What does it mean to be a spy in the archives?

A comparative book review of ‘A Spy in the Archives’ and ‘My Life as a Spy’.

What would you do if you see descriptions of yourself as a spy in spy archives?

Two female researchers from elite universities in the UK and the US were doing thesis archival field work. In the Soviet Union and Romania, they sought to uncover history and society when Cold War was intense. What were meant to be sobering exchanges became entangled in the politics of espionage, in turn reflecting the deep mutual distrust between capitalism and communism, the East and the West. Yet, seemingly powerless individuals became influencers, on a non-traditional battlefield, shedding light on the mysterious regime with access to information. This knowledge is an entitlement that forms the basis of Anglophone thinking and imperialistic arrogance, further accentuating power imbalance. Nevertheless, what constitutes as spying stems very much from intention, despite the uniquely strange overlap between espionage and academic research. In the hunt for information, not intelligence, the academics did not stalk and catch out anyone. Because they did not conduct research with the ill intention to criminalize, harm, sabotage, inflict injury or dishonour on anyone or country, they were not real spies. They should not be regarded as such, no matter what the Soviets thought, or when they questioned their own motivations.

Feeling of innocence is more complex than reality even when you are self-aware. The Soviet Union, reeking of suspicion and entrapment, made it difficult for Westerners to feel completely guiltless. Travellers or students alike were regarded as ‘threats to national security’ and ‘captivating oddities.’ That risk is compounded exponentially if they were there to dig up archives and survey the populace to understand how their socialist states and institutions functioned, as part of a scholarly pursuit. This is mounted on top of the ‘extremely Spartan living conditions and a plethora of material deprivations’ that they physically had to deal with. Fitzpatrick deemed this survival skill as ‘aggressive self-preservation’. One typical spying tactic was to entice foreigners into compromising relationships. Fitzpatrick described how at various junctures she was put on the spot by friendly men, and how she escaped. She even hallucinated that her room was constantly rummaged by KGB agents and she was constantly followed. Foreigners simply had to learn the knack of becoming ‘masters at getting by on their own and learning how to fit in’. Verdery, on the other hand, created her own ‘double’ before the Securitate by pretending to be married. As a result, her identity became ‘a state of flux’. In such an environment, it is difficult to maintain a coherent identity, even with yourself. The constant need to put on a façade is indeed in line with the espionage culture, as spies have to constantly camouflage their true identity, and over time, it is possible to feel deceived by the same mask on your face.

The nature of social and historical research could not absolve them of guilt either. It demanded ginger extraction of relevant archival documents, even when archival lists were unavailable. The bureaucratic labyrinthine, complicated access to libraries and frequent rejection of archival requests were essentially signs that there was something to hide. For instance, the Central Party Archive and People’s Commissariat of Foreign Affairs archive were almost completely classified, and the party archives are secret to this day. Yet, materials were not entirely nonexistent. The available archives included the Central State Archive of October Revolution (with a handbook), the Central State Archive of the National Economy, and the Central State Archive of Literature and Arts (only useful with access to catalogues or ‘opisi’). The final product, a Ph.D. dissertation, was proof of deep historical and social work bolstered by painstaking archival and field-specific research skills but also a showcase of how much was uncovered about a regime that did not want such information to be disclosed. In “The Commissariat of Enlightenment: Soviet Organization of Education and the Arts under Lunacharsky, October 1917–1921”, Fitzpatrick explored the transition of philosophical idealism of the ‘Old Bolsheviks’ into practicality after the Bolshevik Revolution. Both academics became the pioneers in their fields, in a time when Soviet history and anthropology, had not even existed as solid disciplines in Western universities. They continue to write on Russia and Romania today, with illuminating insights, casting doubt on the Soviet belief that their research was just a cover for spying activities. They not opened up the doors for Soviet research, but demonstrated the Western entitlement to society and knowledge, informing of the world what is universally accepted and democratic.

