Socialism, Spies, and Serendipity: Katherine Verdery and Kristen Ghodsee on Anthropology and Epistemic Change

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This episode features Katherine Verdery in conversation with Kristen Ghodsee. They discuss Verdery's career in the context of her recent ASEEES award, including her reflections on conducting fieldwork in the Eastern bloc prior to the fall of communism, reflecting on her experiences reading her Securitate police file and her own positionality as a field researcher, and navigating ruptures in the episteme.

References

Caton, Steven. 2006. Yemen Chronicle: An Anthropology of War and Mediation. New York: Hill and Wang.

Chamovitz, Daniel. 2012. What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Gal, Susan, and Gail Kligman, eds. 2000. Reproducing Gender: Politics, Publics, and Everyday Life Under Socialism. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Jowitt, Kenneth. 1992. The New World Disorder: The Leninist Extinction. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kligman, Gail, and Katherine Verdery. 2011. Peasants under Siege: The Collectivization of Romanian Agriculture, 1949—1962. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Powers, Richard. 2019. The Overstory: A Novel. New York: W. W. Norton.

Verdery, Katherine. 1983. Transylvanian Villagers: Three Centuries of Political, Economic and Ethnic Change. Berkeley: University of California Press.

———. 1993. "Whither 'Nation' and 'Nationalism'?" Daedelus 122, no. 3: 37–46.

———. 1995. National Ideology under Socialism: Identity and Cultural Politics in Ceausescu's Romania. Berkeley: University of California Press.

———. 2003. The Vanishing Hectare: Property and Value in Postsocialist Transylvania. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

———. 2014. Secrets and Truth: Ethnography in the Archives of the Romanian Secret Police. Budapest: Central European University Press.

———. 2018. My Life as a Spy: Investigations in a Secret Police File. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Wohlleben, Peter. 2016. The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries from a Secret World. Vancouver: Greystone Books.

Transcript

Kristen Ghodsee [0:03] Hello, welcome to AnthroPod. My name is Kristen Ghodsee. And I am a guest host today and I'm really excited to be here with the anthropologist Katherine Verdery, who is the 2020 winner of the Distinguished Contributions to Slavic East European and Eurasian Studies Award, which is usually given to senior scholars who have helped to build and develop the field through scholarship, training, and service to the profession.

KG [0:31] So, before we get started with the interview, I wanted to say that I think this is a really incredible award because I think it's the first time it's ever been given to a cultural anthropologist. And I think that's really significant because this association is really dominated by psychologists and historians and political scientists. And so it's really quite a moment to see this association recognizing a cultural anthropologist. And what I want to do before we start is to just read the citation because it's a wonderful introduction to the importance and impact of Professor Verdery's work over the years. So this is the citation: "Professor Katherine Verdery has profoundly shaped Russian and East European studies and core debates in the social sciences. As an anthropologist of political, economic and cultural transition in East Central Europe and particularly Romania, Verdery is a leading ethnographer of the region and a theorist of socialism and post socialism. Verdery earned a BA in anthropology from Reed College and an MA and PhD in anthropology from Stanford University. Pathbreaking doctoral fieldwork provided the basis of Verdery's first book, Transylvanian Villagers: Three Centuries of Political, Economic and Ethnic Change, which became a key text in the study of ethnicity. With her next book, National Ideology under Socialism: Identity and Cultural Politics in Ceausescu's Romania, further explored the production of national identity. Returning to the question in her foundational article "Whither nation and nationalism," which appeared in Daedelus in 1993, the award-winning books which followed What Was Socialism and What Comes Next, The Political Lives of Dead Bodies: Reburial and Postsocialist Change, and The Vanishing Hectare: Property and Value in Postsocialist Transylvania, have been enormously influential in disciplines beyond anthropology, including history, sociology, and political science.

KG [2:35] Together with Gail Kligman, Verdery undertook a ten-year project with an interdisciplinary team of researchers in Romania to produce Peasants Under Siege: The Collectivization of Romanian Agriculture, 1949–1962, which appeared with Princeton University Press in 2011, a model of collaborative research. In her most recent books, Secrets and Truth: Ethnography in the Archives of the Romanian Secret Police, which appeared in 2014, and My Life as a Spy: Investigations in a Secret Police File, which appeared with Duke University Press in 2018, Verdery has turned a critical eye to her own decades of research, analyzing the 2,700 pages of her security police file to post questions about the nature of anthropological research, and the role of surveillance in contemporary life. My Life as a Spy was reviewed in scholarly journals and in popular media outlets in the U.S. and in Romania, where the Romanian translation sold out in a matter of weeks. Verdery has held teaching positions at Johns Hopkins University, the University of Michigan, and City University of New York Graduate Center, where she has trained multiple generations of scholars who described her as the model they aspire to be as they mentor their own students. Verdery has chaired each of the anthropology departments in which she has held professorships. She has directed Michigan Center for Russian and East European studies. And she has served as the president of what was once called the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies, but is now called the Association for Slavic East European and Eurasian Studies, among many other roles in the organization and service to the profession." So that's the citation. It's incredibly detailed and wonderful. And I want to thank you so much, Katherine, for being here today to talk to us.

