash of flame from the machine gun being fired by the Partisan on the extreme right and the flames from the burning Nazi tank on the extreme left. Even the blood of the dead and dying Nazis is a dull, lacklustre red.

Traditional footwear in a modern war

Traditional footwear in a modern war

We also know she’s from the countryside, as most Partisans would have been at the time, by her footwear – sandals and the colourful woollen socks. This is in contrast to the heavy boots being worn by the Germans and even those of two of her male comrades.

Forward always

Forward always

To the right of the female Partisan is a young male. In his right hand, stretched out in front of him giving the impression of his rushing forward to join in the attack, is a rifle. His stance is of one who is fighting in mountainous terrain, with his right leg bent and his left stretched out behind him to give his forward movement more force. This is a stance that is very reminiscent of that of the Partisan statue on the Durres seafront.

But his role in the picture is not as a fighter but as a bearer of the symbol of the Albanian Partisans. He is the flag bearer and in his left hand flutters the rallying point of the Communists.

The Albanian Communist Banner

The Albanian Communist Banner

This is the red flag on which is the black, double-headed eagle with a gold, five pointed star embroidered above the two heads. This was to become the national flag of Albania after the declaration of Independence on 29th November 1944.

This would normally be of a brighter red – as the red stars on the caps and the red scarves – but I assume that the artist didn’t want to detract from their flashes of colour which a large expanse of red in the middle of the picture. So he has chosen more of a purple colour for the flag.

He knows where he's going

He knows where he’s going

Apart from him being responsible for the flag we also know his political allegiance, again, by the red scarf that’s around his neck.

Her red scarf, her sacrifice blood

Her red scarf, her sacrifice blood

Behind him, and slightly in the background, we are reminded that victory in anything, especially war, comes at a cost. And here we see the cost being paid by a young female Partisan who is shown at the time of death, her back arched as she is about to fall. We don’t see her face but we sense the pain as the bullet that kills her enters her body. She has no weapon but there is spare ammunition in her belt and her red scarf singles her out as a Communist.

Shooting down from the mountains

Shooting down from the mountains

The Partisan in the extreme right corner shows the extent of the population that joined the National Front against the fascist invaders. He is older, also from the countryside but here almost certainly from one of the mountainous regions of Albania.

He is also a Communist, with a red star on his fez, but in place of a scarf around his neck he has it wrapped around his hat. Typically at the time men from the mountains had moustaches and he sports a dark, black one.

A Communist peasant from the mountains

A Communist peasant from the mountains

He shows his physical strength by firing a moderately heavy machine gun but without the need of the normal tripod. His proximity to the dying woman also gives the impression of him taking revenge for the loss of a comrade. His machine gun spits fire and the bullets fall in a shower down by his feet.

The British contribution

The British contribution

It’s true that the British did supply the Communists Partisans with war material during the War of Liberation. They would rather have given the supplies to the Nationalist forces but 1) British representatives on the ground realised, and advised, that the Communist forces were the more effective and 2) the Nationalists eventually tried to pull the German Nazis out of the mire they had dug themselves into by attending a Quisling Assembly in 1944. The answer of the Communist Partisans was to drag a canon up the hills above Tirana and deliver a response to this traitorous act in the shape of a shell. It was exactly the same type of cannon that is seen, slightly in the background, in the centre of this painting.

A number of British died in Albania during the war and there’s now a small cemetery in Tirana Park – bizarrely using the old grave stone which was denied Enver Hoxha (when his remains were removed from the National Martyrs’ Cemetery and re-interred in the city cemetery at Kombinat) when the counter-revolutionaries gained control in the 1990s.

For some reason the British thought (whether it be the government of Churchill during the war or the government of Atlee after it) that because they had provided a few weapons they had the right to determine the future of the country. This led to Britain, in concert with the Americans, attempting to achieve ‘regime change’ before the term became popular. This included the aggression that was later referred to as the ‘Corfu Incident’.

They also constantly winged about their assistance not being recognised by the ‘ungrateful’ Communists. However, there are any number of paintings and sculptures where the Mills bomb (grenade) is depicted – to the best of my knowledge only, in that particular style, being produced by the British.

Bullets and sandals

Bullets and sandals

It’s strange when I think of it but as I’ve tried to understand the stories told by Albanian Socialist Realist paintings and sculpture I’ve learnt that the detail the artists have placed in their work when it comes to what people wear (or sometimes don’t wear – as in the great arch at Drashovice) can tell a great deal about the politics of the time. Here we have another example where the Partisan wears what he had worn from his youth – hand made shoes of his area and not the industrial production of western capitalist states. Probably made the fighting more comfortable.

