Ethnography as Espionage: An Interview with Katherine Verdery

Nicholas Glastonbury


In my first year at the Graduate Center, I had the luck and good instinct to enroll in Katherine Verdery’s course “Anthropological Approaches to Property.” Having already heard talk of Dr. Verdery’s reputation and prowess, I decided on that very first day to try to make an impression on her. After class, I rushed up to introduce myself and to tell her about how well-suited my research interests were to hers. “Interesting,” she said uninterestedly, and left the classroom. In many ways, the rest of my time at CUNY Graduate Center has been an effort to undo the embarrassment of that moment, and I have taken four classes with her as a result.

To say that Katherine Verdery looms large in the anthropology of socialism and eastern Europe would be an understatement. While a student in her 2017 course on the Ethnography of Eastern Europe (the fourth of four courses I took with her), my classmates and I colloquially referred to the course as Verdery 101. The course offered a comprehensive examination of the many unexpected vicissitudes of socialism’s collapse, from property restitution and commodity production to religious practice and embodiment. Socialism was not merely a political economic structure, but a cosmology unto itself, inexorably shaping all kinds of social relations and everyday experiences. In this regard, socialism is best understood through ethnography and related anthropological methods, an approach that has underpinned Dr. Verdery’s entire academic career. 

In 1973, Katherine Verdery was a graduate student embarking on her inaugural ethnographic fieldwork in rural Romania. Her first book, Transylvanian Villagers, draws on this fieldwork, analyzing the transformations of one particular village in the peripheries of European capitalism as imperial and national borders are drawn and redrawn, always with an eye to how local peasants identify with and relate to these histories. Over the next forty years, during her storied career as an anthropologist, Verdery made numerous return visits, tracking not only the demise of socialism and the infamous regime of Nicolae Ceaușescu but also the ramifications of culture, politics, and economy in a postsocialist world. In What was Socialism, and What Comes Next? she answers her titular questions by theorizing socialism and capitalism as temporalizing market structures. In The Vanishing Hectare, she describes the complicated, fraught process of privatizing Romania’s collectivized farms, asserting ultimately that property is person-forming. And in The Political Lives of Dead Bodies — my personal favorite — she makes the provocative claim that dead bodies animate the study of politics. Her other work touches upon national sentiment and ideology, ethnic identity, gender, and cultural politics.

From the very beginning of her fieldwork, Verdery was extensively surveilled by the Romanian secret police. In the 2000s, at the encouragement of a Romanian friend, she visited to the Secret Police archives to see whether they had anything on her. What emerged was a document totaling more than 2,700 pages, far longer than any other scholar who conducted research under the communist regime in Romania. This mammoth document became the basis of her book Secrets and Truths: Ethnography in the Archive of Romania’s Secret Police, and most recently in May 2018, My Life as a Spy: Investigations in a Secret Police File. 

Since joining CUNY Graduate Center in 2005, Dr. Verdery has become a fixture of the department. To me, Verdery’s work seems well-suited to the culture of GC anthropology because it offers a model of anthropology that is politically engaged without being self-aggrandizing. Her approach probes the textures of everyday life for the many crucial contradictions that get passed over in macroscale analyses. In her work as well as her teaching, she uses scholarship produced by Eastern European scholars who continue to teach and write from Eastern Europe, a commitment to the ways in which the lived realities of postsocialism are understood by those who live it. Her approach to pedagogy in the classes I’ve taken with her, in which she managed to involve every single student in the room, has helped shape my own teaching philosophy and classroom pedagogy. Verdery quips in My Life as a Spy about her distance and cool-headedness toward her students, but the generosity of her thinking is unparalleled.

Given recent allegations that philosopher Julia Kristeva was a spy for the Bulgarian secret police, My Life as a Spy is a timely contribution that helps appraise the legacy of Cold War espionage, to think about the connections between spying and knowledge production, and perhaps most importantly, to interrogate the very epistemic category of espionage itself. My Life as a Spy is also a moving tribute to all those enduring relationships that, in spite of the duress of life under the secret police regime, made Verdery’s ethnographic fieldwork and her career possible in the first place.

Nicholas Glastonbury: What made you write this book after you had already published Secrets and Truths, which was also about your secret police file?