However, the line between serious academic research and spying is blurred. After all, they managed to obtain exclusive insights. For instance, Fitzpatrick found ‘an extraordinary range of documentation’ on the 1920s, with missing archival links completed by published newspapers and journals. Verdery’s Transylvania fieldwork that spanned 40 months in fifteen years in various rural and urban areas was even more revealing. Accordingly, she acquired at least four different spying identities such as an CIA agent, in the surveillance files. Navigating through the Lenin Public Library or surveying people on the street was no mean feat, and they were duly rewarded. In a certain sense, the adventurous nature of archival research, and the ‘battle of wits to get material’ seem to run parallel with spying strategies that equally demand art and craft. As Fitzpatrick admits, the opening of archives ‘constituted implicit recognition that it did not matter anymore if Western researchers discovered Soviet secrets.’ If the researchers discovered ‘secrets’ that were supposed to be desperately preserved, were they ‘spying’ for intelligence, or still just for information? Verdery also makes a distinction between anthropology and spying but notes that both ‘create relationships that are essentially ambiguous.’

Similarly, the author of the article that ousted Fitzpatrick, Golant, also maintained that it was difficult to distinguish between ‘the ploys of such ideological diversionaries’ and ‘bourgeois spies’, thus it was better to just default every Western academic a spy. The implication is further reinforced, if we consider who won the Cold War, and how these cultural and educational exchanges would have helped. Elsewhere, historians and IR scholars have argued that scientific and technical exchanges helped end the Cold War. Thus it is not inconceivable to consider how exchanges on the cultural and social front contributed to the outcome. It is not a far stretch as these programs were increasingly ‘integrated with political goals and foreign policy deliberations.’ The superpowers both packaged political ideologies into education resources when offering such programs to newly independent countries. While individuals like Fitzpatrick and Verdery had only considered their own education objectives, they were inevitably involved in the political implications of the larger context. The short-term principal interests of governments shaped these programs to the largest extent. Private institutions and educators were usually oblivious to or ‘confused’ by the grand strategy. This reflects the disproportionate power that governments and their clandestine agencies have over the people they rule, and how individuals are often than not at the receiving ends, manipulated as pawns and sacrificed in detrimental ways. While espionage during the Cold War helped to prevent a hot war like WWII, there is no way to counter-proof the otherwise. In addition, many proxy wars and puppet states suffered tremendously in the pursuit of the larger peace. Most significantly, it is morally repugnant to justify lives damaged through surveillance over lives lost to a world war, which may or may not have happened. It is simply ‘quite exhausting’ to realize that everything about you, down to the ‘most intimate thoughts’ are absolutely transparent to someone else, who only has ill designs.

Individual intention could be complicated further by circumstances and tainted by perception. The Securiate felt that no innocent soul came to Romania ‘only for scholarly purposes’, thus Verdery must have been a spy, and one with great cover skills. Fitzpatrick, too was regarded as ‘next thing to a spy’, and one that was ‘pretending to be doing scholarly research’. Being denounced as a spy has persistent ramifications on self-identify and motivation. It was a ‘capacious label’. It does not just go away just because you know you are not a spy. It could become a hindrance. Fitzpatrick, for example, felt fortunate that people in her circle did not know that the ‘spy’ on the newspaper article, in Sovetskaia Rossiia, ‘He who is obliged to hide the truth’ referred to her. While she only mentions the anecdote at the beginning of her memoir, it does not mean that it was not a momentous episode. She even admits that she might buckle under pressure and confess if threatened enough under pressure. Why else would she name her book ‘A Spy in the Archives’, the inspiration for this module and this essay? Her refusal to read her own archives is yet another testament of the potential consequence of that floodgate. Overnight, the opening of the archives following the collapse of the USSR, threatened to alter the conclusions of some of older research that had little and restricted access to materials. Yet, what becomes most threatening is individuals discovering themselves as spies in archives. Verdery, unlike Fitzpatrick, made the conscientious decision in 2007 to read archives of herself in the Securitate file, and became deeply ‘enraged’ and ‘distressed’ by both the content and sheer volume, which occupies two of the twenty-six volumes on American scholars, totally 2781 pages. She felt ‘unprepared’ and ‘deeply hurt’ to find out that a man, called Silviu, she had developed intimate feelings with, had reported on her as a liar and thus confirming her CIA status. The tragic experience was tantamount to how the Germans reacted to the Stasi files after 1992, which filled 125 miles of shelf space, with each mile containing about seventeen million sheets of paper and weighing nearly fifty tons. All they felt was shock, betrayal and aching. After all, the archives were created with the intention of never being read by those who were monitored. This is the trade-off between data scarcity and abundance. While having the choice to read these files upholds values of freedom and liberty, there is a high price to pay, especially for the faint-hearted.