Katherine Verdery [4:31] It's a pleasure. It's really lovely to hear what other people think.

KG [4:37] Right. And, you know, and I know that this is, from my understanding that there haven't been that many winners in the past. I think they've been giving this award for quite a, quite a few years, but it's very rare for it to go to anthropologists. I think in the past, maybe only one folklorist and somebody who was a linguist got it, but cultural anthropology is definitely underrepresented. So really, it's a really great that you have pierced the veil here, of this field, with, with anthropological research. So what I'd love to do is really just start with some background. What attracted you to major in anthropology at Reed College in the late 1960s? Were there particular classes or professors or books that made an impression on you as an undergraduate student?

KV [5:18] My answer to this is totally quirky, but people will be amused by it. When I was nine years old, my mother decided to go back to college and finish her degree so that she could become a teacher. And she had to have distribution requirements in social sciences. So she looked through the catalogue. She was at Boston University, or maybe Tufts at that time. And she found an interesting looking set of courses that were taught under anthropology. So she thought she would take basic anthropology, the introductory course. And her advisor said to her, "This is a really lousy idea. That's a summer course, it takes all, you know, all of every day, and it's very difficult, and I would suggest you do something easier." And she said . . . of course, that just got her back up. So she said, "No, I think I'll stick with it." And so for the whole summer, she was in a much better humor than she usually was, because she was kind of difficult person. And you couldn't always tell what kind of reaction you were going to get from her. But now she was just uniformly excited and cheerful about this stuff. And she would tell us all these stories about Piltdown Man, and you know, there was obviously a four-field introductory course. So I associated anthropology with one of the most pleasant periods of my childhood. Didn't have anything to do with whether I wanted to study that particular thing. I just wanted something that would make you happy. [6:51] So there was one further contribution to this by the gentleman who taught my eleventh grade chemistry class. His name was Mr. Harris. And he was kind of a maverick guy in high school that was otherwise very staid. And he started telling us early on that he had just spent the summer doing a summer course on—so summer courses seemed to have a role [laughing] in chemistry that was taught at Reed College. So he talked about what was wonderful about it, and it didn't have any grades that—oh, that's really important. So he was talking about it all the time. And I had been embarrassed my entire high school career because I got the number one thing at the end of the year, and people would tease me and say nasty things. So I said terrific, no grades, sounds like my kind of place. He talked about it a lot. So I felt as if I kind of got to know what I was potentially dealing with. Then I applied to Swarthmore and to Radcliffe. And I got on the shortlist at Swarthmore, and the Radcliffe admissions office called up the headmistress of the school I was going to then and said, "You have sent us four stellar candidates. Which one really wants to come here?" So I didn't get into Radcliffe either [laughing]. [8:14] And so going to Reed was, it was the result of a number of serendipitous choices and events. And anthropology came along, you know, with the possibility of going anywhere. So I got there, and I really loved it. There were three anthropology professors, and I took whatever they were offering. So I have courses on American Indians and archaeology and theory in anthropology. And, and you name it.

KG [8:42] So can you describe the climate in the field of anthropology when you started your PhD program in 1970? You went to Stanford. What were the big debates in the field?

KV [8:51] There was a lot of talk about the formalists and the substantivists and economic anthropology. And although I didn't realize this so much at the time, it was clearly about a shift, or an option in the epistemology that you wanted to work with. And so it was kind of the leading edge of what turned out to be a number of significant transformations in anthropology over the next decade.

KG [9:16] What particularly attracted you to Stanford and who did you work with?

KV [9:20] Why I went to Stanford . . . I decided I wanted to go to Stanford, not because I had a specific interest in things they were doing, but because it was a department that had a strong reputation. And it was in California, and I thought, my whole family is from the East Coast. Why don't I spend a few years here in California and then I will know something about the U.S. in a broader sense and just growing up in the east? You'll notice a pattern here. A lot of my reasons for getting into things aren't really reasons.

KG [9:53] I think that's true of so many of us.