Katherine Verdery: I wanted to do a completely different kind of book. I wanted to do something that was much more personal, that could be used by students interested in field research or non-specialists who would be curious about what life was like behind the Iron Curtain and so on. Secrets and Truths was really not intended for anything other than the usual academic audience. I was asked to give a set of lectures in honor of somebody and I couldn’t say no, but I couldn’t give my memoir as a way of honoring that person. It was kind of awkward, but that’s why I have two different books.

NG: You also discuss the imminent reception of the Romanian translation of My Life as a Spy as a big question mark. Near the end of the book, someone suggests to you that you should have a different ending in the Romanian edition. Do you think that’s going to happen?

KV: The ending is the same. But I did manage to say that I was condemning the secret police organization for what it did to people, so that ought to mollify some of them.

NG: You describe how your first encounters with the file conjured up these doppelgangers that you couldn’t get rid of, they were haunting you and taunting you, in part because your secret police file in total more pages than your entire career’s worth of written work…

KV: I might have caught up by now! 

NG: Congratulations on that, then! But can you talk about why you find it so hard to dispel these doppelgangers?

KV: Well, it’s easier to dispel them if I stop reading the file. But if I read it, there are just so many versions of me that different officers from different cities in different times put forth, and they all are convinced I’m a spy. But, as I say in the book, what they understand by spying is different, and they all have different problems that they’re interested in. So my attempt to get at what my friend Gillian Feeley-Harnik has referred to as a “culturally specific notion of spying” involved encountering my doppelgangers all the time. And this feeling of, my God, this person, they say it’s me but it just doesn’t feel like me. It was a very unsettling feeling all the way through, the way they questioned my motives, and so on.

NG: It’s interesting that the version of you that they’re conjuring in the file doesn’t feel like you because that also seemed to be the relationship you in the present have to yourself in the 1970s and 1980s. You write about her in the third person and you say that you don’t like her very much. And you draw parallels between “Kathy,” as you refer to her, and “Vera” and all the other pseudonyms you’re given. How did you decide to write about her in the third person?

KV: It was partly because she is also a doppelganger. She was the person who was getting described most of the time, and so that had the effect of alienating me from her because, especially at the beginning, I found I couldn’t identify with the person that was emerging from their view of me. But then, I also feel that I am a very different person now from who I was then. I’d actually considered writing the entire book in the third person, but I decided that it worked better for me to use the first person for the author of today and set Kathy off at a distance.

NG: That makes sense. In relation to this question of authorship, I’m thinking of things we read in your theory course, the postmodern stuff…

KV: Reflexivity…

NG: Reflexivity, and also ethnography as text, and the many concatenations of texts you have in this book. There are so many different forms of authorship taking place: being authored into the file by all of these different informers and officers; authoring this version of yourself in the past; your past fieldnotes, which you quote extensively from; letters you wrote; and then, on top of all that, you writing from the perspective of the present, trying to make sense of all of this. There’s something very postmodern about that.

KV: I hope it’s clear that I don’t think of this as a postmodern text in the early sense of it, but without some of the work done at that time I wouldn’t have even thought of doing this. As someone who’s been critical of postmodernism and postmodern anthropology for a long time, I nonetheless felt somewhat empowered by it for these purposes. And, as you see, I have a blurb from somebody who would never have been on the back of any of my other books, Ruth Behar. And she was an appropriate person to ask for that.

NG: I found your description of fieldwork and how frustrating it is really compelling. That’s not something that we ever really learn about, it’s such a rarefied time.

KV: That’s why I did it.

NG: Are there specific lessons that you want people like me and other anthropology students imminently going to the field to take from the book?

KV: I think the first is that, fieldwork is really quite difficult and you shouldn’t be too hard on yourself if you’re finding it difficult to do. It started getting more fun once I had done it for a while, when I had a cushion of information and could manipulate it in conversations with people. But it’s just a difficult way of trying to gain knowledge about something, and you have to be constantly asking yourself: Am I getting in the way? How am I getting in the way? I thought the book might be useful as a kind of manual for students, precisely because as you say there isn’t a lot of field training that talks about this. But I also think that, especially in the present, when so many governments are suspicious of their own people and are likely to be engaged in some kind of surveillance of them—it’s not just the communists who did this—we should expect the possibility that the people we work with are going to be facing this kind of treatment. And if you took that completely seriously, you wouldn’t do fieldwork at all. But rather, the point is to be as cautious as you can. My favorite thing in this entire file is when they describe how I’ve conducted myself with respect to some friends of mine, and they say, “this shows the care she takes with her relations with Romanians.” Which, yes! Encouraging people to think about the possible effects that they might not have imagined is another goal.

