A Pioneer for Her Time: Musine Kokalari

Dr Agata Fijalkowski

I am on a mission to revive the story of a little known Albanian writer and political dissident.

In 2012, when I first began my research in Tirana on the Enver Hoxha dictatorship and the way in which Albania is examining its dictatorial past, I was confronted time and time again by image above, in films and exhibits. (Taken from International PEN. Musine Kokalari at the 1946 Trial.)

I learned later that this was a photograph of Musine Kokalari, the country’s first female writer from the pre-communist era, and political dissident. Later, when researching archival materials on the trials conducted in the nascent years of the regime, I came across her case and trial proceedings. I then saw her image and biography as a key to explaining a country’s approach to addressing a past marked by a brutal dictatorship.

This was emphasised at a talk I gave in May to the Anglo-Albanian Association at the Albanian Embassy in London, with members, counsel and, importantly, His Excellency Mr Mal Berisha in attendance. What became clear after the talk, was that little is known in Albania, and among Albanians, about Musine Kokalari. Any morsel of information was gratefully received and her story evoked memories as one that is shared by survivors of the regime. It is important to note that the Albanian dictatorship’s power rested in its vast secret police network, the Sigurimi, regular and brutal purges, and a strict limitation on foreign contacts, along with a system of prison camps and internal exile. Dissidents were not able to draw on any support network inside or outside the country. Albania was a closed society within a totalitarian state. During the dictatorship, any hint of opposition or perceived threat to the regime was eliminated. When the apparatus collapsed in 1991 (when the first free elections were held), legal, political and historical efforts to address the crimes of the past were limited. For all intents and purposes, as concerns the Albanian examination of the dictatorship, there seemed nothing more to say, that is, until we learn about Musine Kokalari’s story.

The Reluctant Hero

Musine Kokalari was born in 1917 into a family of intellectuals. At least two of her brothers were active in politics and participated in literary life. In 1941, Musine completed her studies in Literature in Italy. She was anti-fascist, anti-nationalist and part of the wider, ‘renaissance’ movement that ardently discussed the post-WWII Albanian state. By then, she had written three novels.

Theth Valley, Norther Albania, (c) Mark Knowles

Theth Valley, Northern Albania, (c) Mark Knowles

Albania captures the imagination. Its mountains, for example, are magical. The north of the country fascinated Edith Durham (see Elizabeth Gowing’s Edith and I). Musine’s writings focused on folklore as well, in particular the position of women in a patriarchal society. Her stories established her as a writer domestically and abroad. But the fate of her brothers, two of whom were executed, forced her to set aside her first love, writing, for politics. Musine became a reluctant hero.

In 1945 she was arrested for her involvement in a political opposition group (Bashkimi Demokrat, or Social Democrat party). This was her third arrest. It was noted in this case that she had communicated with the British Mission in Tirana about postponing the upcoming elections. This would seal her fate, along with 36 others, in a trial dubbed the ‘Albanian Opposition Trial’, held in 1946. Charges were brought under a 1944 decree concerning war criminals and saboteurs. Proceedings were conducted at the National Cinema in Tirana and transmitted throughout the city. The prosecutor’s speech expressed contempt for the opposition’s activities, saving individual disdain for Musine, arguing that ‘the diabolical soul of Musine Kokalari knows only hate against the people’. One of her legacies is the defiance she showed at the trial. She did not deny her political activities but instead rejected the official position that her convictions and love for her country should be viewed as criminal. Musine told the court ‘I turn to the tribunal to review once again my activity and if I am sentenced because of the above mentioned claims I could accept, with pleasure, even the harshest of punishments’. She was not allowed a full defence hearing, instead she was told by the court to ‘shut up’. Elsewhere in Europe such crimes of the misadministration of justice were not uncommon during this period.

Musine’s fate

Musine was not executed. The court sentenced her to 20 years imprisonment to one of the most brutal labour camps located in northern Albania. Her works were banned and destroyed by the authorities. After serving sixteen years, Musine was released and internally exiled to the north of country, where she was forced to work as a manual labourer. Forbidden to write and freely travel, Musine lived her life under surveillance until her death in 1983. Even then, she was treated with hostility by the regime. In 1993, the Albanian president at that time, Sali Berisha, declared several Albanians, including Musine Kokalari, as a ‘Martyr for Democracy’. The Albanian writer Ismail Kadare remarks that ‘[she] was a distinguished martyr of freedom’.

What’s in a face?

The legacy that this creative writer leaves shows how political dissidence can fill the gap in the legitimatisation of lawand providing a voice where legal initiatives seem ineffective. Musine’s story becomes especially powerful in the context of contemporary discourses about the elimination of intellectuals from Albanian life. In the field in which I research, transitional justice, story telling is a critical feature in a society recovering from terror. The story telling is driven by people and can be underpinned by elements of tragedy or triumph. The criminal law, on the other hand, seeks to vindicate a society’s basic norms protecting an individual’s civil liberties, against whoever, by his or her actions denies them. In 1991, in the early years of post-communism, the Albanian authorities pursued cases against the communist elite on charges of economic crimes. For example, the excesses of the Hoxha family were set out in the Ruli Report, which was commissioned by the government. But these actions seemed to trivialise the egregious offences that characterised the regime. The next initiative, in terms of criminal prosecutions, came in 1995 with the so-called ‘Genocide Law’, which was later repealed in 1997. No one, to date, has been brought to account for the misadministration of justice in the ‘Albanian Opposition Trial’. Although not yet a member of the European Union, the Albanian experience needs to be appreciated within wider European narratives in relation to two points. The first concerns the contributions of new European Union member states with respect to their experiences of war and dictatorship. The second point is related and a result of these experiences. It refers to a sequence of political declarations, legal initiatives, and resolutions by the Council of Europe, the European Court of Human Rights (see also Lancaster’s James Sweeney who works on European human rights and transitional justice, ), the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), and the European Union, condemning totalitarian communist regimes in various ways. To me, Musine’s image is a key to identifying narratives about what is remembered, forgiven, punished, or commemorated in an ongoing Albanian discourse about its totalitarian past and to what extent her story resonates in other European post-dictatorial states.


Dr Agata Fijalkowski is Senior Lecturer in Law at Lancaster University Law School. Her specialisation lies in transitional criminal justice and capital punishment. She has contributed articles on the misadministration of justice in cases concerning Polish resistance fighters and on totalitarian crimes. Agata is the author of From Old Times to New Europe (Ashgate, 2010) and, with Raluca Grosescu, editor of Transitional Criminal Justice in Post-Conflict and Post-Dictatorial Societies (Intersentia’s Series on Transitional Justice, forthcoming). Agata has applied for funding to continue her work on Musine Kokalari and her contemporaries, so watch this space!

You can find out more about Agata’s research at http://www.lancaster.ac.uk/fass/law/profiles/agata-fijalkowski .


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