With “Kathy” and “Vera” in Communist Romania

by Steven Sampson, Lund University

My Life as a Spy: Investigations in a Secret Police File, by Katherine Verdery (Durham: Duke University Press, 2018)

We anthropologists enter the field with our own agendas. These agendas are not necessarily evil or malevolent, but they are often unclear to the people we study or to those observing us. After all, the people we study live different lives than we do, and our project can never be the same as their project. It is therefore no accident that most anthropologists have been accused of being spies at one time or another—spies for government intelligence agencies, or for host governments, or for welfare organs, or police, or for a competing NGO, or for a neighboring clan.

Katherine Verdery, who has done research in Romania since 1973, and recently retired from the CUNY Graduate Center, was not a spy in the conventional sense. She did not work for US intelligence, did not have a plan to destabilize the Ceaușescu regime, did not organize opposition, and she did not attempt to steal military secrets or recruit Romanian agents. She was just an anthropologist trying to figure out how things work in a society different from her own. During her fieldwork in Romania, she interacted with a wide circle of Romanians. She gathered all kinds of information. And she gave them information about  how things work in the West, or about certain academic debates, or just what she thought about life in Romania under the Ceaușescu regime. In Romania, this made her as dangerous as any foreign spy. The Romanian security organs, the notorious Securitate, kept a file on Verdery, as they did on all foreign researchers in Romania. My own file is about 600 pages and stopped in 1984 when I was declared persona non grata. Verdery’s file, covering from 1973 to 1990, is 2,781 pages long. The file on “Vera,” as she was called by the Securitate (although she had other code names), contains observations, assessments, informants’ accounts, photographs, analyses of her academic work, and even of her character, all attempting to decipher her agenda, her “secret plan.” Having gained access to this file, Verdery’s project in this book is to describe her field research activities in Romania as the innocent anthropologist “Kathy,” and then compare this account with the Securitate’s files about her alter ego “Vera.” This book is about the encounter between “Kathy” and “Vera.”

“Kathy” conducted her initial dissertation fieldwork in a Romanian village that happened to be near an armaments factory, and this fieldwork ended up as a monograph on ethnicity and history in Transylvania. She then continued with research on nationalist ideology until 1988, this time living in the Romanian university town of Cluj, where she was closely observed by the local security organs and their network of civilian informants (her file contains reports by 70 informants). During both stints of fieldwork, Kathy did what most anthropologists do: participant-observation at informal gatherings, meetings and events; interviews with peasants, intellectuals and officials; eating, drinking and commiserating with locals and friends; gathering documents and dealing with officials; moving around the country and commuting between different social groups, from ordinary villagers to university professors. She did all this in what was Europe’s poorest and most repressive country up to 1989 (except for Albania), a country where it was illegal for a Romanian to even speak to a foreigner without permission, where typewriters were registered, phones tapped, letters opened, eggs rationed, and birth control and abortion outlawed; and where no one could take a trip to the West without approval from the secret police. In Romania, every foreign researcher was registered, recorded and surveilled, and all were simply assumed to be working with or for some kind of foreign intelligence service (American, British, German, Hungarian, exile circles, Radio Free Europe, and so on). “Vera”, for example, was suspected of being an operative for both the CIA and Hungarian espionage.

This kind of environment makes you paranoid. And with good reason. Verdery does not shy away from revealing (in hindsight) “Kathy’s” naiveté in bringing what she considered to be an academic agenda into an authoritarian state. “Kathy” makes unintentional mistakes, she offends friends and colleagues with a misplaced joke in her book, she misses some signals. She thinks that if she is open and above board people will understand her project; but this makes them even more suspicious. On top of this naiveté, some of her closest confidantes are also filing reports with the Securitate, revealing details of their most intimate conversations and describing her personal character or her potential weaknesses. The Securitate’s mission is to find a way, if not to “turn”  Verdery, at least to understand her hidden agenda. The security agents observe “Kathy” and turn her into that potential spy, code name “Vera.” This tale of “Kathy” meets “Vera” is thus a story of the messy kind of academic work which is often, in retrospect, embarrassing. But social life is always messy. It has its hidden and layered agendas, unintended consequences, situational moralities, crude opportunism, and people trying to survive (in this case, in a brutal regime that forced choices about whether and how much to collaborate in routine surveillance).

