Katherine Verdery is Julien J. Studley Faculty Scholar and Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, as well as the author of the new book My Life as a Spy: Investigations in a Secret Police File. Part memoir, part detective story, part anthropological analysis, My Life as a Spy offers a personal account of how government surveillance worked during the Cold War and how Verdery experienced living under it.
You came to Romania in 1973 as a 25-year-old doctoral student studying folklore, but the Romanian secret police immediately suspected that your research was espionage rather than ethnography. How can anthropology look like spying? Is there overlap between the two practices?
Anthropology has looked like spying many times in the discipline’s history. Indeed, our “patriarch” Franz Boas published an article condemning any activities of this sort … a century ago! To begin with, an anthropologist arriving in a foreign location presents the locals with the problem of how to account for his/her presence, when anthropology is unknown to most if not all of them. The idea that someone might have come to collect information for some “enemy” is easy to believe cross-culturally, since that happens everywhere in the world. Other roles we have been assumed to play are missionary, or thief of sacred knowledge. The pattern in every case is to try to make a stranger comprehensible in a locally meaningful idiom. In my case, the resemblance was sharpened by the officers’ recognizing that some of my practices resembled theirs—I took notes in code, I used pseudonyms for my “informers,” I gathered up all kinds of information rather than sticking to a precise questionnaire, etc.
How did it feel to read through your own 2,781-page secret police file for the first time? In what ways did it alter your perceptions and understanding of your time in Romania?
It was a terrible experience. I sat down in the reading room of the secret police archive in Bucharest with several large volumes in front of me, knowing none of the conventions of such documents, so I had no way of creating distance between them and myself. As I thumbed through them and discovered close friends who had informed on me, I felt truly awful. It would take many readings, some training by the archive staff, and the gradual passage of time before I could read the pages more or less dispassionately.
What was your goal in reading and analyzing your own file? What did you hope to uncover or illuminate?
At first I didn’t really have a goal: I was just curious to see what a file was like. Once I had seen how comprehensive it was, I thought I should use it either to write a memoir (they had a lot of data on me, after all!) or to examine how that kind of organization creates its knowledge, and to what extent we can see it as knowledge rather than just a pack of lies, as most people would assume. In what ways it was and was not a pack of lies became a very interesting problem, once I got used to it.
In your research for this book, you interviewed not only some of the secret police officers who followed you but also friends who turned out to have been informers. How did it feel to approach and speak with people who had monitored you and reported on your behavior?
Many of the ones whose reports were the most troubling to me had died before I could speak with them. Especially once I had spoken with a few who were still alive, I regretted that I had had no chance to make my peace with the ones who were not. In one case, the friend had in fact told me even before the end of the regime that she had had to write reports, but we didn’t discuss it at length until 2010, when I had read the reports themselves. In her case it was easy to ask her if she would talk about it, since I already knew. We spent several days together and had a truly illuminating time (for me—she was less enthusiastic!). I felt a tremendous mix of feelings: irritation at her for being so naive, guilt at having precipitated this experience she had found so dreadful, puzzlement at her inclination to blame me for it … but ultimately great respect for her honesty and self-insight, and huge relief to have gotten it out into the open. Although I came to feel that it was not appropriate for me to “forgive” her, our conversations did fully restore my affection for her. The experience was similar with another friend, whose identity I had guessed from the file. He gave a plausible account of himself and expressed great remorse. I did not manage to speak with any of the “mean” informers, however. Clearly, they didn’t want to.
How does your analysis of surveillance in communist Romania resonate in considerations of modern-day surveillance practices, including those practiced by countries like the U.S.?
The answer to this question has become suddenly relevant in ways I might not have expected, with the indictments handed down by Robert Mueller concerning Russian interference in our 2016 elections. One of the most important lessons I learned from reading my file (and others in which I did research) was that the goal of that secret police was to sow confusion, produce discord. Had I not seen this in my file, I would not have been able to say to my class, the day after the vote, “Putin has hacked the US election.” I lacked only the specific details concerning the use of trolls and bots. Concerning the broader comparison of communist Romania and the West today, there are some important differences in how these systems worked—for instance, the predominance of human labor (officers, informers) in Romania and of advanced technology in our own case. Those differences affect the ways of gathering information, the uses that can be made of it, and the nature of the information-gathering apparatus.