My Life as a Spy: Investigations in a Secret Police File

My Life as a Spy: Investigations in a Secret Police File

by Katherine Verdery


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As Katherine Verdery observes, "There's nothing like reading your secret police file to make you wonder who you really are." In 1973 Verdery began her doctoral fieldwork in the Transylvanian region of Romania, ruled at the time by communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. She returned several times over the next twenty-five years, during which time the secret police—the Securitate—compiled a massive surveillance file on her. Reading through its 2,781 pages, she learned that she was "actually" a spy, a CIA agent, a Hungarian agitator, and a friend of dissidents: in short, an enemy of Romania. In My Life as a Spy she analyzes her file alongside her original field notes and conversations with Securitate officers. Verdery also talks with some of the informers who were close friends, learning the complex circumstances that led them to report on her, and considers how fieldwork and spying can be easily confused. 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822370666
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 05/08/2018
Pages: 344
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Katherine Verdery is Julien J. Studley Faculty Scholar and Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and the author of numerous books, including The Vanishing Hectare: Property and Value in Postsocialist Transylvania and Secrets and Truths: Ethnography in the Archive of Romania's Secret Police.

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The 1970s

"The Folklorist" as Military Spy

Certain death with a cobra, But more certain with a Mobra.

— Romanian jingle concerning the Mobra motorbike

In keeping with the file's casual attitude toward chronology, mentioned earlier, the document indicating when I crossed the border into Romania for the first time is numbered page 234. It says I arrived on a tourist visa on 22 July 1973 and would stay for a month with Mrs. Jana Cionila (the mother of my Romanian tutor at Stanford). During that time I would receive my research visa for the year. Then I would settle on a field site, return to Bucharest for further preparation, and finally establish myself in some village by November. But although there would be plenty of Securitate activity around me during that time, I did not officially acquire a surveillance file until March 1974, eight months after my arrival. My ill-starred adventure with the motorbike would contribute to that.

Arrivals and Misadventures

Arrival in Bucharest

I had headed for Romania by train via Greece and Bulgaria, stopping in Sofia, where I would have to wait several hours for a connection to Bucharest. I spent that time walking around town with a cheerful Libyan fellow who had shared my compartment in the train. We also sat in a park and watched grandmothers babysitting their grandchildren while the parents were at work. Darkness fell. As we stood waiting on the platform, I noticed all at once a sleek locomotive that had slipped almost silently into the station, pulling a long train behind it. Written on a placard on the engine in large Cyrillic letters was "MOCKBA" — "MOSCOW." I felt a sudden shiver of fear, having not realized until then that I would be on a train heading into the heart of the Soviet empire. I still remember that feeling, a visceral sign of the Cold War environment in which I had grown up.

It is worth reiterating my ignorance of the country I was coming to — partly an effect of that same Cold War. There was no literature on Romania in English in my field; virtually no Anglophone anthropologist had worked there yet. I had read the few volumes in French, based on work in the 1930s (which helped me little, four decades later), and a handful of articles in French and English by Romanian sociologist Mihail Cernea, but my Romanian at the time of my departure had not been up to reading works in that language. I was virtually a tabula rasa.

Bearing a large bouquet, Jana Cionila met my train and took me to her tiny apartment (a single large room stuffed with furniture and tchotchkes). She chattered constantly in rapid-fire Romanian I could barely make out. A diminutive round woman with short white hair, she had a gold tooth that flashed when she smiled. I tried to be as amusing as possible so I could see it often. Without her warm welcome I would have felt even more desperate than I already did at entering this frightening new country where I knew not a single soul.

It didn't take me long to begin experimenting with who I was, creating my own double even before the Securitate did so. In Bucharest, at Jana's suggestion and seconded by a couple of other people, I decided I would have an easier time in Romania if I were married. This would help me fend off unwanted attentions (which had already begun with the ticket collector on the train). It would also ease prospective visits from my companion at the time, anthropologist Bill Skinner ("Wm," below), if I presented him as my husband. Jana had a few wedding rings — her "savings plan" — and was happy to lend me one, which I would then wear home and give to her daughter at Stanford. I was gradually to discover that Romanians in general and Romanian men in particular had completely different attitudes to young unmarried women and young married ones. It seemed that being married conveyed greater importance and gravitas than being a young single woman, and I found I liked the contrast quite a lot. If only my too-large wedding ring hadn't been constantly falling off, giving me away.

Letter to Wm, Sept. 73

Sitting at dinner I suddenly realized that — perhaps through this ruse of being married — I find I'm considering myself more a woman than a girl, and that's a switch of massive proportions in self-conception. Something to do with not being condescended to, being taken seriously as someone with a task to accomplish, however incomprehensible it is to most of these people. But more to do with my self-perception than with any objective behavior directed at me (after all, I believe I'm taken seriously in the US too). I feel myself a status equal, in opposition to men especially, rather than being a step below.

If being in Romania was to involve "becoming" a spy in the Securitate's eyes, then my identity was already in a state of flux.