Having met with several of her informants and even with three amiable ex-Securitate officers, Verdery ends her book with an expression of empathy for those who informed on her. The secret police bureaucracy had their own plan to find spies, and the spies had to be found or invented, no matter what. The Securitate officers were bureaucrats in an oppressive system. The informers were victims, too; they were ordinary Romanians who were pressured to report on her and then had to adjust to the situation, sometimes fearing that they would lose their jobs or  privileges of traveling abroad if they did not cooperate.

In the end, the security services wanted “Kathy” to give the world a positive impression of Romania, which in their view would be the only acceptable outcome of their surveillance. In many cases, however, they misread or misinterpreted the activities of the young American anthropologist, mistaking her naiveté or occasional change of plans as sly attempts to escape surveillance and conduct intelligence gathering. This teaches a larger lesson. Regardless of how we anthropologists learn about fieldwork (as a “method”, as a way of “gathering data”, as an attempt at “understanding the other”), our field practices can look quite different to those we study. Indeed, “Kathy’s” fieldwork appeared strange and suspicious under the skeptical eye of Romanian secret police agents, as it also did to the Romanians who befriended the American anthropologist and were suddenly contacted by the security organs, and even to some of “Kathy’s” most intimate acquaintances, who unlike her could not travel abroad or even receive a letter from the West without being becoming suspect to the regime. By seeing herself through their eyes, in the files, “Kathy” discovers that she is not “Kathy” but “Vera,” a suspicious foreigner with a clandestine mission. For “Kathy” to find out she is not who she says she is, and that she is this “Vera” person…. Well, it’s disconcerting. This is not just a moment of introspection in this book; there is also some pain and disappointment in the revelation that valued relationships were not what they seemed; that she had friends who were also informers.

Every anthropologist should read this book for four reasons. First, it reminds us that our scientific “research” contains a hell of a lot of serendipity, improvisation, naiveté and just plain walking in the dark. Verdery shows us what all this looks like to others, both those who would support or befriend us in our research mission, as well as those suspicious villagers or security organs who mistrust our intentions and end up creating “Veras” for all of us. Second, the book is an exercise in the anthropology of documents and the way we can interrogate these. Verdery spoke with those who produced these documents, finding out how they were recruited and how the documents were managed. Gathering data about others is one thing; gathering data about how others see us is quite another. We all have files. And they last forever (some are written, others not; the latter are called “memory”). Third, her book offers a way to reflect more deeply on the gray zone between transparency and surveillance, between the need to disclose who one is and the need to keep some things private, and, further, how this gray zone invites suspicion about secret motives and plans. The regime into which “Kathy” entered sought to find out her secrets, including those she did not know she had. To do this, the police analyzed her texts, bugged her room, pressured her friends and pried into her private life. All this surveillance took place three to four decades ago, and it involved prying open her social network and manipulating bonds of trust. Imagine what methods they could have used today. Finally, Verdery’s book is a stark reminder of what authoritarian regimes actually do to people at the most personal level. The regime forced ordinary Romanians to make terrible choices about how to collaborate with the security services, whether to betray Kathy or remain loyal to her. But the regime also did something to “Kathy” by turning her into “Vera”, and ultimately, making her paranoid when she returned home. “Kathy” went native with a vengeance.

I used to be suspicious of the overblown and polemical claims of the governmentality literature, but Verdery shows us the true mentality part of governmentality in Ceaușescu’s Romania. And it was brutal. Surveillance, or fear of surveillance, marked Romanians’ everyday lives. People feared each other, and people feared what would happen when a friendly American researcher walked into their home or office to interview them or just have a coffee. It made everyone paranoid, and afraid to say what they really believed for fear that it would be recorded on a microphone or reported in a dossier by an envious colleague. 

While all these experiences certainly helped form Verdery’s subsequent work on socialism and post-socialism, they left a deeper, personal mark. This book is not just an account of fieldwork experiences, but also an account of her life, an autobiography. We all have files in one way or another, some written and official, others informal and discursive. Regardless of our good intentions and ethical precautions, we’re all being sized up. Social research is about studying others. Verdery reminds us that the others study us as well. So be careful out there.

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