Five Questions With … Katherine Verdery

Katherine Verdery with Securitate agent (photo from her file).

By: Victoria Carvalho Salles, Elizabeth Spring, and Brandon Yang


Note: This is the third installment in our ongoing “Five Questions with” series where students enrolled in the Spring 2019 Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies’ Colloquium on “Russian Media Strategies at Home and Abroad.” In this series, students pose questions to the Colloquium’s guest lecturers. Today’s five questions were posed to Dr. Katherine Verdery, Julien J. Studley Faculty Scholar and Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, about her award-winning book, My Life as a Spy. The interview has been edited for clarity.  


Q: You experienced a great deal of surveillance during your time in Romania. In recent times, with the development of technology, normal citizens, like yourself, could also experience a great deal of surveillance online and offline. Do you believe that the surveillance you faced in the past is the new norm?


Verdery: The forces that drive it, I think, are different. But everybody is being looked at way more…so it is the new normal. Part of the origin of all of this is advertising. Firms want information about people so that they can target ads to them. The internet has provided a huge new means of getting to people, and so that is the number one form of surveillance that we are under. There’s plenty [of other types of surveillance], such as we saw with Snowden and the NSA, but part of the point of…surveillance for the communists was related to its being a regime that was not originated. Many people were not communists, and they hated the communists and the secret police. So the police, in a sense, had a reason to try to keep a lid on things. The surveillance that we have going on now does not have that kind of quality to it. It is all about how much they can find out about us, so they can put the right page in front of us. It is an economic motivation, not a political one. We’re not assumed to be resistant subjects.

Q: In your book, My Life as a Spy, you mentioned how you were astonished by the extent of the surveillance you faced in Romania. Would you consider today’s social media platforms as a type of mechanism that allows intense surveillance, considering that individuals post everything on social media, and their whole lives can be found on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram?


Verdery: Because of my experience, I immediately closed my Facebook account many years ago, shortly after I opened it around 2005. And I have written and published in print this sentence: Facebook is the most remarkable form of voluntary surveillance ever invented. But what is different is that people tend not to think about that. They tend to think, “Well, I am just getting in touch with my friends,” but it turns out that their personal life [and information] can be colonized with trolls and bots…as we saw with the last election. I think it is all pretty unpleasant. I think it would be great if social media platforms had a way of being benign, but that’s not happened.

Q: In the prologue, you mention that the book tried to understand the identity of the Securitate. Did your view of the Securitate change after reading your files? Or how did their identity evolve before and after reading your files?


Verdery: My view of them certainly evolved throughout the process, but it was not just in one direction. I would have good feelings, and then bad feelings again, and so on. [There were three members of the secret police that} I have seen every time I have gone back. I write about [one of them] in the book and feel that we can almost be friends. He is extremely genial, and [people] who knew him before said he was always like that. He was the guy who would always start the parties. I have remained with a particular kind of image of him that isn’t completely consonant with my image of the secret police in general. But there were enough things that they did in the communist period that were really vile to people so that I cannot just exculpate the whole organization. They beat people up, and they treated them very badly; they killed some of them.


Q: From the prologue of your book, there seemed to be a theme of secrecy and hiding information. Today there seems to be worry about the opposite, in that there is almost too much information. What can we extract from your story of surveillance that can be applied to today’s world, or do you think that the environment today is completely different than what you experienced in Romania?


Verdery: There is a sense in which even the surveillance that I was subjected to produced too much information…. There is a book that I saw reviewed (that I did not actually read myself) that talked about NSA surveillance and what exactly could be gleaned from all of the stuff they collected. This book held that the NSA was not really able to get much [useful information] because there is too much stuff that is just implicit when two people are communicating by telephone. But more than that, they gathered such an enormous volume of information that they really could not manage it. They really did not know how to manage that much [information]. To some extent, correcting for technological level, that was true of the secret police as well.

Do you believe that your relationships with people in Romania would have been different if there was not the initial suspicion of being a spy for the Americans?


Verdery: It certainly would. I think that feeling trustful in your relations with others produces an entirely different relationship from feeling anxious and uncertain. I made some very close friends, but it took a lot longer than it would have. They had to see me in multiple contexts. They had to be assured from my behavior that I was not doing something I was not supposed to be doing, that I really was a scholar. The more time I spent working there, the more books I published, the more plausible my cover story was. In 1978, I went back to visit this village that I worked in and went to my best friend there…. I asked her, “Listen, I just want you to tell me, did you ever get bothered by the police?” She said, “Oh no, nothing like that ever happened.” I asked her exactly the same question a couple of years ago, and she said, “Yes, of course, we knew they were following you.” It just took her all that time for her to be trusting.


This entry was posted in Havighurst Lecturers, Interviews. Bookmark the permalink.