Don’t imagine you’re smarter

Neal Ascherson

  • My Life as a Spy: Investigations in a Secret Police File by Katherine Verdery
    Duke, 344 pp, £20.99, May, ISBN 978 0 8223 7081 9

Somewhere – probably in Dumfries – there must have been a secret file on ‘Burns, Robt (cover code Mossgiel). Exciseman. Adverse trace: sympathy for French Revolution. Subject is sensitive and promiscuous. See verses passim.’ Politics were one thing, but did he ever long to read what government spies thought of him as a person? ‘O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us/To see oursels as others see us!’ Today, several ‘Pow’rs’ are giving it, in many countries and sometimes in bulk. But their disconcerting ‘giftie’ is not at all what Burns meant.

In Germany, the Pow’r is called the Stasi Records Agency. In Poland, it’s the Instytut Pamieçi Narodowej – the Institute of National Remembrance. In Bulgaria, it’s the Dossier Commission; in Romania, the National Council for the Study of the Securitate Archives (CNSAS), and so on. In those files, as I found from my own Polish dossier, it’s not only a younger half-forgotten self that you meet. It is also an unrecognisable stranger – yourself, as others have seen you. For nearly thirty years, hundreds of thousands of people have been reading their secret police files, the records of surveillance, denunciation and manipulation compiled by the spooks of communist Europe. Some archives, like the Stasi files in Germany, stay open. Some open and then hurriedly close again when the political weather changes. Some are clutched tight by governments which only use them to blacken or blackmail their opponents. But all these files contain secret portraits: women or men seen as others see them. These portraits may be the result of years of painstaking, insanely minute watching and eavesdropping by one or several security teams. Almost always, much of their detail comes from informers. Some informers won’t be identifiable. Some may be fictional, invented by idle security officers bumping up their expenses. But some will turn out to be the reader’s intimately trusted friends or lovers.

Nobody, I think, remains quite the same after reading their file. The first and best-known account of the experience in English is Timothy Garton Ash’s The File (1997), and near the end of that wise and sensitive book, he tells himself: ‘My new principle of As If is … try to live in this free country as if the Stasi were always watching you … can you live so you would not be embarrassed’ by reading your file? After reading my Polish file a few years ago, I would add: ‘From now on, can you live as if you were even for a moment unnoticed, out of sight, out of earshot, and truly alone?’

Katherine Verdery was a young, high-spirited American when she arrived in Romania in 1973, a Stanford postgraduate intending to research an anthropology thesis on Romanian village life. She came as a bit of a leftie, 1968 vintage, inclined to mock the superstitious anti-communism current in the United States. She came with bounding American optimism about ‘people’: if you were transparent and honest and friendly, said what you thought and trusted your new friends, then nothing could go badly wrong. In Ceauşescu’s Romania? Poor Kathy!

She was to work in that country, on and off, for 15 years. Over that time she learned a Romanian so fluent that she was often taken for a local and acquired wonderfully intimate knowledge of the way rural communities in her part of Romania were structured. Through sometimes heartbreaking experience, and through very hard work, she slowly learned to love and understand this extraordinary nation. She also learned, not least through reading her own Securitate file afterwards, new and unexpected ways to understand herself.

The Securitate found her suspicious in several successive ways. At first they thought she had been tasked with military spying. The reason was simple: in her first carefree months, she had flown past warning notices on her motorbike and entered a forbidden zone (it contained a secret arms factory). The Securitate opened a special file on her, a DUI (‘dossier of informational pursual’). Then she settled into the village of Aurel Vlaicu, in southern Transylvania, where her many contacts and friendships made the Securitate wonder if she was assembling evidence to blacken the name of Romania in the outside world. At this time, in the 1970s, Romania was adopting a relatively relaxed attitude to Western contacts, hoping to win hard-currency loans and diplomatic support against Soviet pressure. But in the 1980s, as the country went effectively bankrupt and East-West relations temporarily worsened, the regime returned to its old paranoia. A lapsed law requiring all contacts with Western foreigners to be reported came back into force. The Securitate tightened its grip.

Verdery was now spending much time in the city of Cluj, where she had formed a passionate friendship with the historian David Prodan. The Securitate meanwhile had decided that with a name like Verdery she must be an ethnic Hungarian (quite wrong: the family roots were French), and therefore had been planted to encourage subversion among the disaffected Magyar minority in Transylvania. Nonetheless, initially they rather admired her new friendship. Prodan’s telephone was permanently tapped and his flat bugged; the transcribing officer wrote that ‘Everyone is completely relaxed; K evidently feels good, she likes the flattery, she’s attentive, polite and deferential … They complete one another reciprocally, with humour and good taste.’