Spitting fire and death

Spitting fire and death

Once you get to know Albania as a country you get to understand how hard it must have been – for both sides – to fight in such terrain. An incredibly beautiful country with its mountains and ravines are a different kettle of fish in a war situation. Now, obviously, war isn’t easy at any time but when you enter mountainous terrain into the equation it becomes even more difficult. Especially for the invader.

What the Americans, and the French before them, discovered later in Vietnam, the Italian and German Fascists discovered in Albania during then Second World War. Whatever material advantage you might have on paper it’s as nothing if you can’t dominate the terrain. The Albanian Partisans did in their country, the Vietminh did so in theirs.

And that fact of mountain fighting is represented in many works of Socialist Realist Art in Albania. As here the Partisan is firing down – into a valley, into a road during an ambush from a high point. The Partisans always controlled the high ground and that was one of the aspects of the Liberation War that ensured them success.

The battle continues in the background

The battle continues in the background

There are only a handful of ‘actors’ in the foreground to tell the story of the struggle but obviously there were many more involved and here they are depicted almost as ‘ghosts’ in the background – as can be seen in the previous couple of pictures.

The mountains are a protagonist

The mountains are a protagonist

Because the mountains of Albania played such a crucial role in the battle between the Partisans and the Fascists they are also often represented in works of art that tell the story of the struggle. Often, if it is of a particular battle it will be the mountains that would have been near-by and recognisable by the locals. These seem to be ‘generic’ mountains but they might have meant something to the artist.

Death to Nazism!

Death to Nazism!

Not all fighting in a war is at a distance and from time to time it comes to a hand to hand struggle. This is where we find the final, identifiable Partisan in the painting. Just to the left of the female Partisan we see a life and death struggle between another Communist Partisan and a Nazi soldier. We don’t see the face of the Partisan, just a glimpse of the side of his face, but we do see the Nazi. His eyes are wide open in horror as the Partisan has his left hand grasping his throat and in his right hand he has a dagger which is about to end the horror for the German soldier. This soldier is depicted almost as a demon, the human characteristics being erased from his features. This approach can also be seen on the lapidar at Berzhite.

Dead Nazis and dead Fascist Panzer Tank

Dead Nazis and dead Fascist Panzer Tank

Apart from a few ghostly and shadowy figures in the background the invader is confined to the extreme left of the painting and along the bottom, where their dead litter the ground.

The Nazi red is either flames or blood

The Nazi red is either flames or blood

Their tank is of no help, the flames leaping from the turret and the clouds of smoke indicating the crew are probably dead and unable to use the superior fire power. And anyway, in the terrain where the fighting took place in Albania tanks wouldn’t have been much use, the uneven ground and lack of any clear shots would have meant they did more damage to the mountain than the Partisans.

Those who are about to die ....

Those who are about to die ….

Those that are still alive and prepared to continue the fight are depicted as featureless, only the shapes of their faces in profile being seen. Here again the artist has stripped them of their humanity. They are killing machines so don’t merit individuality.

Faceless Nazis fighting for their lives

Faceless Nazis fighting for their lives

And in the case of one of them he is shown as no more than a shadow, a dark shape in the background.

The Nazi banner and the Nazi dead

The Nazi banner and the Nazi dead

Whereas the Communist banner flies high and proud the banner of the fascist invaders with its swastika symbol lies in the dirt, tattered and torn, the hand of a dead Nazi touching it reinforcing it as a symbol of death but one that itself is in the process of dying.

(The fact that this symbol is seeing a resurgence at the moment is down to a number of factors – amongst them being the betrayal of the Revisionists in those countries that had achieved the Socialist Revolution (including in Albania) and the failure of the working class in the industrialised countries to take power into their own hands. They might, some day, rue the consequences of their cowardice and pusillanimity as they suffer the death and destruction that accompanies fascism when it gains momentum.)

Arrogance pays its price

Arrogance pays its price

The remaining images of the invader are all of death. Fittingly the soldier that was so surprised of death knocking at his door that he has his mouth open is lying on the ground directly beneath the foot of the principal female Partisan.

The Iron Cross is no saviour against a Communist

The Iron Cross is no saviour against a Communist

And even the holder of an Iron Cross is no match for the onslaught of the Communist Partisans.

The Artist

Unfortunately I can’t say who is the artist of this mural. There’s no signature and I can’t definitively identify the artist by comparing his (there seem to have been few female artists whose work was displayed in museums and art galleries throughout Albania – I don’t know why that was the case) style with other paintings I might have seen.

However, I assume that it was created for the opening of the Museum in 1982.

