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The Tragedy of Albania’s Russian Community
For Russians, Albania is one of the most mysterious countries in Europe. The country is often associated with the war in Kosovo, the Albanian mafia, and a strange language. None of this reflects the real Albania, however. In Russia, few people have a true idea of what this country is all about.
The Republic of Albania, located on the western Balkan Peninsula, is among the poorest countries in Europe. The Albanians are one of the oldest nations in Europe with a continuous history stretching back more than two millennia. They have lived on the same land and spoken the same language throughout their entire history. Long before the establishment of Rome and the Trojan War, Albanians came to the Balkan Peninsula, becoming possibly the first Indo-Europeans to settle in Europe. They repelled the military advances of Alexander the Great, and only after long wars did they become part of the Roman Empire, surviving imperial rule without losing their language and culture.
After the collapse of the Roman Empire, Albania became part of Byzantium, and later these lands became part of the Kingdom of Bulgaria, the Serbian kingdom, the Venetian Republic and Epirus. In 1389, the combined Serbian and Albanian forces were defeated by a new enemy – the Turks – in the battle of Kosovo Pole. Albania only entered the Ottoman Empire at the end of the 15th century, however. The Sublime Porte was forced to make a number of concessions, including the stipulation that the Albanians would serve in the Turkish army only on a voluntary basis and would be granted a number of trade privileges. On the other hand, it was during the years of Turkish rule that Islam spread in Albania.
In the Ottoman Empire, the Albanians were usually referred to as Arnauts (Large Arnaut and Small Arnaut Streets in Odessa, made famous by Ilf and Petrov, were named them in their honor). Those who lived in Albania during the Middle Ages called their country “Arber” and referred to themselves as Arbers. At the end of the 18th century, this ethnonym was replaced by “Shqiptar” (meaning “those who speak clearly and understandably”). According to another version, Shqiptar in translation means “country of eagles,” which is fitting given that the Albanians do consider themselves to be the descendants of the mountain eagle. This self-designation persists to this day.
As strange as it may seem, more than a thousand years passed before the Russian footprint made its presence known in Albania in the 20th century. This is largely due to the fact that Albania became an independent country only in the early 1920s. In June 1924, a bourgeois-democratic revolution took place in Albania. The leader of feudal groups, Prime Minister Ahmet Zogu, was expelled from the country and the government came under the control of Orthodox bishop Theofan Fan Noli who, paradoxically, received guidance from the Soviet Union.
It was in 1924 that the destinies of Russia and Albania first became intertwined. After the arrival of the communist bishop to power, a Soviet mission, headed by Arkady Krakovetsky, was dispatched to Tirana almost immediately. Krakovetsky, a former socialist revolutionary who joined the Bolsheviks in 1920, was one of the first Soviet spies. The Moscow envoy officially declared that the purpose of his mission to Albania was to establish the communist regime in the country and to make Tirana the center of Bolshevism in the Balkans. From Albania Krakovetsky planned to “export the revolution” to neighboring countries. Such plans did not come true, however, and attempts to reform Europe’s most backward country through communist methods failed. With each passing day, Noli’s policies were becoming less and less popular.
Given the circumstances, Ahmet Zogu decided to take revenge while in exile. As part of his plans for a coup, the former prime minister proceeded to build a military contingent. To this end, an Albanian volunteer militia was established on the border of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, which consisted primarily of Albanian clans loyal to Zogu. In order to organize an artillery squadron, however, Russian йmigrйs residing in the kingdom were recruited to sign three-month contracts.
From the very beginning, Russian йmigrйs’ relations with Albania evolved in ways that were far from simple. At the end of 1921, thousands of former White Army soldiers, serving in the Serbian border service, came into conflict with Albanian bandits and smugglers who were terrorizing the local population in the border region. Despite the fact that Serbia’s border with Albania was considered extraordinarily dangerous along its entire stretch, Russian border guards quickly calmed the situation and made it mortally dangerous for Albanians attempting to cross it. We should note that Russians were disliked in Albania ever since the Russo-Turkish War in which the Albanians fought for Turkey and held a strong hatred for the Serbian border service.
This did not prevent Ahmet Zogu from hiring Russian soldiers, however, as it was unlikely that better military professionals could be found anywhere in the Balkans. Upon the Serbian side’s recommendation, Russian Colonel Miklashevsky was appointed to lead the Russian division, which consisted of 102 members, including 15 officers.
One of the division’s participants later explained what motivated White йmigrйs to fight for Zogu: “a medieval color is setting in, and it seemed that a fantastic (but very real) epic was surviving until the end. An army of mercenaries, which was being commanded by a descendant of Alexander the Great (for whom Zogu gave himself), an army, paid in gold, should have Bey Ahmet to power! How could such a matter not interest me immediately?”
In late December 1924, the operation began. The major, decisive battle in which the Russian division took part was at the village of Peshkopi, where Noli’s reserve army was headquartered. It was the Russians who struck the decisive blow in this battle. After occupying Peshkopi and taking a short rest, the same Russian division, along with Ahmet Zogu, launched an attack on the country’s capital. Noli’s demoralized troops were only able to put up minimal resistance. On December 24, Zogu’s Russian squad entered Tirana.
After the proclamation of the Republic of Albania, the Russian squad continued its service under Ahmet Zogu – the first president – although in 1926, it was disbanded. Its members were offered a lifetime pension in the amount of the salary they had received but only on condition that they maintain residence in the country. At first, many of them took advantage of this offer, and for the first time in Albania, a Russian diaspora began to emerge. Its life would be short, however, as the Russian йmigrйs, tired of the monotony of life, slowly began to leave Albania. By early 1939, only 19 members of the division remained.
