Fleming H Revell Co, 1974
The Strange Story of Sergei Kourdakov
What might have caused lesser mortals some soul-searching about the intensely public ten-month relationship with this young defector—who was thrust into the role of celebrity fundraiser before he had engaged in even minimal discipleship—seems, instead, to have sent Joe Bass into public relations overdrive. The Kourdakov autobiography, The Persecutor, went ahead as planned, with the sad facts (selectively edited) of Sergei's untimely death, appended as a "publisher's note," making the story even more compelling. International rights were being negotiated in Europe within weeks of Sergei's funeral in Washington, D.C., where Richard Halverson preached the sermon. And Underground Evangelism urged supporters to contribute to a Sergei Kourdakov Memorial Fund.
It was a successful gamble. The book sold millions of copies worldwide, in several formats, under several titles, and in numerous languages. A French edition, Pardonne-moi Natacha, was still being reprinted as recently as 2006. An enterprising "editor" with no apparent connection to Underground Evangelism attempted to recycle the story in 2000 under Kourdakov's name as Who Killed Sasha? Uncovering One of the Mysteries of the Cold War.
The book Revell published in 1973 was indisputably compelling: a quasi-Dickensian account of a child orphan learning to fend for himself in various state-run children's homes, becoming a Komsomol leader while indulging in petty criminal activity on the side, excelling as a naval cadet in the port city of Petropavlovsk, and then being hand-picked for a "secret operations" squad that broke up Bible studies, terrorized believers gathered for baptism, murdered a pastor, and roughed up and sexually assaulted Christians—including Natasha Zhdanova, the "beautiful Religionznik" whose perseverance under repeated beatings astonished Sergei and pricked his conscience. The story is book-ended with details surrounding Kourdakov's harrowing decision to jump ship off the coast of Canada, his prayers at sea to the God whose followers he had ruthlessly persecuted, and the path leading to his Christian conversion and association with UE.
Caroline Walker (now Caroline Walker Pallis), a Baylor University graduate, was given a copy of The Persecutor in 1993 during a Campus Crusade mission trip in Novosibirsk, Siberia (Kourdakov's home town). Like many who encountered Sergei late, through his out-of-print autobiography, she wondered how his incredible story had been allowed to lapse into obscurity, and whether it could be retold for a new generation. As she prayed about adapting it for the screen, she had a vision of herself as "a pen in God's hand." Commissioned by her church in Nederland, Texas, she set out to produce a documentary that would lead people, through Sergei's story, to faith in Christ. She contacted people in Canada, where Sergei's "Damascus" experience began, and then spent the fall of 1999 in Vladivostok and Petropavlovsk. Unbeknownst to her, a Catholic filmmaker studying in Moscow during the same period was also interested in documenting the Kourdakov narrative. Someone put them in contact with one another and in 2000 Caroline Walker and Damian Wojciechowski, SJ, commenced work on what would become the subtle and provocative award-winning film, Forgive Me, Sergei.