One other thing contributed to my new self-perception: height. At the time, I was five foot four, slightly on the short side for women my age in the States. In Romania, the average for both sexes was much shorter than at home (partly, no doubt, from malnutrition during and after World War II). Now I was relatively tall, and it made a difference in how I felt in my relations with people. I could look more people in the eye, or even down at them, giving me an advantage in some social interactions. I felt that somehow I'd gained authority, become more of a "grown-up" (always a struggle for me). When I went home, I was sad to become short again.

* * *

My IREX grant was partly administered through the U.S. Embassy in Bucharest, which entailed certain privileges (most importantly, ordering from a duty-free shop and use of the diplomatic pouch for mail) but also connected us with embassy personnel, especially the cultural and political attachés. Fulbright fellows were even more tied to the embassy than were IREXers. Like the other grantees, I accepted this arrangement without questioning it. Unsurprisingly, however, I would learn from my file that these connections aroused the Securitate's suspicions. Why hadn't I anticipated that, you ask? Because, first, I wasn't really thinking that much about how things would look to the Securitate, and second, I probably thought they knew about our arrangements, since our grants had been approved through Romanian government organizations. (Indeed, my case officer for 1974 mentions them in one of his reports.)

My Cluj Secus would find very suspicious my occasional meetings with the embassy personnel who came through town (and who would take my field notes back to Bucharest for mailing, saving me two full days of traveling for that purpose every month or so). One of the cultural attachés, Merrie Blocker, was a college classmate of mine, and another, Kiki Munshi, a marvelous woman with whom I still correspond; I was happy for these connections, which often proved not just pleasurable but very helpful. Although it puzzles me now to recall how little I questioned the arrangement then as I see its consequences in my surveillance, the relationship with the embassy was on balance beneficial, and I took it for granted as a condition of my fellowship.

Another reason for my not giving more thought to these arrangements — and to my inevitable relations with the Securitate — was, I suspect, a shortcoming of my graduate education, whether of my training or of my absorption of it. As early as his 1919 letter to The Nation entitled "Scientists as Spies," famous anthropologist Franz Boas raised a prescient warning about the linkage of anthropology to state power. He wrote: "A person ... who uses science as a cover for political spying, who demeans himself to pose before a foreign government as an investigator and asks for assistance in his alleged researches in order to carry on, under this cloak, his political machinations, ... forfeits the right to be classed as a scientist." Although his warning fell on hostile ears, the discipline's later history included several broader critiques of anthropology's political connections, such as the 1960s furor about anthropologists working in Southeast Asia. I remember reading about that but dismissing it as irrelevant because I did not intend to work for the CIA, as some of them did. With the exception of Bill Skinner, my faculty advisors knew too little about conditions for fieldwork in Romania to caution me, and the main lesson I took away from Skinner's experience of having all his field notes confiscated in Mao's China was to be sure I had multiple copies of my notes in different locations and to send them out regularly through the diplomatic pouch. But I remained vulnerable to surveillance, whether through innocence or conceit.

* * *

Although my filter in these pages will be how the Securitate, its apparatus, and its culture of secrecy shaped me and my work, I should first introduce some of the friends who made life in Romania so often delightful. Most will also have some connection with my surveillance, even if only for their response to my thinking about this book. I begin with Silvia and Marina.

At the end of my first week in the country, Angela, the embassy employee in charge of IREX grantees, invited me to go to the Black Sea with her and a number of other friends. One of their group had just dropped out and they had an extra space (which they needed someone to pay for). There were seven people plus me. Two of them, Silvia and Marina, remain my friends to this day. We enjoyed a number of adventures at the Black Sea, including the fun of trying to slip me unnoticed past the hotel reception desk every day, since if they asked for my identification papers and saw my passport, I would have to pay much more for my room. This launched my occasional habit of hiding my identity, trying to "pass" as a Romanian.

A style maven to the hilt who was always well turned out and always on the lookout for Paris fashion magazines, Marina was a very talented seamstress (her regular job was teaching art) and made me several wonderful dresses during that year. After she fled to the United States in 1990, this talent helped her move up from sewing clothes in Milwaukee's garment district to becoming a top buyer for Saks Fifth Avenue. My friendship with Silvia — also an art teacher — began to blossom more fully after Marina's departure, as Silvia and her husband put me up whenever I came to town and she ceased to be just a casual friend. Moreover, she has given me many a valuable reality check in my writing and will appear in that guise in these pages. A truly gifted storyteller with a pixie face and a mordant wit, she has delighted me for twenty-five years with stories, such as those in her wonderful book Marvelous Aunts (Matusi minunate) about the fates of the old privileged classes from which she hails, as they learned to paint radiators for communist enterprises after they got out of prison.

From these friends I learned how Romanians sought to protect themselves from the Securitate and the consequences of being in contact with foreigners, something that was technically against the law unless reported to the police (though few Romanians I knew then obeyed that law). During the 1970s, whenever I came to Bucharest from the countryside, Marina would invite me to dinner with the others on Saturday, asking me to get out of my cab or other transportation a few blocks from her house, then walk the rest (the Secus were not fooled). I was never to call from my hotel room in Bucharest but only from pay phones — which, I was to discover from my file, were just as closely monitored. When we were all assembled, they would turn on the TV or phonograph very loud, making it impossible for any eavesdropping Securitate officers to understand what we were saying. My documents show that this strategy was successful, though unfortunately, it at first prevented me, with my barely functional Romanian, from understanding anything either. But the message was clear: my new friends routinely behaved as if an unseen and unwelcome presence was part of our gathering.