On top of that, their self-perception was also reflected in the interactions and relationships with the Soviets. Following encounters with Irina Lunacharskaia (daughter) and Igor Sats (brother-in-law), Fitzpatrick managed to have intimate first-hand account of Anatoly Lunarcharsky. Fitzpatrick claims that Sats and the archives were the single two ‘extraordinary things’ that happened to her in 1967. In addition, as Sats was on the board of Novyi Mir, a literary journal, he knowingly or unknowingly released many invaluable assessments of the cultural shifts and struggles in the post-Khrushchev USSR and the aftermath of Prague Spring. Not only that, but Fitzpatrick also managed to cultivate lifelong friendships with them, or even developed something beyond a mere friendship with Sats, which she called ‘love’. It can be argued that Fitzpatrick’s access to information and knowledge was a privilege or fortune. What was ambiguous was the way she obtained the extra insights, albeit surely not on monetary terms, and whether those methods involved tactics similar to espionage. It is unclear whether she approached only people who could be of use to her. However, it seems clear that all her objectives had been met. Inevitably, as humans, they developed romantic encounters, yet for Fitzpatrick, she managed to strike a balance between ‘emotional balance and intellectual acuity’. While these men and Sats had reported on Fitzpatrick, she believed it was mostly a routine affair with no harm intended. During debriefing, she left out details on Sats, a choice she made over the British intelligence. However, for Verdery, the surprise and disappointment become more palpable as she had never thought that seventy informers, many of whom so close, had reported on her. She wanted to confront Silviu, who was dying, and they said goodbye with a painful kiss. The amount of desolation and betrayal that Verdery felt is the exact testament of how much pain surveillance can inflict on individuals and a veritable proof of her innocence. What separates the experiences of the two young ladies back in the days was their sense of awareness of the surroundings. While the naïve Vera had no idea of the culture of secrecy shrouding Romania, beaming in anticipation to ‘enjoy’ her research, Brius was more realistic and perceptive. Yet apparently, both did not pass their espionage tests if they were really recruited spies.

Crucially, readers are privy to the personal struggles and emotional turmoil of the two authors. Fitzpatrick labels her work as a memoir and while Verdery’s is part memoir and part autoethnography, her life seen in two perspectives. In essence, it is historians writing about themselves. Both authors and audience alike benefit from this retrospect as they reflect back on the days where their sense of self and identity became hugely convoluted. Fitzpatrick, for example, writes in length about her parents, her own doctoral education in the ‘old boys clubs’ of Oxford, and career movements. More importantly, she reveals her love for Moscow and disdain for her advisor, reflecting on the ‘one-upmanship’ of tenured professors. She also despises how the British Council not only briefed them predeparture in a dark room but also debriefed them when they travelled back, expecting a report. We also learn that Fitzpatrick became ‘addicted to the thrill of chase’ and enjoyed the game of ‘matching wits’ against officials. The power of writing is illustrated here, as she could barely remember anything, if not for letters, diaries and notes. Verdery, on the other hand, reveals something even more deeply about herself. The book title ‘My Life as a Spy’ is almost bordering on mockery and contempt, while the cover is a picture of her in undergarment in a hotel room captured on surveillance, which she hates to the core. Yet, such is a choice that displays her clear conscience. While shock propelled her inspiration for the book, her vulnerabilities, raw experiences and visceral emotions are laid bare. She is mostly hurt by the sense of betrayal, as the file contained copious documentation on seventy informers, many of whom she regarded as intimates, but that also hardened her resolve to write about it. In comparison, opening of the Stasi files, for instance, was a ‘symbolic act of reconciliation between victims and perpetrators’, through which victims were ‘re-appropriating stolen aspects of their lives and rewriting their life histories’. While the nature of surveillance is disempowering, accessibility gives victims power in awareness and solidarity.

