Katherine Verdery is Julien J. Studley Faculty Scholar and Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. She is the author of Peasants under Siege: The Collectivization of Romanian Agriculture, 1949-1962, with Gail Kligman (Princeton University Press, 2011), The Vanishing Hectare: Property and Value in Postsocialist Transylvania (Cornell University Press, 2003), What Was Socialism, and What Comes Next? (Princeton University Press, 1996), and other books. Her most recent book is Secrets and Truths: Ethnography in the Archive of Romania’s Secret Police (Central European University Press, 2014).
Katherine Verdery gave a lecture How the Romanian Secret Police Created Knowledge about Their Targets at the Havighurst Colloquium “Secrecy, Sovereignty, and Power” organized by Neringa Klumbytė, Associate Professor of Anthropology, on October 22, 2014. Here is an interview with Prof. Verdery about her research on the Romanian Secret Police, her own secret file in the Romanian Securitate archives, and her book project My Life as a ‘Spy.’
Neringa Klumbytė: What was your research for the book like in the Romanian Security Archives?
Katherine Verdery: Well, I started working in the archive in Romania for the book that I was doing on collectivization. So, during my research, I would get files periodically with reports of violence and violent resistance to collectivization and that kind of thing. After I had been working in the archive for that project, I was asked by one of the people on the staff why I did not apply to see my own file. It had never crossed my mind, so I said I wasn’t sure I wanted to see what was in it and she said, “Well never mind, it might take a while to get it and it might never come and you’ll decide when we get it if you want to read it.” So, I got this thing in the summer of 2008 and I sat down in the reading room and sort of skimmed through to see what kinds of things were there. Then I asked them to Xerox the whole thing and took it home. Just on the basis of what I had seen on the first quick read through, I put it in a corner in my office and did not open it again, until I had completely finished the book on the creation of collective farms. Then I decided that I was going to use this to write a kind of memoir, based on this file that was about me. In the middle of my thinking about that, however, I was invited to give a set of lectures for the Central European University, in honor of Natalie Davis. I couldn’t give them my memoir because it was not technical enough, and that meant that I had to give them something that was a bit more academic. That was when I started thinking of using the file as a way of getting into the mindset of the officers or the way that they saw the world and the kinds of practices that were common among them for learning about the people that they were following. So the talk that I gave here today comes from that.
Neringa Klumbytė: Your book is called Secrets and Truths. The truth part is very interesting to everyone, what truths did you discover?
Katherine Verdery: Well, first of all, putting “truths” there was intentionally designed to get away from this common assumption that everything that the secret police did in general was a lie. Because, I think that to at least a considerable extent, many of them were generally interested in uncovering the truth of the people that they were following. Of course the way that they thought about this is different from the way you or I might, but they were trying to do that, they were trying to see whether people were actually there to create damage to Romania and create a negative image of socialism. So, the other thing that I meant by “truths” was to see how they went about trying to get the knowledge that they got about people. I was led to the conclusion that their principal method was, first of all, the labor intensive method of using informers, more than modern technology, which was more common with the Stasi in East Germany, for instance. Also, their use of the informer was designed partly to get at the total social world of the person under surveillance; that is, to get a sense of their whole set of connections, the networks of people that they plugged into. I came away from it with a much less individualized sense of what the operations of surveillance amounted to. I found that very interesting.
Neringa Klumbytė: How did your understanding of the secret police change after you did research on how they compiled your file?
Katherine Verdery: First of all, I did not really have much of a sense of what the secret police were like. You know, everybody heard these rumors, about how the organization had beaten up people in the 1950s and killed some of them. How they would intimidate other people, and intimidate them to inform, but I hadn’t read anything and knew practically nothing about the secret police, from a sociologicall standpoint, until I read Andreas Glaeser’s book about the Stasi. I thought that was really interesting. When he talks about their patterns of socializing and how they basically socialize with each other and how they all go on vacation together. It seemed like in Romania that was probably less the case because the numbers of Stasi officers were much greater in Eastern Germany. This meant that they could, in any given city, form their own active circle, whereas in Romania, there were fewer of them in any given city and, I think, that this contributed to a different environment for them. The people that I talked with, the three officers that I talked with, I asked them, Did you socialize mainly with other people in the organization? They said no, we had our relatives and other friends outside of work mainly. So, there was that, but, I guess, the main thing was that even though I disagreed entirely with some of the conclusions that they reached, I could see the logic behind their procedure as involving a serious inquiry, and I thought that was a real surprise.
Neringa Klumbytė: You are writing your memoir, could you tell us a little bit about it?
Katherine Verdery: Yes, this was the idea that came to me first, when I had been encouraged to request my file. I was thinking what could I do with it and I thought, well, I could write my memoirs as seen through the eyes of the secret police. So, once I got the file I discovered how much of it was preoccupied with what kind of spy I am, so at different times I was a different kind of spy. At the beginning, I was suspected of spying on military installations and then later on they suspected me of being a Hungarian agent in disguise and then after that I was conspiring with dissidents against the regime. So, I decided to call it My Life as a “Spy”, putting Spy in quotation marks and maybe with a subtitle like memoirs of a Cold War anthropologist. The idea is to, first of all, show what it was like to be the target of such surveillance and how I felt as I was finding out about this. Also, to give a sense of how the organization worked and of what life was like in the village that I worked in primarily through that lens in the 1970s, where the secret police presence was fairly minimal compared with 1980s when they were kind of all over me, when I was in a city. So, I have several different objectives here, and part of the problem is that I’ve got to come up with a single story line in order to write a memoir and I’m not yet sure what it is going to be.