After the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe, newly elected parliaments adopted legislation to dispose of the former communist elites. Through so-called “lustration” laws (“purification” in Latin) countries addressed the legacy of human rights abuses by identifying and, in some cases, sentencing those responsible for abuses under the prior regime. Lustration, however, was only one of the ways that secret police files could be used. It also allowed the public to see who were secret police agents or informers and gave victims of the secret police the opportunity to access the files that were kept on them. For example, Germany did not have a lustration law but opened the files of the Stasi – the much-hated secret police of the former DDR, the eastern communist part of Germany that reunited with Western Germany in 1990.
Since then many high-profile dissidents, writers, and journalists have published reflections on their secret police files. Probably one of the most famous is The File: A Personal History (1997) in which Timothy Garton Ash describes how the Stasi kept track of him as correspondent in divided Berlin in the 1980s. Most of these memoires appeared in the late 1990s. Anthropologist Katherine Verdery’s My Life as a Spy comes rather late to the party, but it has definitely been worth the wait.
“There’s nothing like reading your secret police file to make you wonder who you really are.” It’s the opening sentence of Verdery’s “auto-ethnography” – a combination of memoir and ethnography of the functioning of the Securitate, Romania’s much-feared secret police. Verdery is known for her many anthropological studies on Romania. She came into possession of her secret police file after parliament, as the last country in the region, passed a lustration law in 1999 – a decade after the revolution that ended Romania’s brutal dictatorship – granting people access to their Securitate surveillance files. Having worked in Romania since 1973, Verdery was eligible to see her file. After she reluctantly requested it, a stack of binders and paper that could barely fit into her suitcase, she put it in a corner of her study and didn’t look at it for two years. When she finally started reading her files she was dumb-founded: from 1973 to 1988 the secret police was aware of all her movements, meetings and even intimate rendez-vous’s through a network of seventy informers, bugged apartments and even hidden cameras. In My Life as a Spy: Investigations in a Secret Police File, Verdery use her files to tell the story of an anthropologist who comes of age, reports on her meetings with both informers and secret police as she confronts them, and reflects on the role of anthropologists.
“Anthropologists in the field play a variant of the role of ‘foreign visitor.’ We go to some place, usually different from our home place, and hang out with the people we meet, trying to learn something of how they see and act in the world. In the process, we present them with the challenge of how to account for our presence, how to understand who we are and what we are doing. There is much room here for reciprocal identity-creation. Sometimes we are seen as missionaries trying to convert the locals, sometimes as poachers on their sacred knowledge. In many places, we have been viewed as spies and kept under surveillance.”
The difference for anthropologists working behind the Iron Curtain, writes Verdery, was “the powering importance of the Cold War.” “As a result, doing fieldwork in a communist country inserted the researcher directly into a global context, giving things a significance they might not have had elsewhere. An anthropologist in the field ‘behind the Iron Curtain’ was a point at which global political forces intersected; anything she did could be interpreted in that light.” Consequently, the secret police assumed that a simple call by Verdery to Cluj, the main city in Transylvania that used to be part of Hungary, was to the famous dissident Doina Cornea. It’s the one time that the Securitate got it wrong, because for once the phone call was not tapped.
Labelled by the securişti as “the Folklorist,” the young anthropologist meets many people in Romania’s country side, of which a shockingly high number informed on her (described in Part I, “Research under Surveillance”). “Aside from my personal feelings about them, in a broader sense informers’ reports raise the important and sobering possibility that I, along with the several several other anthropologists who came to Romania during the 1970s, served as new points of entry for the Securitate into rural areas, where it had been sorely underrepresented. In those years, approximately 15 percent of informers were to be found in villages, where 50–60 percent of the population lived. In a word, anthropologists brought some benefits to the police.”
Had there still been any doubts about her identity as a spy, in the eyes of the Securitate, the topic of Verdery’s second research project in Romania (described in chapter 2, “The 1980s: The Enemy’s Many Masks”) earned her that label outright: the historical formation of national ideology. This research brought her in touch with new circles of Romanians, including many Hungarian-Romanian intellectuals who to the Securitate were suspected secessionists.
What makes Verdery’s book so unique is that she not only opens up her secret police file to a wider audience, but also confronts her informers and secret police agents, which she describes in much detail. The result (Part II, “Inside the Mechanisms of Surveillance”) is a fascinating tour de force. She meets with informers – some of them friends she trusted – and high-ranking Securitate officers who, with the passing of time, seem even sympathetic and open up to her about their surveillance work during the communist era.
Romania’s secret police had a reputation as being particularly harsh and ruthless. Verdery shows, however, that this reputation may be true for the 1940s and 1950s, in the early days of the communist regime, but that by the 1960s new generations of securişti were recruited that were much better educated and trained. The fact that the secret police were not always feared and were not isolated from the general population, explains part of their success in expanding their surveillance:
“Thus, instead of imagining an invisible Securitate preying on a frightened population, we should imagine a dense and varied field of relations, as Secus connect with friends, neighbors, and relatives, develop complex relations with their informers, and do favors for ‘volunteers’ who send them information uninvited. Sometimes the informers are fearful, but sometimes they become such friends that the officer even attends their funeral … Thus, the Securitate was not somehow ‘above’ society in the apparatus of the state but inside it, with tentacles that crept into people’s social relations in generally destructive ways.”
My Life as a Spy is a wonderfully written, insightful and personal “auto-ethnography” about the life of an anthropologist in which revealing anecdotes and self-deprecation are coupled with superb assessments of the workings of the world of the Securitate in Romania; an analysis of surveillance under communism by a researcher who was a target of that surveillance.
Katherine Verdery. My Life as a Spy: Investigations in a Secret Police File. Durham/London: Duke University Press, May 2018.