Loading Events



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

Thursday 18 March 2021 at 2.00-4.00pm (GMT)

The British Museum’s Anthropology Library and Research Centre, in conjunction with the Royal Anthropological Institute, is pleased to present ‘Reviewer meets Reviewed’,
a discussion between author Prof Katherine Verdery and reviewer Prof Michael Stewart.

This webinar will be held on Zoom. You can register for it here: https://us02web.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_cOhdS9_XSAGkifKVGxBMvg 

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.


The review

JRAI, Vol 25, Issue 1, March 2019, p.180-181 

Verdery, KatherineMy life as a spy: investigations in a secret police file. xvi, 323 pp., map, illus., bibliogr. Durham, N.C.: Duke Univ. Press, 2018. £20.99 (paper)

Ceauşescu’s Romania was a land of myths and rumours, one of which concerned ‘the boys with blue eyes’. These were secus, or secret policemen, who patrolled in special units on the main street running through the heart of Bucharest, dressed from head to toe identically to one another. Urban myths like this were part and parcel of the distinctively effective system of domination through which the Romanian Communist Party ruled, and, at its broadest level, Katherine Verdery’s new book aims at reaching a fresh understanding of the nature of the power exercised in a personalized communist dictatorship.

My life as a spy is Verdery’s masterpiece. In a book full of personal reflection and intense self‐questioning, she notes that one of her traits as a scholar has been a tendency to go for the big picture, the macro‐model, or, as one of her colleagues put it, to provide ethnography from an aeroplane. Previous readers of her work know the huge strengths of this approach; it has made her renown beyond the discipline of anthropology. However, what was not clear to readers – until now – is that Verdery was also, all along, a remarkable ethnographer of everyday life.

The book takes as its starting point Verdery’s discovery, in 2007, of her file in the secret police archives: 2,781 pages, or eleven volumes of reports, commentaries, and conspiratorial photographs in total. It begins with an account of the three major periods of Verdery’s fieldwork in Romania between 1973 and 1988, interwoven with both a range of material from the files and new interviews with her informants and friends from that time. Apart from documenting the all‐encompassing surveillance, these chapters also contain fascinating discussions of ethnographic issues that arose during her research: from villages’ class structure to the outrage caused by her use of ethnic jokes in her first book’s epigraph. She also, repeatedly, returns to the volume’s core theme: the nature of ethnography and its relationship to other forms of ‘research and surveillance’, spycraft included.

The second, shorter part of the work opens an intense, recursive, investigation of the nature of the Securitate as an institution – the mechanisms through which surveillance was established and maintained as well as the ways the belief in an omnipresent surveillance destroyed the basis of trust across the whole society. Verdery cites Czesław Miłosz’s Native realm (1981 edition, p. 281) in her frontispiece: ‘Terror is not … monumental; it is abject, it has a furtive glance, it destroys the fabric of human society and changes the relationships of millions of individuals into channels for blackmail’. She brings this observation to brilliant and chilling life.

This is what makes the book such a gripping read, for what the file reveals is that it was the life and the relationships of the ethnographer that were made abject. Verdery describes how, like so many other members of our discipline, her life was transformed by the experience of entering an alien culture. Yet the very openness and generosity she finds in herself becomes the means by which the Securitate works its way into her networks and, crucially, into the villages which it had found so hard to penetrate before the useful American turned up and rendered all her own informants into the secret police’s hands.

Lon Fuller wrote of ‘The problem of the grudge informer’ (The morality of law, 1969), posing genuine issues of ethics and moral action. What is so fascinating about Verdery’s ethnography of informers – and this is perhaps the first of its kind to delve so deep and wide through the cast of characters that inhabit a secret police file – is that almost none of her friends and acquaintances acted out of resentment. Blackmail and fear were a far more common source of the secret police’s hold on their informants. Thus the ethical issue becomes how the ethnographer deals with the divergence in the informer’s own remorse and that of the secret policemen whom she occasionally manages to track down. ‘What harm did I do you after all?’ the slippery ones demand to know, telling her nothing.

Despite this, Katherine Verdery has used her file, and the wonderful auto‐ethnography that this has now prompted, to turn over forty years of life experience in Romania to a wonderful end. This is a book that should be read by all anthropologists and taught across the globe – a beautifully written, deeply engaged and engaging text that shows just what a wonderful and revelatory discipline anthropology can be when in the hands of committed and resourceful scholars.