NG: To that end, do you think that naiveté is an asset in the field? Because you say that Kathy couldn’t have done her research except by being this bumbling, clumsy, naive person. 

KV:  I think naiveté helps, because it gives you a reason for asking people so many questions, because you genuinely don’t know. Otherwise, you have experiences like what I describe when I’m asking people what can they tell me about one or another historical figure and they say, you shouldn’t be asking me that, you should be asking the schoolteacher. So, our capacity for naiveté enables us to perform a role of knowledge seeker that is in fact genuine, but gives us a way of getting past the feeling of “why is he or she asking me this kind of stuff?”

NG: This is the sort of struggle that some of us are facing now, trying to write grant proposals and fellowship applications, and you have to seem as if you already know exactly what it is you’re looking for. I just know I’m just going to show up and throw my hands in the air.

KV: “Help!” 

NG: [laughs]

KV: Well, we do have many different selves that we have to put on in this process, because indeed writing a grant proposal, you have to sound as if you’ve already done it. But then when you get there you present yourself—and for the most part it’s a true self-presentation—as not knowing anything. So, it’s tricky.

NG: When was the first time you knew with certainty that you were being surveilled, that it wasn’t just some sneaking suspicion but that you knew without a doubt that you were being surveilled?

KV: Gosh, it was a long time ago. This might not have been the first time I knew I was being surveilled, but it’s the first thing I can remember. I had a friend who was a chauffeur, a driver, for intra-European travel with trucks. He used to give me rides sometimes, and one time he said he was going into town and asked if I wanted to go. I said sure. He was driving this huge trailer on which he usually carried cranes around, so it’s pretty big. And he dropped me off at the dollar store because I wanted to buy some coffee for people. And then, when he came back for me, we started driving back to town and he said, you might want to know that there’s a guy behind us that I suspect is following us. And so he proceeded to drive this enormous truck at breakneck speed through various back alleys to try to shake the tail. [laughs] I’m assuming he was telling me what he knew, it wasn’t that I knew it, but that he told me. It was a wonderful scene.

NG: Sounds like a scene from a movie, trying to go incognito in this massive truck.

KV: Right. [laughs]

NG: Why did you think that your integrity, your faith in transparency, your honesty, would exonerate you from suspicion?

KV: Because I had all kinds of very ethnocentric presuppositions that I wasn’t really aware of. I just couldn’t believe that they wouldn’t read the evidence and say, “Okay, she’s on the up-and-up.” It didn’t occur to me that their whole way of reading was completely different. I figured if I told the truth, they would understand that that was the truth. It never occurred to me that they might say, “Methinks the lady doth protest too much!” [laughs] So it was just a part of my basic immaturity and testimony to the fact that fieldwork training was very deficient in my early training. And I didn’t know how to think about what I was doing.

NG: Transparency really takes a beating in this book.

KV: Another blow for transparency!

NG: I was also struck by how the secret police is simultaneously so exacting in its surveillance and then also so bumbling. They misspell your name in every possible way imaginable, and they also completely miss so many things and make so many mistakes. For example, you mention that they didn’t know you had received your PhD twelve years after you actually had. Can you talk about how these two tendencies coalesce into the way that surveillance operates as a form of statecraft?

KV: Interesting. They certainly were exacting in their surveillance. They were following me around and they were listening to telephone conversations and all of this kind of stuff, yes indeed. But partly, it’s that each branch of the service that does each of these things—the people who transcribe the eavesdropping, the people who actually follow you, the people who are checking your correspondence and making sure you’re not writing anything out or getting anything in that’s bad—are all different people. The only person that has a prayer of actually putting all this together is the so-called case officer, who reads all the reports, but they had a lot of targets and they probably couldn’t keep them all straight. It was one guy trying to absorb all this stuff and then use it to good effect. But the other point that I make towards the end, where I have the story of the tomcat and the mouse…

NG: The target function, yeah….

KV: which is the most important thing about being under surveillance, is that they have to maintain this activity in order to confirm that they’re carrying out their duty to the security of the state. To some extent, it’s less important what they find than that they are constantly looking. 