KV [9:55] I was planning on doing sort of medical anthropology, psychological anthropology thing. And there were a couple of people who worked on that. And I took courses with them. And I thought, Oh, geez, if this is the best I can do, I think, you know [laughing]. I had a required course with Bill Skinner, China specialist in political anthropology, and my life was never the same thereafter. So he was a terrific professor. And he taught us a lot about how to think, which was very good. He made everybody write a little term paper about an area of the world that was not the one they were planning to go to. So I wrote mine on political systems in Africa, for example. And he was just brilliant. So he was a tremendous advantage for me in going to Stanford, though I hadn't known it at the time. [10:46] And the other most important person that I worked with was Jane Collier, who at that time, had just arrived at Stanford as the wife of her husband, George, who was hired as an assistant professor. But Jane was still finishing her dissertation. And then she finished her dissertation. I got to know her while she was still doing it. And I asked her to be on my committee, because I found that the way she thought was always wonderful to me, she—both of these people thought big, you know. Their idea of trying to come up with an explanation for something was to start with Maya, or you know [laughing], the Chinese Communist Party, so they were really complimentary mentors. And I was incredibly lucky to have both of them. I worked with other people. Bernard Siegel was a very good friend. And I got to know Renato and Shelly Rosaldo, who were there at the same time. But those two were the most important.

KG [11:49] And so then how did your interest in Eastern Europe development, particularly what made you choose Romania as a fieldwork site? Was it difficult to justify fieldwork in Europe, for instance?

KV [11:59] Well, it certainly wasn't everybody's first idea of where you would go. But I mentioned Bernard Siegel a moment ago. He was actually my formal advisor, because he had done some fieldwork in Italy. So he knew where Europe was. And he, he encouraged me saying, "Oh, this would be interesting." But I spent a summer doing fieldwork in Greece with Ernestine Friedl. And I liked Greece and found it very interesting. But I was really put off by being pursued all the time. So the sex role stuff was a total impediment. So I then said, "Okay, so it won't be the Balkans. Where else will it be?" And one day, I was sort of interested, I'd started, as a eight year old, trying to teach myself Russian, because there was just something about Russia that appealed to me. And I thought, "Oh, well, you know, let's try to learn the language." And I got as far as declensions. And I gave up. And so one day I was sitting in my office, this was during my second year, and one of my classmates came in with a map; he knew that I was a map lover. So we had this huge map of Eastern Europe and put it on the floor. And we spent a happy hour looking at all these exciting place names that we couldn't pronounce, basically, coming to realize that we knew nothing at all about this area. And I wasn't asking myself whether that was a scholarly we or just me and my friend, it was mostly the latter. [13:41] But by chance, a Romanian sociologist was at the Stanford Center that year. And so I made an appointment to go see him and asked him whether he thought it would be possible to do field work there. And he was sort of encouraging, I would say, and it was good from my point of view that we were talking about going to Romania, because there were already a few Americans who had gone to other countries in the East bloc, successfully or not. And now here, I had the chance to go to one that was actively welcoming anthropologists at the time. If they had known what we were going to do [both laughing]. So I've always been interested in marshlands and peripheries. So I had done a summer project on nationalism in Wales in Great Britain and enjoyed that. And Scotland, I spent some time there doing a little project on again on national identity. So Eastern Europe was just the other marshland on the other end of the continent, and it had the advantage that it hadn't been plumbed very well. So that, that determined it and the encouragement of this Romanian sociologist was very helpful. He gave me a lot of assistance at the beginning getting adjusted in Bucharest, and then he fled. To the U.S. [laughing] He defected.

KG [15:11] I see.

KV [15:11] That was the end of that relationship. But oh, there was one other thing about why go to Romania at the time. The Fulbright handbooks had little descriptions of each of these European countries saying, you know, what language you would have to use and how likely you were to get into trouble with one or another crime. So they recommended Romania. They said Romania is welcoming to Americans, and we think it's an interesting place. And at that time, Romania's leader Ceausescu, he was very interested in the true lineage of the Romanians, because of the conflict with Hungarians over who really belonged in Transylvania, so I was in Transylvania doing my field work. So that was part of, of what motivated me, but there were a lot of people doing physical anthropology. They were up in the hill areas and publishing books about the archaic village, Romania and so on. And so that was all kind of in my mind. [16:20]

And then my advisor, a guy named Mihai Pop, linguist from Bucharest, said, "Well, I think you should go to county Hunedoara. Because it's the most varied of a lot of these counties, Transylvania is more interesting than the other parts of the country for what you're interested in doing." And so he sent me out on a three week tour of the county with my newly acquired motorbike. And I got into a little bit of trouble, but it seemed to be remedied. So it was established that I would go and do my work there. And somebody in the county council said we should go in this particular area with a commune called Geoagiu that had eleven villages. And this one was about 900 people and the others were either 200 or 2,500. So I thought, you know, the Goldilocks principle?

KG [17:08] Yes [laughing].

KV [17:19] I settled in to write in this village called Aurel Vlaicu, which was named after a famous guy who lived there earlier in the century.

KG [17:29] And what year was that?

KV [17:31] I got to Bucharest in August of '73.

KG [17:33] Okay.

KV [17:34] Actually showed up in the field in November to start my work.

KG [17:41] Yeah. And how long did you say in the field?

KV [17:43] I left the following December. So—

KG [17:46] Okay, about a year?

KV [17:47] Yeah.

