Albania is riddled with decaying Soviet-era bunkers

Wired's Pete Brook talks with Dutch photographer David Galjaard, author of the 2012 Aperture Foundation/Paris Photo First Photobook Award-winning book Concreso, a photo-essay on the insane "bunkerization" practiced by the paranoid Soviet Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha. Hoxha built a one bunker for every four Albanians, 24 per square kilometer, and now the country has no idea what to do with all these decaying, apocalyptic concrete blobs.

“I’m telling a story about a country and I’m using bunkers as metaphors,” says Galjaard. “Albania is an Eastern country but it wants to be part of the West. It has one foot in each, and the split is sort of unnatural. Albanians still have not found their identity so they struggle with the past, but also struggle with the future. And future for them is being part of Western Europe.”

The Communist leader Hoxha rose to power in 1944 as leader of the Party of Labour of Albania and ruled until his death in 1985. Hoxha was on constant alert for political threats and maintained his position with routine immobilization, imprisonment and eviction of his people and political opponents. Hoxha’s suspicions also extended beyond Albanian borders and the bunkers, which number 24 to every square kilometer, and were built in preparation for a multi-front war Hoxha expected from invading countries, East and West. Every citizen in Hoxha’s plan was a reservist. Twelve-year-olds were trained to fire rifles. The bunkers never saw action.

Today, Albanian authorities are at a loss for what to do. The reinforced concrete domes are as difficult to repurpose as they are to destroy. Tourists are fascinated by the bunkers strewn like confetti across scenery, but for locals they’re a largely uninteresting, if obstructive, part of the landscape.”

Paranoid Dictator’s Communist-Era Bunkers Now a National Nuisance [Pete Brook/Wired]


  1. For a long time I’ve wanted to visit Albania without being entirely sure why. Now I know: I want to visit the place in the top photo. I want to spend the night in one of those giant mushroomy bunkers surrounded by that much beauty and silence. I want to see that place at all times of the day.

    I know that doesn’t really help ordinary Albanians, but hopefully my tourist dollars will help a little.

  2. They were actually built by aliens thousands of years ago according to a secret pattern which from the air reveals to the initiated when they will return. Enver Hoxha is just a myth created to keep the masses ignorant of their true purpose.

  3. The inner-city pillboxes look like they could be pretty good mailboxes; the slot is big enough to accept parcels and your friendly local mailman would have some shade while they collect the mail for front-door delivery.

      1. I guess they don’t have tornadoes in Albania, but if I had one of those things in my yard that’s what I’d use for shelter. Heck, here’s an idea for repurposing them: dig ’em up and ship ’em to Kansas.

  4. Hoxa was a particularly nasty Stalinist, breaking with the Soviet sphere in the early 60s I think. Albanians in Albania proper tend to much shorter and more unhealthy then their counterparts in other parts of the Balkans, even right across the hills in Kosova…  He was more like the Kims in North Korea than say Tito or Castro, both of whom had ties with numerous other countries. 

    Also, Michael Palin’s travel show that aired a few years ago had an episode where they went to the Balkans. They went through all the former Yugoslavian countries, and then left from Croatia to go to Albania via ship. The captain spent the entire trip complaining about how he did not want to go to Albania, which was kind of funny. The scenary made Albania seem like a lackluster and boring place compared to places like Croatia, Serbia, and Bosnia. Also, it was the only place where people seemed to want to go back to the old days (no one in former Yugoslav countries thought that they should).

    And is the case whenever anyone says anything at all about the Balkans, people thought Palin was engaging in political commentary by pointing out a bridge that was bombed in Mostar:

    I found it a pretty balanced program, frankly. He kind of bent over backwards to not lay blame.

    1. The Albania shown in that documentary has changed somewhat, at least Tirana has changed. There Palin showed Zogu i Zi and said basically Albania wasn’t progressing. At that time maybe that was true, we were coming out from a devastating crisis that almost initiated a civil war (some say it did: we sure have more than 2000 victims as proof of it), but now Tirana at least is thriving. I don’t know if it’s going to endure or if there’s another crisis in our future (we are like rape victims that way: we always see some agressor in the shadows), but for now Tirana is a somewhat rich modern city, although still with caotic traffic.