More on Albania ……

Bus travel from Tirana to Istanbul

More on Albania ……

Bus travel from Tirana to Istanbul – with, hopefully, some practical information (including surviving the first couple of hours or so) and some observations

Leaving Tirana

The buses from Tirana leave from the International Bus Station (N 41.333204, E 19.801029) which is off Rruga Dritan Hoxha, the ‘new’ route to Durres. The bus station is slightly hidden behind the Palace of Sport/basket ball court, This is opposite the bus station that operates buses to the north of Albania. Though not absolutely necessary it would be wise to book in advance.

There’s no opportunity to exchange currency during the journey so, if possible, have a few Euros for food and drink at the Greek stop.

I didn’t know it until I left but there are two bus companies that have buses leaving at the same time – 12.00 every day (apart from Friday). The one I used was Alvavel/Alpar (https://www.alparturizm.com.tr/en/home), from kiosk 3 at the station. The cost of a ticket was €40 one way, €60 return. The other was Expres tur which was a bit more luxurious in that there were three, rather than four seats, abreast. The bus itself looked more modern and not a second hand cast off from some other country as was mine. Also the service was more efficient. At a late night stop, when both my bus and the ‘luxury’ bus were at the same service station, the Express driver spent some time cleaning the windscreen and the front of the bus and the helper cleared rubbish from the inside of the vehicle. On my bus the ‘staff’ were in the restaurant before the passengers.

Expres tur also have a kiosk at the bus station but I haven’t been able to find a web address and hence not certain about their timetable. If the budget stretches to it I would suggest the the Expres service – the seat of a second-hand bus gets hard after a few hours and these newer seats turn into a virtual bed.

I was told the journey would take 20 hours – which with the hour difference between Albania and Turkey is a good timetable. Arriving at 09.00 would be a civilised time in a place that you might never have visited before. The website says arrival time is 07.00 – but that’s not true either.

Both companies had a pickup in Elbasin. After that, at about 14.00, the bus stopped for the driver’s lunch break on the road between Libradzh and Prenjas, for about 30 minutes.

Alvelar/Alpar have a depot in Korçe and took a number of passengers from Tirana to Korçe but few, if any, passengers joined the bus there. There’s a separate service from Korçe to Istanbul – see website.

After Korçe the bus was less than half full. I travelled at the end of September so things were getting quieter in general but at that time it meant that most people, if they wanted, had a double seat – making things slightly more comfortable for an overnight journey. It wouldn’t have been as comfortable if the bus had been full.

From Korçe the bus heads to the town of Billisht and then on to the border with the same name. The bus arrived at the border just before 17.00 and the whole process of passing through both Albanian and Greek passport control/customs took just over 30 minutes.

Leaving Albania and entering Greece

The process is as such:

To leave Albania take all luggage, both from inside and the hold of the bus, into the customs hall. There’s a random, cursory, hand check of luggage. I have a waterproof liner in my rucksack and I think the customs officer was caught slightly off guard in that what he was feeling was the same he would have done (more or less) if he had just felt around the outside of the bag. There was an X-ray machine in the building but it wasn’t used when I passed through. After the customs check the immigration window is a few metres away. I’ve always found Albanian passport control one of the easiest to negotiate. However, you don’t get a stamp in your passport when arriving or leaving by land in Albania (which was a bit disconcerting when I first arrived in Albania by land).

After returning to the bus the process to enter Greece is even easier. You only need to go to passport control and no luggage was checked, either hand or from the hold. Presumably random checks take place from time to time.

After crossing the border there wasn’t a stop until 21.45 which lasted about 30 minutes.

Crossing into Turkey from Greece

The Greek/Turkish border is reached at about 00.30-01.00. You know you are getting there as on the approach you pass a very long queue of parked up lorries.

The helper collected all the passports and presented them to the Greek immigration. That allowed the passengers to spend some free time in the duty free shop.

It’s one of the curious matters about customs that there are supposed to be established rules but they are often just ignored or openly broken. The bus staff bought a huge amount of booze, what exactly I didn’t see, way over what would be considered for personal use. Some of this was then stashed in the cold compartment where free water is normally stored. The stash of booze was then covered by the water bottles and any extra given to willing passengers to ‘call their own’ – in the event that any questions were asked.

Now this ‘smuggling’ was going on openly. I could see what was happening. There was no effort to hide what was going on. The Greek customs must know about this. If not they must be one of the most inept, incompetent or corrupt organisations in existence. But they do nothing to stop this. If you have laws and rules at least abide by them – if not just scrap them. This excess of duty free also accounted for the distribution of duty free bags earlier in the journey for passengers’ rubbish – not too good for the planet either.

Passing through Turkish immigration was equally as quick and easy. My printed visa wasn’t even looked at so I’m not sure what happens there – whether my passport scan brings up an OK I don’t know.