KG [17:48] And can you talk a little bit about the specific challenges of working as an anthropologist in Eastern Europe at that time, especially because as you said, there weren't that many Americans doing this kind of work? So how did you build community with your scholarly peers? I mean, what were your networks at the time?

KV [18:05] We sort of didn't think that much about networks at the time. But I had started off with this relationship with Ernestine Friedl. And she had introduced me to the work of some other people like John Campbell, who wrote about Greece; and Julian Pitt-Rivers, who wrote about Spain; and Conrad Arensberg, who had written about Ireland. And nobody much cited these [chuckles].

KG [18:05] Yeah.

KV [18:09] But she said, "You know, these are all good books. And so you might want to take a look at them." And she started developing my bibliography. And there were two committees that were formed by the SSRC and the ACLS. And they were called the Joint Committees on Eastern Europe. And they started giving money for people to do field work and, you know, write-up money and stuff. And I was lucky enough to get one of those grants for writing up my dissertation. And it introduced me then to a number of fora in which I met younger people who were working. And one of the fora was that I was asked to join the board, the Joint Committees Selection Committee, so that I was giving money to people who were working there. And it was tremendously influential in my exposure to the field. [19:31] Then as far as justifying fieldwork in Europe, the question is, to whom? At that point, I still wasn't, you know, I wasn't publishing yet. I was just finishing my dissertation. And I didn't really know what, whether, I would have to justify it. But the principle effect that I experienced from having chosen a country in Eastern Europe was that the bibliography was really sparse in languages that I could read. And so that was a setback. But I actually learned Romanian rather fast. Of all the languages in that region it was, it is, by far the easiest in structural and vocabulary terms. So the thing that I experienced was that, because there weren't very many anthropologists, hardly any working in Eastern Europe—in anthropology, nobody really cared.

KG [20:29] Aha.

KV [20:30] At first, I sort of had to build my own audience, and then try to create some connections in the field. And I hung out with Kenneth Jowitt, who was a political scientist at Berkeley, he was very helpful, gave me—he actually knew something. And a couple of other people. And then I just paid a lot more attention to what political science was having to say about—and to some extent, sociology, because there was precious little anthropology to read. And one effect of that, I think, is that it made my work from the outset, somewhat more interdisciplinary. And that certainly was an important part of getting this award because I had people in other fields who, from early on, knew that I was doing something that they might be interested in.

KG [21:32] Definitely, definitely. So can you talk a little bit about the collapse of communism in 1989? And how that impacted your work? Were you surprised at the events of 1989?

KV [21:42] I would say, a little bit, but not really. And certainly by the time Ceausescu was deposed, everybody else had already done that—

KG [21:52] Yeah—

KV [21:53] The Czechs and the—you know, the East Germans started it and the Czechs and the this, that and the other. And so it was pretty clear that some big change was happening in the communist bloc, so-called, so when Ceausescu was deposed I wasn't surprised. Although I remember how very clearly how I learned about this. I used to cook dinner while watching the evening news, and I would start watching the, I think it was the, Dan Rather, that was the first program. He did half an hour and then I would switch over to Peter Jennings, ABC—

KG [22:32] Mmhmm—

KV [22:32] So I'd have an hour of TV news about whatever. And on Dan Rather's program, there were lots of photographs of people carrying placards and saying "Down with Ceausescu" and lots of shouting and all this. And I was totally astounded. Not because I didn't think it could happen. But because I just hadn't seen the signs that were—would have prepared it. And I was standing there watching the TV. And then I turned over to Peter Jennings and the segment that he showed, not just the people with their placards, but he also focused on, or it also focused on Ceausescu. And he was looking out at the crowd, trying to speak, and the crowd was shouting him down. And he looked so astounded, and unprepared for this possibility. And so I said, Oh, my God, this guy is, is going to go out. I watched TV a lot, then, and then on Christmas Day, I guess was the day he was executed. So I heard this when I got up at seven o'clock in the morning, and there was nobody awake then that I could call and talk to. So I woke Gail Kligman up [both laughing] in California. And I said, He's fallen! And she didn't need me to say anything more. So it was a pretty exciting time. But as I say, by that point, it was pretty clear that something really tremendous was going on.

KG [24:06] And did that transform your work? Did that completely change the way you thought about things? I mean, what impact did that have on your scholarship?

KV [24:15] Well, mainly, it meant that I could go back and do more field work.

KG [24:19] Right.

KV [24:21] Because it certainly didn't look as if that were going to happen.

KG [24:23] Yeah.

KV [24:25] I put out my first book, which was mainly a historical work, and I had done that precisely to not get into a lot of trouble in the present day. So that seemed to be okay. And then I decided, one of the things that I noticed when I was doing my first fieldwork was that there were a lot of books being published that were re-editions of books from the 1930s. And in the 1930s, what was happening was a huge set of debates on the national character. So there would be you know, the people who said the Romanians were really Latins and others who said they were really Slavs, and, you know, this kind of stuff. And so I kind of started to get interested in this set of debates that were involved. And I also began to notice that they seem to line up in a certain way with the intellectuals who were carrying them out.

