BUCHAREST, Romania – Romanian secret police agents eavesdropped on her, persuaded friends to snoop on her and filmed her when she was in her underwear.
Some 70 informants and spies kept tabs on Katherine Verdery, now an anthropology professor at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York, when she visited communist Romania in the ’70s and ’80s as a postgraduate doing research on an anthropology thesis on Romanian village life.
No other U.S. citizen was so closely scrutinized by the Securitate secret police of communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu.
After the collapse of communism in 1989, Verdery obtained her 2,781-page dossier and transformed the material into a 344-page book, “My Life as a Spy.”
The book was recently translated into Romanian, opening old wounds, but also challenging Romanians to confront a dark chapter in their history.
An American spy?A young and naive American academic by her own admission, Verdery didn’t comprehend what her questions and attempts to fit in looked like in Eastern Europe.
In the Cold War, Romania considered U.S. students sent to Romania on grants to be Western agents, and Verdery did nothing to dispel this assumption when she inadvertently drove her motorcycle onto a military base in the 1970s, although the officer in charge of spying on her at that period finally concluded she wasn’t involved in espionage activities.
Discovering later that she was erroneously considered a U.S. spy, potentially with Hungarian sympathies, Verdery was initially “appalled, I was absolutely stunned. ... I couldn’t believe my eyes, the level of surveillance was so much greater than anything I had anticipated or imagined.”
Romanian Securitate agents reported on her movements, sometimes 16 hours a day. Hotel receptionists reported her whereabouts, others broke into her suitcase to access her notes, surreptitiously filmed and bugged the places where she went and asked – or twisted the arm – of friends and acquaintances to report on her.
They feared she would paint Romania in an unfavorable light or could negatively affect Romania’s most favored nation status with her reports.
Officers gave Verdery a variety of code names: “Vera,” ‘’Vanesa” and “Folklorista.”
Trying to understandFurious and depressed, Verdery set about trying to understand and record on paper why she had been a target, unwittingly inhabiting a cloak-and-dagger world of betrayals and invisible surveillance.
“The default assumption was that I was a spy,” she told The Associated Press by telephone from Massachusetts. “Finding out my friends were involved working with the secret police ... was an unwelcome surprise.”
In her mission to make sense of what had happened to her and gain an anthropological perspective, Verdery embarked on the laborious and fraught task of returning to Romania where she sought out, met, discussed and eventually forgave former close friends and colleagues.
Some flatly denied keeping tabs on her. Others had died. One woman turned the tables, chiding Verdery for making her become an informer. Only one person apologized.
“The concept of spying is a cultural concept,” Verdery believes, saying she began to realize why people could have thought of her as a spy: she kept duplicate sets of notes that she locked in a suitcase and then sent back to the United States in a diplomatic pouch.
Verdery doesn’t name her informers, but pages from her file that have appeared in Romanian media reveal two former ministers among her informants.
The ghost of the SecuritateUnlike other former communist countries, Romania hasn’t reconciled the shadowy and corrosive effect the Securitate had on society when informers kept tabs on citizens and stifled dissent with informers infiltrated into every walk of life.
Observers say the old Securitate network continues to function. “The Securitate is in business, active in politics and in the press; it’s as alive as it was before, and we haven’t healed yet,” said Armand Gosu, a political science teacher at the University of Bucharest.
But the publication of “My Life as a Spy” in Romanian recently appears to be having a cathartic affect, although some have criticized her for not being “sufficiently judgmental.” The book opened old wounds and challenged Romanians to confront a difficult chapter in their past: the pervasive presence of the Securitate secret police.
Publishing house Vremea is run by Silvia Colfescu, one of a few friends who didn’t inform on her.
“She was a foreign researcher from America, of course they had their eyes on her,” Colfescu told The Associated Press. “All foreigners were naive, all of them,” she said. “We had foreign friends and I told them.”
They used cunning psychological tactics to recruit informers. “There were subtle threats; your children won’t get into university, your wife won’t get cancer treatment,” Colfescu said.
“When we spoke (at home) we put a pillow on the phone, we whispered and had the radio on full volume.”
Gosu calls the book “sensational.”
“It is fascinating how a foreigner understands better what happened here under Nicolae Ceausescu than many Romanians,” Gosu says.
Old woundsFor others, the book picks at raw wounds. Andreea Chiru, who is in her late 30s and works at Vremea, tears up several times when describing the book’s impact on her.
“I was told not to say things at school and kindergarten; our parents were afraid and didn’t speak in front of us,” she said. “It’s almost 30 years after communism ended, and people still think they can get into trouble. Romanians lived with a trauma that you can’t trust anyone, and people still haven’t got over this yet.”