NG: That makes me think of your point that American anthropologists coming to Romania are affording the Securitate the opportunity to expand their reach in rural parts of the country. You say that as their target, you’re a tool for them to expand their surveillance. It’s a bit like the critique that Talal Asad takes up in Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter, talking about the notion that anthropologists are the “handmaidens of colonialism.” He posits this binary that most ways of thinking about anthropology adhere to, in which anthropologists are seen either as handmaidens to colonialism or as champions of the downtrodden. He says we need a critique that is not one or the other, but is more nuanced, somewhere in the middle. But do you feel like you were a handmaiden to the Secret Police?

KV: I don’t know exactly how many the Securitate drew into the net to work on me. I counted it up at one point and I got seventy, but there could have been other people. But I do think that they were happy to have us Americans to get more contact with the villages. There were a lot of Americans in Romania in those years, the 1970s and early 1980s, because it was the easiest country to do fieldwork until the early eighties. So yeah, in that sense, we were the handmaidens of the secret police, as far as giving them access to more potential informants was concerned.

NG: Where do you think that leaves you?

KV: Very disturbed. [laughs] I didn’t know it at the time, but… very disturbed. And the only thing that can counter that is thinking in terms of how people who knew me got a better sense of America and life in America. They were always asking me all these questions like, are there drugs all over the place, this that and the other, to combat the propaganda they were getting there. And I would say, people use drugs, not everybody. I wasn’t necessarily the most patriotic American respondent, but they learned something. And I had several people whom I got to be pretty close to who would tell me things that they wouldn’t have told a Romanian, because they knew that I represented a neutral, safe person. One example of this is this couple, Ralf and Anna, whom I write about, who told me that they were planning to defect, and even their son didn’t know that. There are ways in which we foreigners can also become a special kind of trusted person because of our position in society. And that’s a positive gain. It maybe doesn’t justify the whole enterprise, but it ameliorates it. 

NG: It reminds me of a point you make in the book, when you talk about the “ambivalent position of the anthropologist: although not outsiders, we are not insiders either. Our work occurs in the space of difference that defines us as both part of and not part of the places we study” (262). This book is so fascinating in particular because you see concretely in your file, with remarkable precision, how the social fabric of the places where you do fieldwork is reconstituted and renegotiated because of your presence.

KV: Some time ago some person at the archive decided to make this documentary about me. We went out to the village and she interviewed a bunch of people and this guy was one of them. And she said something like, “you know, what difference did it make that she was here?” And he said, “It was fantastic that she was here because she gave a wonderful example of what it’s like to work hard and conscientiously.” People around here tended to be a little bit lackadaisical and here was somebody who gave them a different image of work and the life of the scholar. I thought that was cool, I liked that.

NG: Can you tell me a little more about this documentary?

KV: The point of it was to fulfill some of the educational purposes of the archive. Part of its mandate is to give people access to their files, but also part of its mandate is to teach younger generations about the evil that was the secret police. And that’s their business. I participated because they said they wanted to have something they could use in their educational programs. We went out to the village and visited people, and then we went to the city of Cluj and visited a couple more people. The guy who did the filming is a very well-known Romanian filmmaker. And then there was a woman from the archive who was interviewing me. But she was always off-camera, and so she was always just a voice. At one point I said to her,  “Get into the frame!” And she got very upset because she didn’t want to be. I said, “You’re just like the Secret Police!” She got so furious! [laughs] But it just struck me that there was something very odd about this, how she wanted to remain invisible, just like some other people we knew!


KV: As for what’s happened with the film, I haven’t a clue. She told me that I should circulate it with the book, because it’s translated, it has subtitles. But I didn’t press that on Duke or the people doing the Romanian version. Because I asked my friend who’s translating the book into Romanian what she thought about this, and she said it would add significant cost to the total enterprise because we wouldn’t be able to charge the extra amount to the price of the book and still have it be saleable. So she said she really didn’t want to do it. My friend at the archive was very convinced that people were going to find this useful.

NG: In the book, you talk a lot about the archivists at the National Council for the Study of the Securitate Archives. They make appearances every so often, you refer to them as colleagues, sometimes you ask them advice, and sometimes they’d offer advice unsolicited. What is their role in relation to the files themselves?

KV: There’s the archivist of the secret police who sits in the secret police offices and goes through the files periodically and takes out stuff that’s old, or rebinds it, or takes stuff out that’s incriminating to somebody else. That person is known in the secret police organograms as the archivist. But then, I actually worked in a library, that was where I spent a lot of my time, that was its own kind of archive. I was reading stuff, I’d ask them to bring me the papers of so-and-so that the library happens to hold. And so I was reading it as an archive as well as a library. Those people were just scholars like anybody. They could be informers, but certainly not all of them were. I hope. [laughs]

NG: [laughs]

KV: Who knows.