KG [25:27] And did that impact your research?

KV [25:29] I think the second one was tremendously affected by this collapse of the communist government, because I was able to write about the communist system. And I hadn't felt free to do that before. So I started off the book with a chapter on how socialism functioned as a social system. And I got, I started doing that, because I just read Eric Wolf's book about, Europe and the People Without History, where he starts off outlining three different modes of production. And so I thought, oh, maybe I should do this for socialism.

KG [26:11] Yeah. So that, is that what you did for What Was Social—You're talking about What Was Socialism, And What Comes Next?

KV [26:17] No, I did that for National Ideology under Socialism.

KG [26:22] Aha. Can we talk a little bit about What Was Socialism and What Comes Next, because that one is really probably, you know, the most important book explaining the transition process in Eastern Europe. I know that I still teach it in my classes, because it provides a perfect primer for what existed before 1989 and the challenges that would be faced with a transition to democracy and capitalism in this part of the world. You know, I remember back in the '90s, I was in grad school, I went to many panels that you were on. I went to so many of your lectures, read this work was really profound and important, I think, for a lot of anthropologists who were for the first time deciding to go to Eastern Europe in the '90s—precisely because it was now open and there were grants available for people like me, right.

KV [27:09] Mmhmm.

KG [27:09] So I know that that book, you ended up having a scholarly debate with a political scientist, you've already mentioned him, he was at Berkeley while you were at Stanford, Kenneth Jowitt, about the arguments that you made in that book. So can you talk a little bit about the scholarly response to What Was Socialism And What Comes Next, when it was first published? And maybe talk a little bit about the debates in the '90s?

KV [27:33] Well, it's sold really well.

KG [27:36] Yeah.

KV [27:38] [unintelligible] A space for it on the bookshelf. The argument, or discussion that I had with Ken Jowitt, I think, was mostly because so many political scientists, and a lot of them were my principal audience, were convinced that the best thing that—to happen now would be the development of markets and the creation of democracy. And you know, I'm an anthropologist. That looked pretty suspicious to me [laughing].

KG [28:05] Of course.

KV [28:05] So most of those essays take a different tack. And Jowitt was a little disappointed with this because he thought that I might say some things that would be interesting about those problems. And I was talking instead about the pyramid schemes, and things about nationalism and so on. But you know, we're still friends.

KG [28:30] That's good.

KV [28:32] And I thought that his book, his book [The New World Disorder: The Leninist Extinction], and it was brilliant. I thought it was just so smart. And so I, I incorporated some of his work into mine, especially his ideas about how the collapse of the communist world was like the extinction of a species or a mass extinction. And I thought that was a wonderful image.

KG [29:01] I think that what was socialism, and what and what comes next probably was the most cited book, at least in anthropology, if not in other fields, about the transition process. I certainly know it loomed very large when I was doing my own dissertation research in Bulgaria. So it had a huge impact on the field. It must have been exciting for you at that point.

KV [29:24] Yeah. Well, there was a sort of a backstory to that book, and that is that in 1992, I was invited to give the Morgan Lectures at the University of Rochester, which were a set of four lectures, supposedly by somebody who was working on something new. So I gave those lectures and usually they were published by Cambridge University Press. The process of getting them published, there was a process of evolution because the person who had run the, the series, I think Al Harris, was retiring and it was being taken over by another faculty member. So one of them said to me, "Well, why don't you just send your manuscript off to Cambridge since there is an interregnum here." So I did, I just sent it, I did all the things you had to do, put in more footnotes, blah, blah, and sent it off to the editor of this series at Cambridge University Press. And I never heard anything from her ever again. And so I was feeling pretty discouraged. And I was about to go off and start the field work on this, the Vanishing Hectare book about the collectivization, and I thought it would be really nice if I could just get some of these essays out. And so I decided to put them all into a book. And I was also competing with a friend of mine who was writing a book and I wanted mine to come out first.

KG [30:55] I see. [laughing]

KV [30:56] So they are always these little things . . .

KG [31:00] Actually, this is a more personal question, which is, you've written so many books. Do you have a favorite? And why is it your favorite? And also, which of your books was the hardest to write? And why?

KV [31:13] That's a pretty tough question, because I like different books for different reasons. But I think the one that I, I think is my best book, is The Vanishing Hectare, which is about the decollectivization of agriculture in the village that I had worked in. And I thought that was a pretty good combination of theory and ethnographic data. And in this case, I had pretty much invented the theory. So you know, I produce this thing myself, rather than picking it up off somebody else's tray. And I also thought that the ethnography was, was much better because people wanted to talk to me. They weren't always, you know, saying, "Oh, I'm busy"—

KG [32:00] Right, of course.

KV [32:01] —in the street and say, When are you coming?

