A year ago, Elidor Mehilli joined the Reluctant Internationalist project as a visiting fellow. You can now read a transcript of Jessica Reinisch’s conversation with Elidor.
JR: Let’s talk about your work. What kinds of things have you been working on? What have been some of the findings of your research?
EM: Thank you very much for having me. It’s been my pleasure. In large part, it’s been so exciting to be part of this project because of the book that I’m currently writing. It deals with internationalism, but a specific kind of internationalism—the so-called socialist internationalism of the early stages of the Cold War. Specifically, the project looks at one site of this kind of internationalism: Communist Albania, which first had contacts with Yugoslavia in the 1940s, with the Soviet Union in the 1950s, along with a host of other countries in the Eastern bloc, and then with China in the 1960s. Albania was somewhat peculiar because it broke with each of these patrons. So, as a site of socialist internationalism it is interesting, because, on the one hand, it had all the propaganda and the officially sanctioned contacts that socialist states were supposed to have. On the other hand, it broke with these sponsors. So it was a kind of internationalism that was constantly breaking down. And I think that’s what makes it particularly interesting for me—to see not only the contacts and the state-enforced exchange and the communication, but also what happens when a country decides to break politically from its sponsors.
JR: So you describe the ‘socialist world’ as an international construction. What is this ‘socialist world’ in your work?
EM: Originally, it was supposed to constitute the whole world. Of course, what ended up happening is the story that we know: Stalin, socialism in one country, pushback against the idea that the whole world would be swept by revolution. And, of course, the reality of the Cold War. So the socialist world is bigger than the Soviet Union, although the Soviet Union is central to it. And increasingly in the 1950s it involves a powerful and assertive China, which becomes a major player. And of course it’s about hopes and aspirations of states in the Third World, in the so-called decolonized world, in the late 1950s and the 1960s. So in many ways, it’s a world of aspirations. It’s a political reality, sure, it’s something that exists. But the actual reality on the ground doesn’t always reflect the bigger aspirations. And the aspirations don’t quite go away either until 1989.
JR: Thinking about the ground-level perspective, you do use this notion of a periphery. How useful has that been?
EM: It’s been an interesting concept and in some ways an inevitable concept when you work on a place like Albania, because the country was on the edge of empires, or, if you prefer, imperial configurations. It served as the periphery of Italy’s fascist imperial project in the 1930s. It was the periphery (a satellite) to Tito’s Yugoslavia, and it was a periphery, detached territorially, within the Eastern Bloc. Then, of course, it engaged with China, but increasingly isolated itself by the 1970s, in many ways parallel to what North Korea was doing— hanging on to a kind of autarky that became strict by the 1980s. So the concept of the periphery has been useful to understand some of the governing mentality and the choices, but in some ways the periphery sometimes turns into a kind of a center too. At some point, the Albanian Stalinist dictatorship sees itself as a kind of center, a sort of Marxist Mecca for revolutionaries around the world in the 70s and 80s.
JR: To what extent did Albanians think of themselves as Europeans?
EM: There was very much the sense that Albania belonged to Europe. But of course there were also considerations among the political elites that Albania’s survival was not necessarily guaranteed. There was a real sense that you had to make certain political calculations. This was a small, weak country that had not been able to have a viable independent state in the past. So, yes, elites thought of themselves as Europeans but ideology should also be taken seriously. A lot of these elites trained in 1940s and in the 1950s also thought of themselves as being part of this expansive Communist world stretching east. And you could have both; these identifications didn’t necessarily contradict. This becomes clear when you look at the students who studied in places like Moscow or the capitals of the Eastern bloc in the 1950s.
JR: And the Communist world itself was of course partly European.
EM: Absolutely. And I think the shift of the emphasis away from the European theater, in recent accounts of the Cold War, has been worthwhile, but we should not forget that Europe was very much the central theater of the Cold War. Of the confrontation that was the Cold War. And that’s why that confrontation was also so intensely felt in places like Albania, or in Greece in earlier years. And these European peripheries remain fundamental to understanding the Cold War.
JR: In your work you also think a lot about experts. These are agents in this history of reconstruction and the postwar transnational networks. What are some of your findings?
