Love in a Police State - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Love in a Police State

Love in a Police State

By Sean Williams

Children play near a Socialism monument at a housing project in Berat, Albania.
SourceMichel Setboun/Corbis


The fall of the Berlin Wall freed people of the East, but could not erase many of their tragedies.

By Sean Williams

There are many days Albanian Jorgji Doksani will never forget. Christmas Eve 1961 is the worst of them. As Emma, his Russian wife, stepped onto the plane that took her away from him forever, she stole one last look at him. “ ’Til the last moment she felt she’d be back,” he says now, wiping aside a tear. “I only found out her death secretly.” 

Emma died 11 years later, in a car wreck south of Moscow. It would take until the early 1990s for Jorgji, by then almost 60, to piece back together a family lost to the bitter feud between Russian and Albanian communism. Communism brought Jorgji and Emma together. It tore them apart almost as quickly. 

This is the second in a series of articles marking the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. They tell the story of the wall and the division of Europe through the eyes of individuals who lived under its shadow.

Jorgji Doksani was born in 1935, in the small Albanian city of Berat. Famed throughout southern Europe for its Byzantine churches and monasteries, Berat was known as a center of arts and crafts — and Jorgji’s father was one of its master builders. Carpentry and art headed to market in places like Syria, Iran and Egypt. Business was good. 

Jorgji preferred literature. By then Albania, seized by Enver Hoxha’s rebels in 1944, was a rebel state ravaged by fascism and war; supplies were scant, not the least books. “There weren’t enough, so there would be a line for the next,” he says. “We would read day and night so the next person could get it.”

Enver Hoxha with members of the Albanian Armed Forces

First Secretary of the Albanian Communist Party Enver Hoxha meets with a group of Albanian Armed Forces members in 1973.

Hoxha’s Party of Labour soon installed its own socialism in Albania, which hewed to the regimes of Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union and neighboring Yugoslavia. Jorgji was inspired by communism, learning Russian and developing a passion for Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and other greats. “Communism was a real dream,” he says. “I was a strong party militant — idealistic.” 

In 1953, Jorgji was chosen, alongside 42 other Albanians, to study in Moscow, the center of the communist world. “My mother disagreed, and my sisters were crying. They didn’t want me to go,” he says. “It was scary, I admit. But to be in Russia was to be a chosen one.” He would live in Moscow for four years. 

Vodka wasn’t to his liking — it still isn’t — but the city was brimming with culture, from the Bolshoi Theatre to Basil’s Cathedral. “There was a lot of opportunity for fun,” says Jorgji. “And we were treated very specially by the Russians. They really liked us.” 

Today Jorgji is no less genial, with a disarming smile and missish, slumped demeanor. As he sips coffee at a sunlit bar in Tirana, Albania’s capital, he stops to recall lost moments in Moscow. 

Not long after he arrived, Jorgji met Emma, from Voronezh, a city 500 miles southeast of the capital. She was quiet and reserved. “I’d compare her with Albanians,” he says. “She was very educated. And she was very beautiful, of course.” 

A woman walks down an old street in Berat, Albania

An Albanian woman walks on a stone-built street in Berat, Albania.

In 1956, he returned to Berat with a wife, and then to Tirana and teaching jobs at the University of Tirana.

“It was that unknown which made everything so exciting,” he says. “She came here not knowing what she’d do, so it was very romantic. She was amazing for doing that.” 

In 1958, Jorgji and Emma had a daughter, Olya. Life in Tirana was good for the young academics. But it would not last. 

In 1956, Nikita Khrushchev had denounced Stalin at his famous secret speech, promising to open Soviet society. Hoxha recoiled: “If we were to rehabilitate the enemies and traitors, those who wanted to place the country in the chains of a new slavery, our people would stone us,” he said. 

Albania became an isolated police state. Religions and beards were banned. Thousands languished in political prisons. Some 700,000 machine-gun posts went up on the border. Foreign travel was banned, but for a select few that excluded Jorgji. In 1961, the USSR and Albania severed relations.

Religions and beards were banned. Thousands languished in political prisons. Some 700,000 machine-gun posts went up on the border.

It invaded his marriage. “The feelings between us changed, not because we felt like it, but because she was threatened with leaving the country,” he says. 

The day after Emma left, taking Olya with her to Voronezh, Jorgji didn’t celebrate Christmas. Work became his solace. “It felt safe to me,” he says. He got his doctorate — the first Albanian to do so — in 1972, the same year Emma was killed. To date he’s translated more than 50 novels from Russian to Albanian. Jorgji also remained a loyal party member. 

Years after Emma left, Jorgji remarried and had a son called Dagim, who works, like his father, as a translator. “But it was love of another kind,” he adds. “Since we were party members, we were always told we had to create families. Though it was like a job, I cannot complain.” 

But in 1992, as Albania’s communist regime toppled, Jorgji got a chance to head back to Moscow, as a delegate of Tirana University, where he still taught. He had heard that Olya would be there to meet him. But Jorgji had no idea how she looked save for an old, tattered photo from her toddler years. Thankfully Olya recognized him from a picture she was holding. 

Thirty-one years after they’d been torn apart, Jorgji and his daughter were a family again. Olya still lives in Voronezh, with her husband, Andrea, an engineer, and her daughter, Emma. “It was like going back to old memories,” says Jorgji, smiling wistfully out the window. Since that day Jorgji has returned to Russia several times, and Olya and Andrea have even visited Tirana. “I must add something,” says Jorgji. “When my daughter came here, my wife and my son welcomed her like a queen.” 

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