KG [32:05] [laughing]

KV [32:05] So the fieldwork was really, really enjoyable. And I guess I would say that that is both my favorite and the hardest to write.

KG [32:14] Why?

KV [32:14] It's quite possible that the hardest to write was, was also this last one, the . . . My Life As A Spy, because it is not a standard ethnographic kind of text. And I worked on it for much longer than most.

KG [32:29] Great. Okay, so um, how about field sites? Did you ever consider switching to a different field site, not doing Romania? Or was the collapse of communism almost creating a new field site for you?

KV [32:42] Well, at the time that I finished my book about national ideology under socialism, I was thinking I wouldn't be able to go back to Romania after that, because I said a number of things about how to understand socialism that was, you know, I thought pretty useful, but not very much to their taste. So at that point, I decided I was going to go to either—I guess I wanted to go to Hungary first. So I spent a summer doing a language course and I said, "Okay, well, that's over." You know, my Romanian was really good. And I was never going to get anywhere like that was Hungarian. Martha Lampland holds the record among anthropologists for having the best Hungarian. So then I started thinking about Moldova. Because with the gradual disintegration of the Soviet Union, that would have been a language that I could handle. And there would also be a lot of interestingly different things there. So that was my only way of thinking about it. But once the system fell apart, I decided I wanted to write about what my people in my village wanted to talk about, and that was getting their land back.

KG [33:53] Right. Can you talk a little bit about this ten-year collaborative project that you did with Gail Kligman, who's a professor at UCLA, which led to this award winning book Peasants Under Siege? Why did you decide to do such a big collaborative project with Gail, or had that been something that you always wanted to do and just found the time later?

KV [34:14] It was never something I always wanted [both laughing]. But it turned out to be a very valuable and enjoyable project. Gail had just finished doing this huge thing on gender—

KG [34:28] Reproducing Gender, I think—

KV [34:30] And she found it. She had started this because she thought it was important for us to try to give a boost to Romanian scholars, who in many cases didn't know much about U.S. methodology in the social sciences. Also, she had introduced them, the ones in the previous project, to gender theory, which they hadn't been very familiar with. So she decided that had been a good idea and the book that she wrote with Susan Gal, Gender Politics Under Socialism or something like that—

KG [35:02] Something like that, yeah.

KV [35:03] —was a fabulous book. It was really, really good. And so when she came to me and said, Would you like to do something with me on collectivization? Because we were having decollectivization everywhere? Why don't we look and see what we can say about the opposite process? And I didn't have another project at the time. So I agreed to it. And it took way longer than we expected. But the people we got in the project were all really interesting and fun to work with. And, but the writing took a lot of time, because we were trying to bring together a whole lot of people's data, and create arguments that would encompass people's data, who hadn't necessarily intended their material to be for that in, but one way or another, we got through it. And it did win a lot of prizes, because I think it had such an interdisciplinary quality, and won prizes in sociology, political science, and history, I think I don't know if it won any in anthro. But it was the interdisciplinary quality of it that enabled that.

KG [36:11] Right. And so then let's talk about your last two books, the most recent two, which are about this voluminous secret police file that you managed to get. Can you talk a little bit about how you got this file and your alter ego code name, Vera? Right? And why you wanted to read it? I guess I would be . . . I don't know if there was a huge file, I would be afraid in some ways to see what was in it. Did you have any reticence? What did you learn? What did it feel like to read the contents of this file? And what did you learn about both the Securitate and their processes, but also about yourself? I mean, you basically got to see yourself through the lens of these secret police for over, what, twenty-five years.

KV [36:58] Yeah, it wasn't a very flattering portrait. But the kinds of things that I noticed first—everybody was getting their files at that—

KG [37:08] Okay, that was just a normal thing to do.

KV [37:11] Yeah, I was doing a little research, for our previous book, in the Archives of the National Council for the, for the Study of the Securitate Archive. And there was a woman in the reading room who periodically, when it got late in the afternoon, she'd come over and chat. And she said, Well, why don't you ask for your own file? And it absolutely never crossed my mind. And I said, Why would I? Because there were already little articles being written by people who [laughing] were really sorry they'd gotten their file and so she just said, Well, you know, it's a really important subject. And you know, you could do some good work on it. So I figured I don't have anything else to do, let's at least ask for it. So I asked for it. And when I got a letter from them, saying, yes they had my file, and I, the next time I went to Romania, made an appointment, and on the desk that they sat me at was this much material, it was enormous. So seven or eight, I can't remember, thickly bound volumes that were full of reports about what I was doing, what the secret police thought other people thought I was doing. And their attempts to become friendly with me in a few cases and things like that. [38:35] But it was a horrible experience to read that the first time through. I just felt awful. It was consciousness-shattering. My image of myself was really, really wounded, by—by reading what I looked like to a personal kind of completely different agenda for that material. So I got the thing Xeroxed, and I took it home. And as I say in the book, it sat in the corner of my study for two years while I was finishing the collectivization book, but also I would look at it and I would say, No, I don't really know what I'm going to do with you. So finally, I finished the other book and I had leave I think, so I said, Okay, I'm gonna sit down and read this. And that was the horrible part is because, you know, I have, like a lot of people. I think I'm a nice person. I think I'm an honest person. I don't think I'm going around making nasty claims about other people and so on. But when I read that, it was obvious that they thought I was not a nice person or an honest person, and that I was there to corrupt Romanians into becoming agents for the U.S. and to look for information that would compromise the country in the eyes of the world. And this was one of their main concerns, the idea was that I was promoting negative propaganda about Romania. So that was my first reaction. [40:13] But at the same time, as I read it over and over again—I must have read it at least ten times—one thing that I discovered as I read it was that I was beginning to hate myself, because there were so many places in which they were offering their interpretations of what I was up to. And I wasn't doing what they thought I was up to. But I certainly didn't look as if I was, you know, guiltless.

