Elidor Mëhilli. From Stalin to Mao: Albania and the Socialist World. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2017. 346 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-5017-1415-3.
Reviewed by Orel Beilinson (Tel Aviv University)
Published on H-Socialisms (April, 2018)
Commissioned by Gary Roth (Rutgers University - Newark)
The general reader does not have a rich library on Albania. Tajar Zavalni’s History of Albania (2015), written originally over fifty years ago, ends in Albania’s turn toward China. Fred C. Abraham’s Modern Albania: From Dictatorship to Democracy in Europe (2015) only covers the most recent period, since 1985. Miranda Vickers’s compact The Albanians: A Modern History (1995) is a textbook-like survey and is now slightly out-of-date. Recently, two significant books enriched the opportunities given to the English reader: an English translation to Blendi Fevziu’s wonderful biography of Enver Hoxha: The Iron Fist of Albania (2016) and the subject of this review, Elidor Mëhilli’s From Stalin to Mao: Albania and the Socialist World. Both shed light on two complementary aspects of Albania in the second half of the twentieth century: the former looks at the top of the hierarchy—a single person—while the latter analyzes the country in its regional and transregional context. In six chapters, Mëhilli tells Albania’s history under socialism through its exchanges—cultural, scientific, and economic—and manages to shed new light on fundamental themes that are important to our understanding of the period.
Marching chronologically, Mëhilli’s first chapter focuses on the transition from a kingdom to communism, proceeding through brief but meaningful periods under Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. Using urban planning as a case study, he demonstrates that the Italian influence on Albania stretches back long before 1939 and did not end in 1943. Instead, it was carried on into the communist period. Using “the corporatism of the Italian occupation and the command economy of the Germans,” the postwar government embarked on a series of far-reaching reforms, with the Agrarian Reform of 1945-46 being the key cause for change in the countryside (p. 23). In the international arena, Albania vacillated while attempting to find its place between the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia as the Tito-Stalin split gained traction. As the author notices (but might be overstating his case here), “yesterday’s friends turned out to have been enemies all along” (p. 53).
If the story of the 1940s is told largely through the lens of urban space, “the Sovietization of Albania,” we learn, “is a story of machines” and also of “new horizons,” at least culturally (p. 55). The author suggests that we look at Sovietization not through the prism of its success or failure but rather “as a kind of opening, as a field of interaction.” In this interaction, Albanians adopted “a socialist lens” and began to interpret it in their own terms, while the socialist world headed by Stalin had to translate their knowledge of Albania to their own typology and understanding of the world (p. 56). The cultural and professional opportunities offered by the new proximity to the Soviet Union were “a patriotic duty,” later qualified and restricted, and parts of the socialist world (such as Poland and Hungary) were deemed dangerous, especially as Albanians abroad occasionally did not return (p. 89).
In the third chapter, Mëhilli concentrates on the machines, or more precisely, the realization of a communist economy. His rich descriptions take us to the fields and factories, allowing us to glimpse the daily life of workers in a newly created proletariat. Albania’s “forced industrialization in an agrarian setting,” coupled with “all-consuming aspirations for a better life,” was embodied in the “Stalin mills” and the metoda sovjetike (Soviet method), both of which were supported by a constant movement of experts, whose role as special guests was rather ambiguous (p. 109). As this chapter convincingly shows, the Soviet method was a show of performative value as much as an actual array of methods. Powerful symbolically to the building of socialism, the Soviet method was backed by the concerted successes of the Soviet Union and also fed on its prestige. But at the same time, it was also local, or localized, and the word “Soviet” became much more of a label than a meaningful category, “recognizably Soviet, just as it was unmistakably Albanian” (p. 129).
Exchange is the main theme of chapter 4. Since “the presence of the Soviet Union had become commonplace by mid-decade,” “socialist modernity” began to be conveyed by exchanges of experts and technology with other Eastern Bloc countries (“Czech vehicles, German engineers” as examples), as manifested in elaborate exhibitions, mutual visits of delegations, and media works (p. 133). Albania, the poorest country in the bloc, signed “technical aid agreements with nine socialist countries, including China and North Korea” (p. 139). The lack of wealth combined with the relative lack of local innovations (which were bound together) made reciprocity slippery and often impossible. Further tensions arose regarding the conditions and remuneration offered to the many foreign advisors and experts (some of whom were recent university graduates), and their presence was “a constant reminder of the glaring limitations of Albanian factories and workshop[s] ..., revealing endless deficiencies” (p. 153). Thus, what was supposed to bring the socialist world together often drew it apart, reinforcing political complications rather than overcoming them.
In the fifth chapter we return to urban planning. A Bulgarian urban planner who came to Albania witnessed the lack of urban planning both in theory and in practice, citing “houses built at random; blueprints literally falling apart ...; [and] missing supplies such as draft paper” (p. 167). This problem was addressed again by means of exchange, this time with East Germany (with Soviet mediation), as the socialist bloc turned away from Soviet uniformity and toward a national expression of socialism. By the early 1960s, private Western European companies began participating in this exchange, especially as national “types” began to gain currency. In the face of a split between Albania and its Soviet patrons, Cuba and China began to assert their influence on the streets of Tirana and other Albanian cities. This split is the subject of the book’s last chapter, which is at its best depicting the difficulty in changing loyalties, even on the most practical level of translating into and out of Chinese rather than the customary Russian.
While the writing is certainly compelling, Mëhilli often produces statements that are beautiful and seem insightful on the one hand, but on the other hand are too general for a reader to make sense of. The author’s assertion that the “socialist horizon looked different depending on who you were and where you stood” is correct, but his chosen examples (such as “a Polish worker in ravaged Warsaw” or “a German woman raped somewhere along the Red Army’s march to Berlin”) are unconvincing without additional qualifications and explanations, and it seems that in these cases brevity is unfortunately absent (p. 55). While the beautiful yet vague sentences do not impinge on the arguments, they certainly blur more than they clarify.
Overall, this book is an important contribution to our understanding of socialist Albania, especially in a transnational context. Its rich anecdotes, photographs, and diverse sources make it an interesting, even if at points confusing, volume. Despite its recurring “jumps” between stories, lenses, and zooms (and despite its clear anti-communist tone), it is still an engaging, thought-provoking work that will be of use to historians of the Cold War, communism, Eastern Europe, and Albania for years to come.
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Orel Beilinson. Review of Mëhilli, Elidor, From Stalin to Mao: Albania and the Socialist World.
H-Socialisms, H-Net Reviews.
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