    1. I was reminded of Fellini’s “8 1/2” where the prostitute La Saraghina lives in an abandoned bunker on the beach. 

    1. Jeez. Americans and geography. Albania is the old Latin name for Albany. This is in upstate New York.

  5. use them as sheds/storage?  tornado shelters?  use them in the world’s largest paintball game? “This Memorial Day weekend the _entire_ country of Albania is Paintball-Con 2013!”

    I’d love two or three bunkers in my backyard!  For sheds/storage, tornado shelters (right now the tornado siren is going off, but I think it’s just the usual mid-week test), and paintball! 

    And for teaching the kids history!  “Alright kids, you in the bunkers are the French manning the Maginot Line, and you kids on bikes are the Germans.  Ride your bikes through the neighbor’s yard and up the alley and come in the gate behind the bunkers.” And re-enacting scenes from Star Wars!  “Uncle Owen! Aunt Beru!!!!”  :) 

  6. Meanwhile, in a secret corporate facility, McDonald’s feverishly pours concrete into “M” shaped molds, and prints thousands of Albanian-translated franchise brochures.

  7. Cisterns, mushroom farms, urban tree planters, talapia aquaculture, methane generators, mausoleums.

  8. In the mid-80s I went to Corfu, a Greek island that sits (well, half of it anyway) just off the Albanian coast, with the closest distance less than one and a half miles. In those days Albania was mysterious and cut off from the rest of the world, so it was odd to sit and peer across and see all the bunkers and pill-boxes dotted along the opposite coast.

    Mind you, where I live – rural Somerset, in the UK – we also have pillboxes and bunkers dotted about in the countryside for fear of invasion. Not as many as Albania, though, and you odn’t see many in built-up areas.

  9. There’s a lot of this sort of stuff along the east cost of the US too. You just need to know where to look. New Jersey is rife with it, (Mostly in the woods).

    1. Also Cape Henloppen on the Delaware side. Besides the huge bunker designed to hold a shore battery of guns, there seems to be miles of bunkers back in the woods.

      See also the bunkers and antiaircraft pads on Diamondhead overlooking Waikiki.

      And there are at least some small ones around San Francisco

  10. When I visited Albania they were painting them up as giant mushrooms. This was near Butrinti which is well worth a visit.

  11. these things were everywhere when I grew up
    i wouldn’t want to go in them though
    i had to train in them, and everytime i go into one, first thing to do is clean someone else’s poopoo so it won’t smell

  12. In a more general vein, Keith Mallory’s book THE ARCHITECTURE OF WAR was a fascinating book.  Castles, bunkers, sea forts, etc.

  13.  The history is complex of course, but if Hoxha’s (bloody horrible) dictator politics is gonna be reduced to a single adjective, “Maoist” would be significantly more accurate than “Soviet”.
    Book looks interesting and offbeat.

  14. They should level them & fill them with concrete, basically creating large round (incredibly solid) concrete pads. Then they should let each locality decide what to put on top of each pad. A statue or sculpture honoring culture & heritage? A small building or cottage? Yes, even a Starbucks. But give a level surface to create something functional and/or beautiful out of something from a useless & bygone era. That’s my idea anyway. 

    1. Great ideas… hmm, who’s paying? ‘Cause that’s the problem: those damn things are tough to destroy (duh, they were built to withstand a heavy bombardment) and our government doesn’t have that kind of money, not for something that’s very irritating, but not much more.

  15. After building the first few bunkers, the dictator (SOB) Hoxha personally picked a random bunker and ordered the chief-Architect to go inside and remain in until the order was given to come out, soon after a Soviet made T-59 Tank hit the bunker… the Architect and the bunker survived the hit without any major damage (the Architect was shaken but not harmed, not even a scratch)
    This is how bunkers were tested by an crazy dictator in Albania! 

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