By 1984 the spooks’ benevolent mood had changed. Verdery was starting a new project about ‘the formation of national ideology’, and they hated that. A new DUI was issued, with suggestions on how to obstruct her research and ‘lose’ her notes. Microphones were screwed into the walls of her Cluj hotel room, and a hidden video camera was trained on her bed. (Luckily it recorded nothing worse than views of her in her underclothes.)

But then this ‘Hungarian agent of the CIA’ made a dreadful mistake, with long-lasting consequences. Her first book was a social history of Vlaicu within Transylvania, and she decided to lighten it with two jokes about ethnic stereotypes – in which Romanians figured as ‘clever thieves’. Disaster! In spite of knowing the country so well, she had completely underestimated national touchiness: almost everyone she knew took violent offence. Even Professor Prodan was ‘absolutely livid’, and it took months of argument and weeping to restore friendship between them. It also genuinely upset the Securitate in Cluj. They had hoped that ‘Vera’ (one of her many codenames) was learning to love Romania, but they now proposed to ‘interrupt her stay in this country’ and opened more surveillance files.

Her files revealed that her case went all the way up to General Julian Vlad, soon to be head of the Securitate. The matter of ‘Vera’ was judged ‘very important’, and yet – for reasons not clear – she was allowed to remain. Intense pressure to inform on her activities was now applied to all her contacts. But although she knew she was being watched, Verdery made another mistake: she tried to organise a clandestine meeting with friends in Cluj, pretending it was a chance encounter. Here she was ignoring a basic rule. You may think you are more intelligent than the spooks – and you are often right. But never, ever imagine that you are smarter. They knew what she was up to before she even started, and her file thickened.

Near the end of her stay, not long before the Ceauşescu regime collapsed in late 1989, she spent time in Bucharest and got to know some prominent ‘dissident’ intellectuals. This earned her yet another hostile designation: CIA agent ‘Vera’ was now conspiring with active and open enemies of the state. Preparations to arrest and perhaps to put her on trial seem to have begun. By now she was suffering from depression and fits of paranoid distress. Her grants administrator (another snitch, needless to say) told his Secu handler that ‘she finds herself in a state of collapse, is really panicked by the fact that we have picked up on some of her games, and she reacts violently.’ And yet, in the end, nothing happened to her. She was allowed to leave the country, returning only after the December 1989 revolution had overthrown the communist state.

Verdery was fortunate. And yet this story suggests that the Securitate came to find her almost too interesting to arrest or expel. Her file, when she was allowed to read it, was almost three thousand pages long. Compiling it, counting not only the watchers on foot or in cars but the transcribers of telephone calls and microphone recordings, the electronic technicians, the recruiters of local informers, the case assessors and their staff, gave work to literally hundreds of men (and a few women) over many years. Verdery reckons that there were probably almost half a million informers in Romania, while the Securitate itself numbered some fifteen thousand. For comparison, the Stasi – in a smaller country – had 93,000 full employees and 178,000 registered informers.

By the end, the Securitate felt that they had got to know ‘Vera’ (aka ‘Folklorista’ or ‘Vanessa’) very well, and they even approved of some of her opinions. Counter-intelligence services in Soviet Europe usually had both negative and positive aims. The default assumption was that a Western visitor was a spy of some kind, so the first task was to find out what sort of spy he or she was and deal with it. But if spying inquiries led nowhere much, the other task was to influence the visitor positively. That meant invisibly manipulating the foreigner’s contacts in order to sell a friendly, understanding attitude to the country’s policies, even to leave the visitor with affection and respect for the nation itself – if not for its political system.

Almost more than anything, the Securitate wanted Verdery to love Romania. Looking at my own file, I can see how often my ‘offences’ – meeting ‘hostile elements’ or writing articles mocking communist repression and censorship – were noted but tolerated because the Security Service judged that my affection for the Polish nation was real – and probably exploitable. In both ‘services’, old-fashioned patriotism could still sidle past ideology and sometimes past political security. Verdery considers that ‘Ceauşescu’s regime was not “totalitarian”, but struggled to impose itself on the populace, with only partial success.’

