Reviews Between memory and courage. Rune Ottosen’s Tourist in Utopia

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds Baltic Worlds 2019:2
Published on balticworlds.com on juni 19, 2019

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During the late 1960s and the 1970s, totalitarian regimes like Democratic Kampuchea, the People’s Republic of China, and the People’s Republic of Albania attracted the sympathies of thousands of Europeans, including many young Marxist-Leninists from Scandinavia. Some of them even travelled there to see with their own eyes the utopias they chose to believe in. Forty years after his last visit to communist Albania, Rune Ottosen has chosen to re-open this page of his biography and to finally face his responsibilities as a former “fellow traveler” — meeting the survivors of Hoxha’s regime and providing a fresh insight into the Norwegian Marxist-Leninism Workers’ Party history. To begin with — the past is a foreign land; to visit it requires no visa. Depending on the methods chosen for facing the journey, pre-established interpretative schemes help the traveler to understand the past agency of individuals and groups in given contexts. Memory provides decisive help in shedding light on an untold past and giving insight into forgotten dynamics. In the twentieth century, the acknowledgement of witnesses as sources for historical investigations has allowed the emergence of knowledge previously confined to the private sphere or to the margins. However, to analyze one’s own past is a much more slippery road. The distance to the object of study is diminished by the personal involvement of the traveler into his own past expectations, utopias, emotions — that baggage of personal successes and failures, pride and regrets that all individuals carry in their personal journeys across time.

Tourist in Utopia is both an autobiography focused on the author’s involvement in the activities of Norway’s Maoist and pro-Albanian Workers’ Communist Party [Arbeidernes Kommunistparti (marxist-leninistene), subsequently referred to as “AKP(m-l)”], and also an attempt to reconcile both with those who actually lived the “utopia” of Albanian communism and with the author’s own past. Ottosen does so by using a very original method: he investigates the past utopianism of young comrade Rune, who was a member of the AKP(m-l) and editor-in-chief of the Marxist review Røde Fane (Red Flag) and who traveled to communist Albania three times in the 1970s, from the perspective of his mature self, Rune Ottosen, professor in Journalism at Oslo Metropolitan University.

The author asks himself how he and his comrades could have considered communist Albania to be a serious alternative model for Norway: ‘Why did I come to believe that communism was a sustainable idea? Why did it look right at first, and then after a while very crazy, to tie your life so strongly to a political project that was actually so brutal and inhuman under the surface?’ (p. 9). The answers he finds come from contextualizing his own involvement in the AKP(m-l)’s activities within a historical perspective, verifying the perceptions and aspirations of the young Rune against a proper historical investigation and speaking with the survivors of the Enver Hoxha regime’s atrocities. Visiting Albania in the 2010s, Ottosen recalls his three visits to Albania in the seventies (1973, 1976, and 1978). The landscape presented to the reader in the first part of the book is an overlapping of personal memories, past Norwegian and Albanian political utopias, present-day Albanian politics, and memories of political and cultural repression shared by the survivors of Hoxha’s regime.

 

Apparently, Ottosen learnt of the atrocity of Albanian communism when he read the 2009 English translation of The Second Sentence by Fatos Lubonja, former dissident and writer convicted to seventeen years for being the son of Todi Lubonja, head of Albanian national television, who fell into disgrace in 1973. The reading was “like a knife-stab in the stomach” (p. 27), since Ottosen finally understood the sufferings imposed by a regime he and his associates celebrated in Norway and even in “friendship journeys” that allowed them to enjoy the beaches of Durrës. Back in the seventies, the young Rune and his AKP(m-l) comrades learned the history of Albania directly from the English translations of the Albania Party of Labor’s publications (p. 43). In those narratives, jail, deportation, inhuman forced labor, discrimination due to family origin and other forms of human rights violations, including death sentences, were not even mentioned. The paradigm of the class struggle, in its anti-revisionist version, acknowledges violence as a means for achieving justice against a wide array of ideologically-defined enemies: the bourgeoisie, the revisionists, the capitalists, the imperialists, etc. Ottosen is explicit about the cognitive dissonance that he and his comrades chose to perform. When Amnesty International published the Year Report 1978 describing the persecution of the Catholic priests in the Land of the Eagles, the Norwegian Enverists (like all the others in the West) did not believe it: ‘There was information available that we chose to ignore or did not consider’ (p. 11).

However, it is never too late to enrich one’s perspective, as Ottosen illustrates to the reader in the over 300 pages of the volume. Dozens of historians in the last thirty years have documented the brutality of the Albanian communist regime, while since the Cold War a vast literature on political tourism that investigates the thinking and agency of the former “fellow travelers” has been published and translated, also into Norwegian. In this regard, Ottosen’s narrative discusses Norwegian and English works, offering a synthetic, but thematically complete reference list to investigate these topics. This corpus of literature permits him to contextualize the meetings held with former Albanian dissidents Fatos Lubonja, Tomor Aliko, Maks Velo, Zenel Drangu and Vera Bekteshi, who had all suffered under the regime that young Rune and his comrades idolized. He also met Sevo Tarifa, former personal secretary of Hoxha who succeeded in establishing himself even after the fall of the regime, and some of the same tour guides who had conducted his visits back in the seventies, giving them the opportunity to share interesting insights on what organizing the staged authenticity of communist Albania for foreign tourists meant.

In their travels, the Western “friends of Albania” chose not to question the touristic and political stage they were inserted onto, since “fellow travelers see willingly what they prefer to see”(p. 63). Ottosen, having removed his ideological spectacles, was finally able to see Albania and its past. In an act of reconciliation with himself, he implicitly admitted his naivety as a young Marxist-Leninist and listened the witnesses of the survivors of Hoxha’s regime. This has allowed him to step away from the responsibility the young Rune carried, and at the same time to accept it as a historical fact.

