[Marxism] Fwd: H-Net Review [H-Socialisms]: Beilinson on MeÌˆhilli, 'From Stalin to Mao: Albania and the Socialist World'
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Subject: H-Net Review [H-Socialisms]: Beilinson on MeÌˆhilli, 'From Stalin
to Mao: Albania and the Socialist World'
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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
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survey and is now slightly out-of-date.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.
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
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.
Citation: Orel Beilinson. Review of Mëhilli, Elidor, _From Stalin
to Mao: Albania and the Socialist World_. H-Socialisms, H-Net
Reviews. April, 2018.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States
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