EM: I’ve been interested in this question of how ideas travel. Not only across national borders, but also different kinds of borders: ideological borders, political borders, geopolitical lines, regions—places like the Mediterranean, for example. With ideas I mean innovations but also sets of practices and ways of doing things—norms and modes of behavior. So looking at experts has been part of this effort to study how these ideas about socialism, about what socialism is, travel. And Albania is a country in which they try to build a workers’ state in a state with no workers. So how do you do that? How do you bring these norms and modes of behavior from the outside? In my work, I try to do two things: First, I try to look at the Soviet angle of the story, which is very important. Traditionally, the history of the Sovietization of Eastern Europe has emphasized Soviet domination. Except that in the Albanian example, the locals very much demand access to the Soviet resources. In many ways, they understand that that is a formula for modernity, and they want it. It’s a specific formula for modernity. And they want access to it. In addition, of course, to the security guarantee, which is crucial. And the other angle is not to ignore the rest of the Eastern Europeans that are also present in Albania. So it’s not just the Soviets coming in. There are also Poles, East Germans, Czechs, and Hungarians. So I try to understand how these experts interacted and how some of these interactions often resulted in conflict. Some of this transnationalism produces misunderstandings. I try to historicize these encounters and analyze the kinds of power dynamics they generate.
JR: I appreciate this very much, but you are going very much against the historiographical grain, trying to integrate the history of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. These are often treated in very different ways. I think this is one of the really important points here.
EM: They have been treated separately in much of recent literature. There are reasons for it: professional, linguistic, issues of funding, and so on. And of course much of it has nothing to do with the historical record itself. But you cannot really divorce the story of the Eastern bloc from the Soviet Union in the ‘50s, and specifically with an example like Albania. I think there has been a recent push among some historians of the Soviet Union to recognize this wider perspective.
JR: And you’re using a very different angle; going to a different location to look at that story.
EM: Right. That has been intentional, to look at the Communist world from the outside as well. So for me it was important to pick a case study where you could see the Communist world operating closely — the encounters, the dynamics, the cooperation, which didn’t always result in the kinds of outcomes that they wanted to achieve — but also to be able to look at it from the outside (when Albania breaks from the Soviet Union). What you see, and what I try to show in the book, is that a lot of the socialist exchange succeeded not because of the intentions, or because of the elites, and what the officials tried to do, but sometimes despite of them. Despite the politics and diplomacy, certain effects and practices linger.
JR: What kind of experts have you looked at?
EM: I have mostly looked at planning experts, including engineers (a reflection of the fact that Albania was heavily investing in industrialization and thus interested in developing engineering and bringing in a lot of technical personnel). So the idea was to build the factories to create the workers. It’s been planners, engineers, and architects. And then I have looked at students—the experts-in-training. So the young people who were sent to the universities abroad to quickly develop the skills and become specialists in their respective fields.
JR: Does the nature of the expertise make a difference to how these networks unfold? Are engineers different from doctors, different from other kinds of experts?
EM: That’s an interesting question. There seems to have been differences. Sometimes the records reflect the particular understandings that socialist officials had—about what constituted valuable professional expertise, for example. Expertise in certain fields guaranteed a certain lifestyle; it came with certain protections. Or, precisely because it was so important, it could also be very risky. If a building ended up being leaky, or a factory was not finished on the precise day it was supposed to be finished. Some of these projects (factories, power plants, and so on) were not just infrastructural—these were ideological showpieces. So they were politically significant. Communist Albania was a country in which some of these planners and engineers and economists paid a steep price.
JR: Let’s step back a little bit. Labels have become increasingly important in our work. What do you think of yourself as doing? Transnational history? International history? Albanian history? European history? What do these labels mean to you?
EM: Probably it’s a combination of some of those things. I have been very much influenced by certain key historians of the Soviet Union. I have been influenced by historians of Europe. I’ve been influenced by historians of technology. I’ve been certainly influenced by authors who have written about the so-called “transnational turn.” I think the transnational is an angle—it offers a certain perspective, depending on what the question is. And so I think it can be a valuable angle. In terms of how I look at myself, I would say that Europe has been and continues to be the site where I am interested in pursuing work. Not to be seen in isolation from the wider world; to be contextualized; to be internationalized, and always addressed in this broader global perspective. But certainly: the meaning of Europe, its definition, the many kinds of Europe that have existed—that’s what fascinates me.
JR: These questions are very important for our project as well: to think about Europe as a site of these kinds of exchanges. Thank you very much and we hope you come back soon.