With this training, I am surprised to recall how dismissive I was — along with most of the other grantees — of the orientation the embassy personnel provided, which informed us of the multiple sources of surveillance to which we would be subject. We regarded them as paranoid, stuck in an old Cold Warrior mind-set that saw conspiracies and surveillance everywhere. Quite full of myself, I dismissed it all as a Red Scare exaggeration. Although my project was not about "communism," I and some of the other grantees were nonetheless sure that our work might change the way the communist system was understood at home, creating a more "realistic" and less "paranoid" view. Reading my file many years later, though, I discover, to paraphrase Lily Tomlin, that no matter how paranoid we became, it was never enough to keep up.

Professor Mihai Pop

I returned from the Black Sea to meet the person who would be my research supervisor, Professor Mihai Pop. A robust, imposing man, very handsome with wavy white hair, heavy black glasses, and a near-perpetual smile, he was Romania's most eminent specialist in ethnography and folklore. He had agreed to take me on as a personal favor to the head of IREX, Allen Kassof, for although IREX had ranked my proposal first on the U.S. side, the Romanian side had trouble finding an institution to assign me to, for Western-style anthropology did not exist there. The sociologists said I was too much a folklorist, the folklorists said I was too sociological. As a result, my application was rejected. Only Kassof's intervention got me in: he knew Professor Pop well from the early years of the exchanges and simply asked him to take me into the institute he headed, the Institute of Ethnography and Folklore. Professor Pop agreed. He was used to protecting assorted scholarly misfits in his institute and had the political skills and connections to do so.

I was extraordinarily fortunate, for Professor Pop was a remarkable mentor. He regularly invited me to his office and his home, where he would tell me all kinds of fascinating things about social organization and social processes in the countryside. He made the study of contemporary Romanian life sing, without much mention of the impact of the Communist Party. He introduced me to people he thought I would find interesting, took me on a couple of trips to folklore festivals in the most beautiful parts of Romania, and when I got into trouble, went all the way to my proposed field site (an eight-hour train ride) to try to set things right. I cannot say I have done the same for my own students. In addition, he provided a wonderful example of someone who loved life, enjoyed himself and his work, and knew how to play the system to the benefit of those in his circle. A sign of his political adroitness is that he appears in my Securitate file in only one place, with a lengthy summary of my dissertation. We remained good friends until his death in 2000, at age ninety-three, and I am still in touch with his family.

Shortly after I met Professor Pop, I wrote the following appreciation to my partner at home:

Had lunch with Pop. What I really like is his talking about doing all he does in his life as if each thing were a game, with its own rules and rewards but ultimately to be taken as a form of enjoyment rather than a deadly serious business. He claims that's the route that allows him freedom in Romania, where many people don't findfreedom possible. It's not that he doesn't take serious interest in his work — he loves it — but the element of geniality is never lost.

"The Folklorist" Heads Off on Her Motorbike

After reading my research proposal and talking with me at length, Professor Pop decided that the best place for me to go was the county of Hunedoara, especially its southern part. There I would find the conditions my project required: a number of different ethnographic microzones (small areas distinguished from one another by differences in their costume, rituals, dialects, traditions — that is, their "folklore"). My project was to try to explain the distribution of these zones and why they differed in so small a space; my assumption was that it had something to do with patterns of movement, perhaps based on economic behavior. Therefore, I would be working not just in one place but in numerous villages in a region. I would be a nightmare for anyone attempting to keep me under surveillance. Pop suggested that I take a trip out to Hunedoara County for some reconnaissance. Since local transportation was unreliable, I proposed to visit these villages on my new Mobra motorbike. It sported license plates with bright-red numbers — T.C. 2964 (T.C. is "consular transport," used by embassy personnel) — that would help the authorities keep me in their sights.


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Table of Contents

Preface  xi
A Note of Fonts, Pseudonyms, and Pronunciation  xiii
Acknowledgments  xv
Prologue  1
Part I. Research under Surveillance
1. The 1970s: "The Folklorist" as Military Spy  33
2. The 1980s: The Enemy's Many Masks  111
Excursus. Reflections on Reading One's File  181
Part II. Inside the Mechanisms of Surveillance
3. Revelations  195
4. Ruminations  277
Epilogue  295
Notes  299
Bibliography  309
Index  315

What People are Saying About This

A Spy in the Archives: A Memoir of Cold War Russia - Sheila Fitzpatrick

“This fascinating and important book should be compulsory reading for all anthropologists and oral historians. There is nothing quite like it.”

Traveling Heavy: A Memoir in between Journeys - Ruth Behar

"With fearless curiosity and a broken heart, Katherine Verdery takes us on a fraught journey into her secret police files, addressing issues of trust and betrayal in fieldwork with such vulnerability you want to hold her hand. A haunting and original mix of autoethnography and history, this book is certain to become a classic in anthropology."

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