With a professional interest in psychology and in the development of her own inner life, Verdery seizes the chance offered by her file to explore her identity. Who was the young woman perceived by the Securitate? Could the identity they constructed actually be more authentic than the person Verdery thought she remembered? She had known of course that she was under secret scrutiny. But she had no idea of the enormous scale of the operation, of the omnipresence of this invisible army of watchers and listeners crowding around her. Perhaps they really did know more about her than she knew herself. Perhaps that ‘Vera’ really was a spy. Wasn’t ethnographic research a form of spying?

It’s deeply unnerving to realise that a team of men and women who have been studying you intimately for years know you by another name. Verdery’s avatar was called ‘Vera’; mine was ‘Grzegorz’ or ‘Cyklista’ (the Cyclist). And Katherine Verdery did indeed become a different person. But, as she puts it, this was because ‘an inner Romanian’ emerged and liberated her. She took emotional risks, followed impulses, lived dangerously as she would never have done back home. ‘Part of my new persona,’ she writes, ‘was an expanded sexuality – expanded in the sense of both kinds of partners and frequency of sexual activity … I was sexy, with a lot of vitality, and many Romanian men found me attractive; if the attraction was mutual, I was probably willing.’

This was reckless. Verdery tried to prevent thoughts of microphones from inhibiting her private life, not realising quite how efficient her watchers were. They instantly identified almost all her lovers (some of whom they probably planted), and studied the recorded bedroom noises. Czech or Polish officers would probably have used this material to blackmail her in some way, but the Romanians, interestingly, didn’t. Instead, ‘the Securitate could colonise my sexuality to gain new traction among populations where I lived.’ When persuading some friend to inform on her, they would reel off a list of her lovers in order to impress him or her with their omniscience. ‘My sexual habits were a way of giving them power over their own informer network, not to mention over the people I slept with.’

How does a file-reader, leafing through their reports in such a different political epoch, judge those informers? In post-communist times, both Garton Ash and Verdery tracked down some of them and even interviewed Stasi and Secu officers who had run their cases. Garton Ash apparently had five informers; Verdery, over a much longer period, acquired more than seventy. Both show mercy and still conceal some names; there’s no lust for ‘outing’. While Garton Ash’s book was concerned largely with finding the truth about what those individuals had done and penetrating their lies, Verdery is asking not so much ‘what’ as ‘why’. How could they justify betraying someone who trusted them? What did they tell themselves about their activity?

In my own file, the informer reports held little mystery. I knew them all, I had assumed they would be required to inform, and with one exception, found their informing harmless. Once spotted by the SB (Security Service), friends were invited to regular ‘chats’ with a Captain Kowalski, but all they told him was concocted lullaby: yes, Ascherson adored Poland, and no, he was too dumb to be a spy, and no, they had no idea who his other friends were, and he never asked about secrets. I knew they would have to do this, though we didn’t talk about it. My thought at the time was that they reckoned it was an ugly price worth paying, in order to keep in touch with somebody bringing news and views and fresh air from the West. No big deal. But today ‘true Poles’ who weren’t even born then pretend to see them as ‘collaborators’. (Only one friend turned out to have asked the SB for money, in return for inventing me as an experienced British spy. The scribbled notes on his report show that his handler thought he was just a lying con man.)

In the same way the recent fuss about Julia Kristeva boils down to nothing much, although it has suited some to inflate it into a fearful scandal. Bulgarian security files from the communist period log her as an ‘agent’ and a ‘secret collaborator’. But the reality shown in her files is trivial. After settling in Paris in 1965, she was cornered by Bulgarian spooks who pointed out to her that she still had a vulnerable family in the home country. So she agreed to regular meetings over many years, in the course of which she seems to have told her handlers nothing more than gossip about Aragon, Bataille & Co. from the Left Bank cafés – stuff they could have read in Le Canard enchaîné. Surveillance dogged everything she did and everyone she met, but the combined intelligence value of its product and her reports was almost zero. The Bulgarian security men seem to have known they were being played. But never mind: they could impress their boss by showing him a real international celeb on their books, while expense-account meals with Kristeva at the Closerie des Lilas must have been agreeable.

Verdery’s discoveries were far more painful. Men and women she had really trusted, in some cases loved, and with whom she had formed a warm intimacy through long hard times, had been informing on her continuously and voluminously, and at times telling damaging lies to impress the Secu. A few years after reading her file, she went back to Romania and told some of those friends that ‘she knew’. But why did they do it, why?