KG [40:43] Right.

KV [40:44] And it was usually because I was trying to protect some person that I had gotten to be friends with, and wanted to talk to, and so on. And so it made me ask, first of all, how could I have been so naive? That was one of the costs of having gone to do fieldwork in the Eastern bloc while it was still communist, and nobody, nobody really knew how to translate this material. So the other thing that I kept finding mentions of myself in their notes that suggested I was pretty cocky. Now I knew what, I knew what was going to be the right thing to say about this or that and, and I didn't have any subtlety at all in how I work. "When I work" I mean talking with the people at the remaining institutions that were supposed to be overseeing my grant. So they might let me know, off the cuff, that, that people thought I was fine. And I would say, well, that's ridiculous. You know, why would I want to be a spy? Why would I do that? And I never sat down and took this at face value and asked, "What am I doing that's producing this result?" And there were a few times when I got involved in arguments with people in Romania who had plenty of reason to know a lot of what they were saying about Romania, but I was very full of my own interpretation. So I think that was the thing that I hated the most. So as I read it, and it took me a number of times of reading it before I began to feel that I could work with it.

KG [42:23] Mmhmm. And one of the things that you say, which I find so fascinating is that being an anthropologist can really come off as being a spy, right? There are lots of things that we do that make us very legible as spies, especially to the other side.

KV [42:40] Absolutely. Absolutely. And there are some books in anthropology that have been written about this, like Steve Caton's book and others. So it's not as if I'm the only person.

KG [42:50] No, no, but you get to see that from the other side from the file.

KV [42:53] That's exactly right. Steve Caton, I don't think, read his file.

KG [42:59] Right.

KV [42:59] So it did make me somewhat unique. Now there were a couple of anthropologists who had been there in the time that I've been working there. Steven Sampson was one and Sam Beck was another. They worked in a different region. And they also, or at least—Steve Sampson got his file to read it. And he and I had some long conversations about what we thought of it. And he didn't try to write a book out of it. But it was clearly a very upsetting thing to find. And in his case, he'd gotten thrown out of the country.

KG [43:36] Right.

KV [43:37] We think because he was working with gypsies, and that was not a good thing to do.

KG [43:43] Mm hm. So how do you think the field of anthropology has maybe changed over the course of your career? Starting, you know, when you first did your fieldwork in the '70s, in Romania, up to the present day, more or less?

KV [43:58] I think that the principle shift has been vastly increased questioning of the nature of knowledge and anthropological knowledge. How do we know what we know? And I don't think anthropologists asked themselves that much that kind of question. But as we move from the sort of positivistic research climate of my graduate school and early writing on to the postmodern movement, there's a huge shift in how you can think about the material that you're getting and how you could get material and still feel that you're a good person—not using hidden tape recorders and so on. So from my point of view, that made such a huge difference, and I was a difficult candidate for it because I basically have, even now, to some extent, a positivist orientation to gathering data. I—but I'm, I'm certainly much different in how I interpret it than I used to be. That's what I think would be my principal answer. Do you have another answer?

KG [45:05] No, I think it's definitely the case that was much less positivistic than it used to be. And you know, this idea of the ontological turn, but also the end of the Anthropocene. Right? This move beyond the human and what is anthropology if we're not studying the anthro?

KV [45:24] Yeah. Right.

KG [45:24] That's, that's a kind of profound question that a lot of people are grappling with my example. And I think that for those of us who were maybe trained in an earlier era, there's a lot of tension about the kind of post-humanism that or the, you know, the vibrant materialisms, the kind of Yeah, so I'm just really curious about that. Because it's, it's a different framing of anthropological knowledge. It's not just about epistemology, it's also about the subject.

KV [45:51] Well, I went along with it. To some extent, I do think that it's valuable to start asking about our place in the world and how we've mucked it up for a lot of people and animals. I read books about animals now and got one called What a Plant Knows. And my favorite book is The Hidden Life of Trees, which is a fantastic book. And I'm reading another one about chimpanzees by Frans De Waal, who writes a lot of that great stuff.

