This book is about how surveillance functioned in communist Romania from 1973 to 1988, the period during which I was one of its subjects. The text contains many verbatim quotations from documents in my secret police file, enabling the reader to encounter the world view of those officers. These form one of the three voices the book employs, the other two being my own research notes and correspondence from that period, and my authorial commentary in the present. In this sense, it is a polyphonic work.
“There’s nothing like reading your secret police file to make you wonder who you really are.” This first line of the Preface sets one agenda of the book: to describe the effects that reading your own surveillance file has on your identity, and along the way, to indicate how we can make use of such a file to understand something about the secret police who wrote it. They were, after all, masters of deception and approached any new “target” with the assumption that she was too. Moreover, their optic was shaped by assumptions and values that differed markedly from those of an American scholar like me, coming to do research for a dissertation in Eastern Europe during the Cold War. Convinced I was a spy, they give us a rather unexpected idea of what spying looked like from their viewpoint.
It is also a kind of primer on what it’s like to do research in a place and time defined by the “Cold War.” It describes my growing awareness of the surveillance around me, as well as presenting my interviews with friends who informed on me to the police. In this light, the best way to read the book is to treat it as a kind of adventure story, which tells how I rode my motorbike into a military base and what repercussions that had, how I struggled to become more tolerant of people who informed on me, how I managed to track down three secret police officers to interview, and finally, how I came to understand my place in the world of these officers.
The book is highly relevant to contemporary life, in which forms of surveillance have become ubiquitous, although they differ from the ones I describe. It encourages readers to ask how these various forms differ—such as, does postmodern surveillance create identity “doubles” (doppelgangers), as communist surveillance did? What forms of knowledge do the two types rely on, and what are the implications for our social relations with others? Those interested in Foucauldian ideas about surveillance will find here some thought-provoking comparisons.
Anthropologists rarely find themselves with sources of this kind. How did I come to acquire mine? Following the overthrow of communist governments in Eastern Europe in 1989, a number of the successor governments instituted a process generally known as “lustration” (purification), to prevent people who had profited from the communist regime from also doing so in the new system. Lustration involved opening the archives of the secret police, both making them visible to the public and enabling people who had been under surveillance to track their own relationship to the apparatus of repression. This process began in Romania in 1999. Having completed a book for which I had used the secret police archives, I let an archivist persuade me to apply for my own file, though I had no clear idea of how I would use it. Once I received it (all 2,781 pages) I thought I might write a memoir of my field experience. The memoir morphed into something more complex—part memoir, part social science exploration of surveillance itself.
I tried to finesse this question by putting the most important things at the beginning: a surveillance photo of myself in my underwear, a preface beginning with the sentence I quoted in question 1, and a brief account of how I came to resemble a spy early in my work because I rode my motorbike into a military base.
Other than these, among my favorite passages is the section in which I describe what life was like during my research trip in the austerity-driven years 1984-85 (pp. 139-50), including some jokes people were telling at the time and some splendid stories about how people struggled to make ends meet. I like this passage because it shows Romanians’ marvelous capacity to face adversity with humor, a trait that caused me to return over and over to that wonderful country despite its ugly government under Nicolae Ceausescu. Another favorite is the passage that includes my conversations with a friend I call Mariana (pp. 233-244), which I think shows the complexity of a person’s becoming an informer for the secret police and some of the psychological complexities of their doing so.
My hopes for the book are of three different types. First, I hope it will bring into readers’ consciousness the topic of surveillance as something that can happen every day, with unexpected effects. Surveillance—of any kind—involves complex social relationships and special techniques. I believe any citizen should become aware of them, in hopes of curbing threats to liberty—of both political and commercial kinds. If the book contributes to developing literacy about a disturbing aspect of the world around us, that will be a very valuable outcome.
Second, for my readers in Romania—especially of younger generations—I hope it will contribute to an understanding of the country’s life under socialism, an understanding very different from that purveyed by older generations. The decades of communist rule in Romania left devastation in their wake, on many fronts. My way of trying to comprehend that system by means of its secret police offers an alternative to officially purveyed histories of communism, a vision that young people might find salutary.
Third, for the narrower readership in my discipline of anthropology, I hope students will read it as a guide concerning that very difficult form of research, fieldwork: learning about others through participating with and observing them. It is not an easy method; the book illustrates some of the reasons why. I hope those who train to practice this method will find the book’s arguments and examples useful in their work. For in the end, I remain a child of the Enlightenment, believing that through these means we can best learn about other people’s ways of being—an admirable goal for all of us.
Katherine Verdery is the Julien J. Studley Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the Graduate Center, City University of New York; previously, she taught at Johns Hopkins University (1977-1997) and the University of Michigan (1998-2005). Since 1973 she has conducted anthropological research in Romania on ethnic and national identity, cultural politics, the socialist system, postsocialist transition, the state, property transformation, and the secret police. Her books include: Transylvanian Villagers: Three Centuries of Political, Economic, and Ethnic Change (1983), National Ideology Under Socialism: Identity and Cultural Politics in Ceaușescu’s Romania (1991), What Was Socialism, and What Comes Next? (1996), The Political Lives of Dead Bodies (1999), The Vanishing Hectare: Property and Value in Postsocialist Transylvania (2003), Peasants under Siege: The Collectivization of Romanian Agriculture, 1949-1962 (2011, with Gail Kligman), Secrets and Truths: Ethnography in the Archives of Romania’s Secret Police (2014), and most recently, My Life as a Spy: Investigations in a Secret Police File (2018). Among her professional activities, she has served as Director of the Center for Russian and East European Studies (University of Michigan) and member of the Boards of Directors of the American Anthropological Association, American Ethnological Society, and American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies (AAASS, now Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies). She was the first anthropologist to serve as president of the AAASS, in 2004-06.