Arrival in Istanbul

The bus arrived at Otogar (the main Istanbul bus station) at around 05.00 – a lot earlier than I expected – and before things started to wake up, including the Metro and the public transport system in general. My bus had made a couple of stops in the old town before heading to the bus station. I noticed a sign post to Taksim Square, near to where I would be staying, but not knowing the area at all it didn’t seem a wise thing to do to get off there.

I was fortunate in that I had a very little Turkish money from a previous visit some years ago. This enabled me to pay for the use of the WC (TL1.50) – to change from shorts to trousers. I was the only one wearing shorts on the bus and started to think I might stand out once on the streets of Istanbul. Doing so in Tirana you are one of the crowd. Doing so in Instanbul marks you out immediately as a tourist.

Next thing to do was to find a cafe to sit down and wait for the city, or at least the bus station, to wake up. Not having a single word of Turkish didn’t help but assumed that life would start again after about 06.00. It was interesting that, with the fame of Turkish coffee, my first cup on this visit was made from Nescafe Instant – and it was as bad as I had remembered.

Otogar might be one of the biggest bus stations in the world but it is certainly the ugliest. Coming into it was like passing through a half constructed concrete car park. Buses everywhere but with a feeling of dirt and decay. I didn’t think it would look any more inviting in the light of day. Having only seen a small part of the city when everything was quiet this goes against the general feeling of the city which appears to becoming an homogenised western city. Such globalisation is taking the character out of so many cities throughout the world. Otogar has been left out of this modernising process.

Over the years in various countries I sat and watched – for what now seems like countless hours – street traders waiting for customers. It was the same in Otogar. The cafe was open, as were a number of other stalls/kiosks in a small ‘shopping centre’ but there were only a handful of customers for almost two hours. Whether it ever gets really hectic I’ll probably never know from personal experience but it must be a mind blowingly boring existence for so many people to just sit and wait.

By 06.30 things were still very quiet and I didn’t know if I had over-extended my welcome at the cafe. However, as I had spent a lot of time in Albanian bars where I had had a few beers whilst others had just had a small coffee but were there as long as myself, I assumed the culture to be the same in Turkey.

It was still dark and I wasn’t sure if the Metro had started up so after I got to this point in my typing I decided to wait and move once the morning had arrived before going exploring – first for a cash machine and then the Metro, assuming I would find both in the same place – that was another assumption that wasn’t correct.

When I did stir it was light – fortunate that I travelled before autumn had really set in and the days got shorter. But life is never easy. Finding the Metro (as in railway system) was made more confusing by the existence of a bus company called ‘Metro’ and they seem to have an office every second space at the front of the bus station. The Metro railway entrance is, in fact, in the middle of the huge square in front of the Otogar, slightly to the right when you have the bus station to your back.

But first, like me, you might need some cash. Once you find the Metro entrance look at the row of shops directly opposite the bus station entrances and there you will see a branch of the Turkiye Is Bankasi which has an ATM to the right of the entrance. Currently (autumn 2019) there are about 7 Turkish Lira (TL) to the £.

(One of the consequences of the light is that your first impressions of the bus station are proved right. In the dark it’s bad, in the light it confirms itself as a right shit-hole.)

As is nearly always the case ATM’s only issue you with large denomination notes but for the Istanbulkart – which you need to travel on the local transport system – you really need a couple of tens – I don’t know how the machine would react if you inserted a larger denomination note.

My solution was to go for a bowl of soup at the cafe close to the entrance gates that allow you into the Metro system. The soup was quite good and definitely filled a hole after spending 16 hours on or about a bus, cost TL10 and it was understood why I needed a couple of ten lira notes in my change.

Obtaining a Instanbulkart

Right in front of the gates to the Metro there are three machines which dispense or top up the Istanbulkart. In theory the system should go to English but I couldn’t get that to work. Fortunately a helpful local took me through the procedure.

First you put your TL10 note in the slot and after the machine has eaten it you press the bottom of the three buttons which will issue you with a card. This costs TL6 so you have TL4 credit but this will only get you on to one train/tram/bus. To top it up for a few journeys, place the card with the picture face up on the grey reader to the right of the screen. This has a lip to prevent it from slipping off the machine. Put another TL10 in the slot and once eaten press the second button (the one in the middle). This will then give you a total credit of TL14, sufficient for four/five journeys.

To enter the Metro system place the card picture side up on the reader to the right of the turnstile. A single journey costs TL2.60 and the balance on the card can be read.

Make sure to keep the card reasonably well topped-up. There’s no transfer system so if you need to change Metro lines, or from Metro to tram or bus, then you need to enter the system anew. However, if you do so within a couple of hours each transfer is slightly less that the one before. The card is also valid on the ferries but the cost depends upon the route taken.

You now have cash and the means to get around the city. And to suffer the caterwauling every day.

More on Albania ……