*

The meetings with one ‘beloved friend’ she calls ‘Beniamin’ were agonising. But Verdery decided to understand him as a victim, and to see ‘his informing not as a betrayal but as a cause of suffering for him’. He was scared, and also had the instinct to do a job – even the informer’s job – properly. ‘I am moved by his relative innocence and youth. He presents himself as fearful, and I believe it.’ The beloved woman she calls ‘Mariana’ reacted differently, at first apologetic, then almost belligerent. ‘I never felt I was an informer,’ she said, and later: ‘What a lot of harm you caused me!’ True enough: if Kathy had not been close to her, the Secu man would not have put unbearable pressure on Mariana to inform and keep informing. After days of confessing and discussing, broken by sleepless nights, Mariana and Kathy eventually reached something like reconciliation. But Verdery reflects: ‘Like viruses corrupting a healthy organism, Securitate practices subverted positive sentiment and turned it into guilt, rejection and avoidance, making me feel guilty for having loved my friends and for not protecting them enough.’

She predicts that Romanians today will be irritated by her inclination to forgive her informers as victims of the system. They will protest that as a foreigner, she can afford to be lofty and magnanimous. As Romanians who must live with these people, they cannot. (Polish attitudes are much the same.) But Verdery is right to emphasise the suffering of the informers, and their lasting sense of shame and contamination. And to me her book suggests that I may have overlooked this pain in my Polish informers. I wanted to take at face value their jaunty composure, as they fed their interrogator harmless garbage. But I begin to realise more clearly now how humiliated they must have felt.

Verdery’s meeting years later with some of her old Secu handlers confused her. She was shocked to discover not only that one or two of them were likeable, but that she actually wanted to like them. She describes her ‘intense emotional response to my officers’ – a variant of Stockholm Syndrome. She set out to confront and accuse. But ‘what has happened instead is that they have recruited me! – not to inform but to see them more positively.’ They were persuasive. Did we ever do you any real harm? They contrasted their methods with the police terror during the 1950s, when the Securitate killed, tortured, and drove thousands to be worked to death in labour camps. ‘The view of Secu cruelty, well represented by my officers,’ she writes, ‘was that in those days the organisation was full of Hungarians, Jews and Russians; getting rid of those people brought to the surface sweet and intelligent, non-brutish Romanian Secus.’ With surprising understatement she adds: ‘This kind of nationalist explanation for all manner of issues has always bothered me in my Romanian friends.’

Nothing is morally simple in this wonderfully candid, observant and diligently self-questioning account. Cold War ‘empire of fear’ descriptions don’t quite fit Verdery’s Romania. And the ‘overthrow of communist terror by righteous democracy’? As she says, Romania today is to a large extent run by people who can be called the ‘heirs of communism’, including secret police veterans. Verdery writes: ‘As elsewhere in the former communist bloc, ex-securişti have been at the forefront of Romania’s communist-era elites in privatising and plundering its economy.’ The Securitate didn’t exactly burn away in the fire of freedom: it lay low for a while, but then most of the officers below pension age were re-hired into the new SRI intelligence service. It’s worth adding that they have carried on the same kind of work at home and in foreign countries. The novelist Herta Müller, who had escaped to the West, found that even after the fall of communism the SRI continued to spy on her in Germany, and to recruit informers. Are they still spying on Professor Verdery at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore? Probably.

The crowning mercy of human relations is that we don’t know what other people are really thinking about us. They – those others – decide what redacted selection we are offered. But to read one’s police file is – suddenly – to have the curtain pulled open. The self you think you know becomes a mask, concealing a devious somebody else whose relationships are mere espionage fakes.

Verdery ends this unforgettable book by warning of ‘new forms of statecraft promising greater security through ever heightened surveillance that are developing worldwide’. How was it that Britain, of all countries, allowed a secret counter-intelligence service to take control of appointments to the main national broadcaster – the BBC? What is the difference between that, or the secret mass harvesting of political profiles by Cambridge Analytica, and the bugging of Verdery’s bedroom in Cluj?

The big difference, plainly, is that in a liberal democracy we can launch investigative journalism against MI5 and stay free, whereas we might have perished in a labour camp for trying the same with the Securitate. But the new surveillance world means that everyone can now be shadowed by invisible robots, by doppelgängers fitted together by algorithms. Many will have several of them. Every Katherine will have her ‘Vera’ and ‘Folklorista’ padding silently along beside Professor Verdery. Every Neal will be accompanied by his unseen ‘Grzegorz’ or ‘Cyklista’, both – now that politics and the market use the tools of secret intelligence – scented like night-flowers to attract buzzing vote-seekers or circling mortgage brokers. Those files told us that we had never walked alone. Now we begin to see that we never will.