The second part of the book is dedicated to re-contextualizing Rune’s involvement with the AKP(m-l) in Norway. Making use of the political literature published by other Marxist-Leninists in the 1970s, he shows that the anti-revisionists swallowed any kind of belief that the foreign offices of China, Albania, and the like proposed to them (pp. 189—195). In order to support the acceptance of communist Albania at the international level, they established the Norwegian-Albanian Association, aimed at inviting Norwegian tourists to spend their holidays in Albania. With the help of several memoires and internal AKP documents, Ottosen also describes the touristic format he contributed to organizing, providing an account of the blurred line that existed between being a propagandist, a tourist, and an actor into a pre-established format, posing for pictures and writing travel reports that were meant to propagandize an already-established (positive) picture of Albania in Norway. The concluding pages are dedicated to recalling the days of the Sino-Albanian split of July 1978, when Western Maoists and Enverists discussed the future of Marxism-Leninism on the sunny beaches of Durrës. Although, by then, the young Marxist-Leninists considered those days “dramatic”, Ottosen provides us with the grotesque picture of a milieu that considered itself to be an elite but that was actually led by young “useful idiots” on holiday.

It is highly doubtful that those youngsters who called themselves “comrades” were unconscious of the meaning of the words “Revolution”, “armed struggle”, “proletarian justice” and other similar appeals against the constituted order.1 It is dubious that the “cognitive dissonance”2 they performed would have prevented them from recognizing the violence they chose to subscribe to. Those words, in the Norwegian political context, were merely meant to demonstrate the identity of a group that, politically, counted less than zero. Most probably, they knew exactly what those words meant, but at the same time they refused to admit they would ever use violence as a political means. The files of the Norwegian secret police show that they were good citizens.3

Ottosen suggests that “fanaticism” was an explanation for their “cognitive dissonance”, but this seems doubtful. Any ideology is a stratification of slogans, propaganda appeals, and other calls for action that have a precise historical origin but that once removed from their contexts do not maintain univocal significance. They adapted concepts tailored by the foreign propaganda bureaus of China and Albania to the very different circumstances of Norwegian political life, with the goal of establishing themselves, which they did, accumulating a huge amount of cultural capital within the students’ milieu. They also adapted those words against their rivals within the milieu. In 2011, former Swedish Enverist Magnus Utvik interviewed his old antirevisionist comrades. They all felt very uncomfortable in recalling their past militancy. They remember careerism, manipulation, and determination towards personal affirmation to be the main traits of the individuals who ran such milieus.4 In Turist i utopia, Ottosen drastically downplays those very power relations. Nor does the book provide a prosopography of the Marxist-Leninist milieu, whose leading individuals are nowadays established profiles in Norway.

However, Ottosen is largely successful in providing the reader with an inspiring journey within the cultural poverty and hopeless naivety of the Norwegian Marxist-Leninist milieu and with the witnesses of the communist regime’s brutality in Albania. No matter if “solidarity” was a propaganda word and a loosely-implemented practice within the pro-Albanian milieu, professor Ottosen has chosen to face the past actions of young comrade Rune and to testify that the utopias of the antirevisionists brought nothing more than meaningless results for political action at home (in Norway and in the rest of Europe) along with disturbing memories of summer holidays spent praising regimes run by cold-blooded executioners. Ottosen succeeds in demonstrating that no dogma is needed to encounter people transnationally and to learn from them. Having done so and reconciled with his own past, Rune Ottosen preserves a good memory of Albania and its people. ≈

 

Acknowledgement: Book review written within the support of Åke Wiberg Foundation (H16-0044).

References

1
This thesis is supported by Bernt Hagtvet, ‘Kan norske maoister valfart til Albania sammenlignes med dagens fremmedkrigere?’ [Can the Norwegian Maoists’ Pilgrimage to Albania be compared to today’s foreign fighters?], Dagbladet, 9 September 2017, available on https://www.dagbladet.no/kultur/kan-norske-maoisters-valfart-til-albania-sammenlignes-med-dagens-fremmedkrigere/68676030, consulted 9 September 2017.

2
For an insight into “cognitive dissonance” as an analytical concept, see Kristian Gerner ‘Kommunistiska Berättelser i Sverige — en fråga om tro’ [Communist Stories in Sweden — A Matter of Faith],  in Kristian Gerner and Lars Göran-Karlsson (eds.), Rysk Spegel. Svenska Berättelser om Sovjetunione — och om Sverige [Russian Mirror. Swedish stories about the Soviet Union — and about Sweden], (Lund: Nordic Academic Press, 2009), p. 24.

3    
Dokument nr. 15 (1995—96) —
Rapport til Stortinget fra kommisjonen som ble oppnevnt av Stortinget for å granske påstander om ulovlig overvåking av norske borgere (“Lund-rapporten”) [Document no. 15 (1995—96) — Report to the Storting from the commission which was appointed in order to investigate allegations of illegal surveillance of Norwegian citizens]],  available on https://www.stortinget.no/no/Saker-og-publikasjoner/Publikasjoner/Dokumentserien/1995-1996/dok15-199596/.

4         
Magnus Utvik. Med Stalin som Gud. Tre tonår i en kommunistisk sekt  [With Stalin as God. Three teenagers in a communist sect], (Stockholm: Norstedts, 2011).

Tourist in Utopia. Travels in Ideology and the Albanian landscape [Turist i Utopia, reiser i ideologi og albansk landskap], Rune Ottosen (1950-). 336 pages.