NG: You suggest such networks still exist in the Romanian Intelligence Service and were inherited from the Securitate. When you went back to do the fieldwork around your file and for this book, do you think that you encountered anyone who presently works for the Romanian Intelligence Service?

KV: I wasn’t aware of it but it’s quite possible. I heard a paper by a guy who’s from one of the Eastern European countries and he was at a conference that I was also at in 2009, twenty years after the collapse of the regimes. This paper was about how the secret police of his home country were alive and well in the present day. He was arguing that the whole business class in his country were either former secret police people or else connected with them. And I called him up some time after the conference because I wanted to cite the paper, and I said, “Have you published that paper?” He said, “Um, no, because I was contacted by someone that I suspect was part of the secret police of my country and advised not to continue with this line of inquiry.” In order to write or talk about him, I have to make up a pseudonym for him and I can’t say what country he’s from. It never stops. [laughs]

NG: That’s wild! So, changing tack: you organize your memoir around the contents of the secret police file rather than necessarily around your life and fieldwork. The events of your fieldwork are a big part of the memoir, but it’s very much structured around the file and what the file says about you. Why did you structure it according to the file itself?

KV: Originally, I had the chapter on the 1970s and the chapter on the 1980s, and then just one chapter with some of the stuff that’s at the end. And I decided that it was better for me to divide it up and have this “Ruminations” thing at the very end, in which I try to step back and make sense of the whole thing. But I couldn’t figure out another way to write it that wouldn’t have taxed the reader too much. When I was reading the file myself, it was really very confusing. They would have a whole slew of documents that were just correspondence that they translated from English. A whole pile of the documents were stories of following me on many different dates. The file was not organized chronologically, so I thought it would be interesting to violate its premises by organizing my book chronologically. Because I thought it would be too hard to make a story out of it for readers not familiar with this kind of text. It took me a long time to figure out how to write this book, and I’m sure there’s decisions I could have made differently.

NG: I think violating the premise of the file is itself interesting as a way of reclaiming it, not letting them continue to have control over the terms of your life or your presence in Romania.

KV: Right, exactly.

NG: You write that surveillance is “often just a form of socializing” (92). Can you explain what you mean by that?

KV: Some of the people that were filing reports on me would be talking with the police about the coffee that we’d had, or they would have invited me to dinner and we would spend the whole evening drinking or eating, and that would turn into the basis for an informer’s report. So that’s what I meant. There’s a blurry boundary between when they’re being the secret service’s tool and when they’re being my friend. It’s not exactly easy to sort that out. And it’s different from the high-tech surveillance of our age in this country now, which is entirely done without face-to-face work.

NG: That also reminds me of the central premise of a big part of the book which is that ethnography itself is a kind of espionage.

KV: Over and over again in my file, I encountered their worry that I was collecting “socio-political information” that I would publish, creating an unpleasant image of Romania abroad. And they were really concerned with Romania’s image abroad. When I saw these repeated references to my collecting “socio-political information,” I said to myself, you know, they really aren’t wrong about this. The line between ethnography and espionage was getting thinner and thinner as I thought about it. Because I wasn’t in there to create a nice public image of Romania. That’s what they wanted me to do. They wanted me to write a book saying, “This is the most wonderful country with the most wonderful people, and great scenery, and a wonderful, enviable past.” And that’s not what I was there for.

NG: Maybe we can end by talking about the connections you make between your surveillance by the secret police and the proliferation of new forms of surveillance in the contemporary era. What kinds of insights do you think this book offers for understanding surveillance as it works today?

KV: I deleted, or tried to delete, my Facebook account when I started really reading this file. Because your Facebook account is the most remarkable instrument of surveillance ever developed, and it’s voluntarily participated in by virtually everyone. But the two forms, the form I experienced and the form that’s going on now, are quite different because the form I experienced was based directly on social relationships. They’re creating relationships with their informers who had relationships with me. It was what I would call labor-intensive; whereas the stuff going on in the US is mainly capital- or technology-intensive. Although Facebook does manipulate personal relationships, it doesn’t involve manipulating them in quite the same way. It makes you want to be an island.

Katherine Verdery is Julien J. Studley Faculty Scholar and Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Her new book, My Life as a Spy: Investigations in a Secret Police File, is out now from Duke University Press.

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