Fleming H Revell Co, 1974
The Strange Story of Sergei Kourdakov
As Wojciechowski says in his movie notes, this became in the end a braided cord of "three different films": one based on Sergei's 1973 autobiography; one detailing some of the contradictory information that emerged during research on the book; and one about Caroline Walker herself as she processes the increasingly problematic discrepancies between what she believes is an authentic account of a modern St. Paul and what she discovers as she visits people and places mentioned in The Persecutor. Caroline's willingness to become a subject of her own film is what makes it unforgettable. Having felt called by God to what she confidently conceives as a strategic evangelistic project, she is increasingly troubled by a sense of bewilderment and spiritual abandonment.
Ultimately she is forced to confront the overwhelming evidence that the central events of The Persecutor are not merely embellished but completely fabricated. No corroborating witnesses can be found anywhere Sergei lived, though physical descriptions of the cities are accurate and personal names are real. Christians in Petropavlovsk deny that the violent purges the book describes ever happened. Some of the villains of Sergei's childhood turn out to be ordinary or even admirable characters. The heroic teenager Natasha—whose courage and perseverance so convicted Sergei—did not exist; her name is borrowed from a (non-Christian) Ukrainian girl Sergei corresponded with but never met. Among Sergei's military acquaintances and childhood friends whose names and photographs appear in the book, and to whom passages of The Persecutor are read on camera, some react with shock or indignation, others with simple incredulity. The idea that one would lie in order to get ahead in America is unsurprising to them, but they resent having been used as (typically repugnant) narrative props for an outrageously fraudulent story.
Forgive Me, Sergei does not explicitly assign responsibility for invention of the Kourdakov myth. The film is a model of restraint and understatement, the viewer's uncomfortable questions and realizations tracing those of Caroline, somewhat hesitantly, toward their inexorable conclusion. Joe Bass is boorish and condescending when Caroline asks whether some of the events in The Persecutor might have been exaggerated; he refuses to hear her evidence, accuses her of being agenda-driven, and shows her the door. His assertion that "Sergei approved everything" in the book is problematic at best, and lacks persuasive force—since Sergei was far from fluent in English and in any case died before the book was at press. None of the tape recordings on which The Persecutor was supposedly based have ever been released. Someone other than Sergei was clearly responsible for the colorful dramatization of events, the classic evangelical reflections (e.g., the Communist regime tolerates churches but fears and hates "Believers"), and for the elaboration of amazing coincidences, such as the oft-repeated but false claim that the Russian Bible Sergei received in Toronto was a UE version, identical to those he had confiscated from Christians overseas. When The Persecutor was released, Richard Wurmbrand, among others, accused Bass of exploiting Sergei and embellishing his story for financial gain. A brief 1974 review in the Journal of Church and State describes the book as "promotional and highly sensational" and refers to contemporary allegations that it was written "for Sergei" rather than by him.
For Caroline Walker, however, there is little doubt that Sergei himself was implicated in the deception. This was the most painful of the truths she had to accept. She was to learn in the course of her research that he lied easily and sometimes carelessly—once making the grandiose claim that the Canadian government offered him a machine gun for protection (he evidently had not understood his host country or the Trudeau government very well). He also told several people that he fancied himself a writer; the papers found in his typewriter in the cabin in which he died were not, as UE suggested, documents related to his visa application, but part of a short story, written in Russian.
Embedded within the pages of The Persecutor are two particularly telling passages that hint at writerly self-consciousness. One involves a serendipitous encounter with Konstantin Koptelov, "one of Russia's greatest and most popular writers … famous throughout the whole Soviet Union." This author is said to have wanted to write a novel based on Sergei's childhood at the Barysevo children's home: "It would be like a Russian Tom Sawyer." Initially flattered, Sergei says he was ultimately persuaded not to cooperate since it would expose his friends to unwanted scrutiny. It took Caroline Walker and her producer considerable effort to identify Koptelov, who was neither famous nor a winner of the Lenin Prize for Literature, as the book claimed, but a local Barysevo writer who had once visited Sergei's orphanage. (This little fiction, Caroline observes, could not have originated with anyone but Sergei himself.)