KG [46:20] Have you read The Overstory? It—

KV [46:22] No. What’s that?

KG [46:23] It's a, it's a novel, but it won the Pulitzer Prize, and it's about trees. And yeah, you might like that one. So then my last question is, you know, a lot of young people listen to this podcast, a lot of graduate students, and even undergraduate students who might be thinking about pursuing a career in the field of anthropology. And you are somebody with so much experience, and you have had such a profound impact on the field of cultural anthropology, particularly in the study of Eastern Europe. I mean, you're definitely among the trailblazers here. And I think that's what this award from ASEEES has recognized. Do you have advice for younger people who might be thinking about pursuing anthropology not only in general, but maybe specifically in Eastern Europe?

KV [47:13] I think that we are at an extraordinary moment in the history of the world right now. And that what happens with the virus is going to be extremely important, the whole process of education is being turned on its head, how long this will last? We don't know. And the possibilities of a job market and a university system that will be organized completely differently, I can't begin to predict that. I can just say, this is a whole new ballgame. And I wish them well.

KG [47:48] Right.

KV [47:49] And with the possible re-election of Trump and the change of the composition of the Supreme Court, everything is up for grabs. So I think we have hit another moment, another change in the episteme, whose consequences will gradually unfold, and young people are going to have to figure out how to live with it. And I feel for them.

KG [48:13] Do you think anthropology gives, gives us particular tools that will help us see our way through this, especially young people because I also feel really strongly that people who are in undergraduate school right now my own daughter is doing her first semester of college online from her bedroom upstairs.

KV [48:34] Oh god.

KG [48:35] Awful, yeah. And and she's, she's balancing all of the chaos that's going on in the world, you know, with climate change, and with the protests, and with the election, and now the Supreme Court and the pandemic, and still trying to move forward with her own education. And sometimes I feel like there's this question of, is it worth it, given that it feels like the world is going to end pretty soon? I find myself wanting to say that it is worth it, right, that education is worth it. And that learning these tools, like the experience that you had as an undergrad at Reed or as a graduate student at Stanford, having somebody really open your mind to a different way of seeing the world? I think you said earlier in the interview "teaching you how to think"—do you think anthropology has a particularly important role in doing that, or is that just sort of the product of a general liberal arts education?

KV [49:25] I think anthropology has a particular way of doing it, which involves insisting on the questioning of our place relative to other people's, and other peoples include, you know, people from our own society. Because it asks us to bring to the world a questioning attitude. And that's not easy to teach undergraduates. In fact, it's quite difficult, but I think it is essential to help them to produce citizens who will know at least minimally how to question the crap they're being fed. And I can't wait to see somebody's dissertation on Q-Anon. That's—

KG [50:09] Exactly.

KV [50:12] I was gonna say advice for more senior anthropologists, and end on a moment of lightness about what should they do to push on with their work.

KG [50:22] Yeah, right.

KV [50:23] And I have several more things to say about that, first of all, retire. Because I have to say, having retired just before this began, I feel so grateful that I don't have to learn how to do online courses and stuff like that. And I can read what I want, and try to develop whatever ideas I feel like developing. And potentially connected to that, is write things that you didn't finish, or little projects that you didn't actually put down, you know, on paper. Because those little projects are part of the end of an era, which is what I think we're at, and they can be useful witnesses. The other thing that I was thinking is to reread your old notes and see if you can make something up. I mean, I did part of that in this project here. I think it's really important for people who are trying to consolidate their anthropological identity, as opposed to senior old people like me, to re-experience themselves in the form that they took, and thereby to see something of how, again, the production and the nature of knowledge have changed over this last, you know, twenty years or so. There's, there are going to be a lot of valuable lessons from shifting from that kind of work, to the older stuff that we haven't quite gotten to, to whatever is emerging here. But my worry is that the university as an, as a thing is going to undertake such a massive transformation that, you know, you can’t publish a lot of books, if they're more than 100 pages and 150 pages.

KG [52:23] Right

KV [52:24] So I think that there's a huge transformation of the times that we live in, that makes it very difficult to imagine what will be coming.

KG [52:33] Wonderful. Thank you so much for your time. It's been really an honor to have this conversation with you.

KV [52:39] Well, it's been great.

KG [52:40] Thank you again for taking the time to talk to me

KV [52:43] With pleasure.

Beth Derderian [52:48] Special thanks to Kristen Ghodsee, who conceived this episode and conducted the interview. Special thanks also to Katherine Verdery. You can find links to the scholars and works discussed today on the podcast homepage of the Society for Cultural Anthropology at culanth.org. That's c-u-l-a-n-t-h dot org. For AnthroPod, I'm your executive producer, Beth Derderian. Thank you again so much for listening and catch you next time.