Meanwhile, in April 1939, Albania was invaded by fascist Italy, and in 1943 (after the capitulation of Italy), by Nazi Germany. In these circumstances, the fate of the Russians in Albania evolved in different ways. Some remained faithful to Zogu and joined the guerrilla troops who fought against both the Italians and the Communists. Following the capture of Albania by Italy, others joined the Italian army to fight on the Eastern Front against the Soviet Union. As a result, fate scattered participants of the Russian division around the world, but there were also those who remained in Albania after the war. These members either retired or joined the civil service. In the new Albania, the former White Guards found if very difficult to adapt, however.
After the Second World War, Albania entered a new era. By the fall of 1944, led by the communists, the National Liberation Army of Albania liberated the country from its occupiers. On November 29, 1944, the Communist Party of Labor, led by Enver Hoxha, took power. In 1946, Albania was proclaimed a People's Republic. With political, military and economic support from the Soviet Union, the Albanian leadership under Hoxha began to build socialism. Once again, the fates of Russia and Albania intersected.
The Soviet Union provided active assistance to backward, agrarian Albania in establishing a socialist economy. Hundreds of Soviet civilian and military experts were sent to Albania. There were also large cultural and educational exchanges, with thousands of Albanians (overwhelmingly males) traveling to study in the Soviet Union.
Russian became compulsory in Albanian schools, and attitudes toward Russia had never been as positive in Albania’s history. According to information found in Albanian statistical archives, from 1947 to 1961, there were nearly 400 mixed marriages between the ethnic Albanian men and Russian women. Most of these women moved to Albania permanently with their husbands. In fact, this is the only time that we can speak about the emergence of a full-fledged Russian diaspora in the country.
It is quite telling that many Soviet citizens contributed to the development of Albanian culture and the country’s economy. For example, in 1950, Luiza Papayani (maiden name Melnikova) led a group of Soviet lawyers who created the first Albanian forensic laboratory. She also became the first Russian director of Radio Tirana. Another of our countrywomen, Taisiya Uzlovaya, played a huge role in the development of ophthalmology, and today, the country’s only center for eye surgery, which uses Fyodorov’s technology, bears her name. Another Soviet citizen who lived almost 50 years with her husband in Albania, Nina Mulya, is the mother of the famous Italian opera singer Inva Mula.
The honeymoon of Soviet-Albanian friendship did not last long, however. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the situation began to change. The Albanian leadership under Enver Hoxha took offense at Khrushchev’s critique of the Stalin personality cult and of the Soviet Union’s normalization of relations with Yugoslavia, the latter of which Tirana viewed as a threat. Albania had taken a course of rapprochement with China, with in turn had experienced severely deteriorated relations with the Soviet Union. Tirana began to officially criticize the new course taken in Moscow.
In response to this criticism, the Soviet Union withdrew its advisors and specialists from Albania in 1961. In November 1961, Moscow and Tirana exchanged sharp attacks, after which the Soviet Union withdrew its ambassador from Albania and broke off diplomatic relations. The Soviet Union began to urgently evacuate its citizens from Albania, abandoning all of its property. Beginning in 1962, Albania became Europe’s most isolated country.
For a variety of reasons, however, about half of the Russian women remained with their husbands in Albania and as a result were completely cut off from their homeland. Moreover, anyone who had studied in the Soviet Union was declared to be a spy – along with his family. Many of them were imprisoned for 15-20 years and sent to perform hard labor in remote mountainous regions of Albania. “All correspondence was banned, it was impossible to make phone calls, and moving from one city to another was not realistic, because there were roadblocks everywhere. And there were mountains all around,” recalled Luiza Papayani. “We all (Russian women – author’s note) completely lost contact with our country and were isolated from the world and our relatives. Those were the circumstances we had to survive in and raise families, hoping for better times.”
Today in Albania there are about twenty Russian women remaining from that generation. The rest have either died or emigrated to Italy, Greece or Germany with their families in the 1990s. Those who remaining obtained Russian passports. The Albanian government, incidentally, has promised to provide monetary compensation to the Russian women for their years of suffering.
The Russian-speaking diaspora today numbers only about 300 people in a country of 3 million. Most of these people are Russian citizens who have married Albanians in the last fifteen years. The situation of our countrymen can hardly be described as straightforward. For example, there is not a single Russian Orthodox church in Albania where services can be heard in Old Church Slavonic.
There are also problems with Russian language studies. Although Russian continued to be taught in schools until 1977, the number of people who can speak Russian in Albania today is very low – about 20,000. Since 1990, this figure has declined by a factor of 2.5. Those who promote Russian language and culture in the county were the ones who received their education prior to the break in Soviet-Albanian diplomatic relations. There are about 2,000 such people across the country. Russian is taught at the Asim Vokshi School of Foreign Languages, where 50 people study it. Russian is also taught at seven Albanian universities. Altogether at these universities, there are approximately 40 students of Russian.
Despite the difficult situation facing the Russian community in Albania, there are positive points that have begun to emerge recently. On February 17, 2007, the Year of the Russian Language was proclaimed in the city of Korзa. The choice of location was not accidental, as Korзa is known for its deep spiritual and cultural traditions, historical monuments to Orthodox culture, and the rich collection of icons in the local history museum. There are also a large number of Albanian intellectuals in the city. In Korзa a great interest in and respect for Russian culture and language has long been nourished, with various societies and clubs promoting friendship between Russia and Albania.
In early 2007, Russia’s ambassador to Albania donated a selection of more than 30 volumes of classic Russian literature to the Central City Library in Korзa. This gesture received wide attention in Albania, and the ceremony was broadcast on local television several times during newscasts. Activities related to the Year of the Russian Language in Albania have continued both in Tirana and other cities across the country.
Thus, there is reason to hope that the situation for the Russian diaspora will improve in Albania, which, naturally, should be great cause for joy…