In conclusion, while the ideal audience for the two books are people familiar with Soviet society and culture, it is accessible for anyone who would like to study how powerless individuals could shape history when they are entirely involved. What defines the distinguished academics was not just their meaningful research in social, economic and cultural history amidst the constraints, but more importantly their personality, their humanity and their doggedness. No matter, Fitzpatrick, Verdery, or the millions of others who have peeped at their archives should not feel defined by the descriptions. They should instead, always remember who they really are, and what their original intention was. The method of surveillance collection was ‘unethical’ and ‘flawed’. The Stasi files, for instance, are ‘not good life histories’, because they ‘fail to capture the essence of lives,’ and have ‘neither conscience nor soul.’ Surveillance archives are historical relics, meaningful only to people who collate them during the time of use. Usually, they are meant to disempower people, ‘undermine’ and ‘instrumentalize’ social relationships, which in effect, destroy trust in society. As Verdery acutely observes, spies are functions, who ‘embody the enemy that power fears’ and stir fears that vindicate authoritarianism. As far as intentionality goes, Fitzpatrick is a historian, and Verdery an anthropologist. Neither is a spy. They are courageous human beings who dared to stand up for what they believed, when it was not popular to do so.

Bibliography:

Andrews, Molly, ‘One Hundred Miles of Lives: The Stasi Files as a People’s History of East Germany’, Oral History, Spring, 1998, Vol. 26, №1, Talking and Writing, pp. 24–31.

Bu, Liping, ‘Educational Exchange and Cultural Diplomacy in the Cold War’, Journal of American Studies, Dec., 1999, Vol. 33, №3, Part 1: Women in America, pp. 393–415.

Engel, Barbara Alpern, Book Reviews, Slavic Review.

Fitzpatrick, Sheila, ‘Back in the USSR: my life as a ‘spy’ in the archives’, The Conversation, 2014. https://theconversation.com/back-in-the-ussr-my-life-as-a-spy-in-the-archives-26303

Fitzpatrick, Sheila, ‘A Spy in the Archives’, London Review of Books, Vol. 32 №23, 2010. https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v32/n23/sheila-fitzpatrick/a-spy-in-the-archives

Fitzpatrick, Sheila, ‘Impact of the Opening of Soviet Archives on Western Scholarship on Soviet Social History’, The Russian Review, Vol. 74, №3 (JULY 2015), pp. 377–400.

Fitzpatrick, Sheila, A Spy in the Archives, A Memoir of Cold War Russia (Australia and New Zealand: Melbourne University Press, 2013)

Georgescu, Diana, ‘My Life as a Spy: Investigations in a Secret Police File’, The International History Review, 41:4, 939–942.

Lewis, Alison, ‘Reading and Writing the Stasi File: On the Uses and Abuses of the Files as (Auto)biography’, German Life and Letters 56:4 October 2003.

Kinzer, Stephen, ‘East Germans Face Their Accusers’, The New York Times Magazine, 1992.

Krasnyak, Olga, ‘How U.S.-Soviet Scientific and Technical Exchanges Helped End the Cold War’, American Diplomacy, 2019.

Rybakova, Maria, ‘You Are Not Who You Think You Are: On Katherine Verdery’s My Life As A Spy: Investigations in a Secret Police File’, Los Angeles Review of Books, https://blog.lareviewofbooks.org/reviews/think-katherine-verderys-life-spy-investigations-secret-police-file/

Smith, Evan, Kritikos, Agora, 2014, 59–60.

Verdery, Katherine, My Life as a Spy, Investigations in a Secret Police File (Durham: Duke University Press, 2018)

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