Fleming H Revell Co, 2023
The Strange Story of Sergei Kourdakov
April 1972. For the largely youthful audience at Emmanuel Baptist Church in Victoria, B.C., the guest speaker was mesmerizing. We already knew about his dramatic and risky defection from a Russian ship a few months earlier. That story, vividly recounted by the man who introduced him, was only the prelude to the yet more gripping account of his transformation from ruthless persecutor of Christians in his native Russia to unlikely but passionate convert. By the time Sergei Kourdakov himself leapt up to the podium, the atmosphere was electric. Sustained applause gave way to hushed silence. He searched the crowd, making eye contact, it seemed, with almost everyone. His simple message was delivered in flawed but fervent English; his boyishness combined with zeal was magnetic. He was 21 years old, powerfully built, engaging and personable, strikingly handsome; he looked like a sturdier version of Ilya Kuryakin, enigmatic Russian agent in the wildly popular The Man from U.N.C.L.E. television series that many of us had grown up on. But this "Ilya" was a Cold War St. Paul. He had renounced his Communist past and was now raising funds for suffering believers behind the Iron Curtain. We claimed him as ours that night—a strapping, exotic, Christian superhero, for whom none of our parents' missionary biographies had fully prepared us. We filled the offering plates, registered for ministry newsletters—and lined up for autographs after the service.
Sergei Kourdakov's rise from anonymous Russian defector to celebrity ambassador for the Bible-smuggling organization, Underground Evangelism, was nothing short of meteoric. He staggered ashore in the tiny village of Tasu in the Queen Charlotte Islands after a near-miraculous overnight swim from the Russian ship Elagin on September 3, 1971—delirious and suffering from hypothermia—to a wary welcome and uncertain fate. Initially interned and threatened with deportation back to the USSR, he attracted high-profile political and media support and was eventually granted asylum in Canada. Settling in Toronto, he took English classes at government expense and began to attend a Ukrainian Baptist church. Pastor William Daviduik heard his confession, explained the gospel, and ultimately led him to a profession of faith and baptism.
Underground Evangelism's founder and president, L. Joe Bass, flew to Toronto in February1972, and invited Sergei to join his ministry. He was soon being showcased in events like the one I attended and headlined in all of the organization's promotional materials. In May, after a tour of Canadian churches, Kourdakov moved to California, where UE was headquartered. An immediate celebrity in America, he was soon on a first-name basis with prominent politicians, who were spellbound by his "insider information" about Russia's military might and ambitions, and about the brutal Soviet repression of Christians, in which Sergei had actively participated for two years. His message, which was inescapably immature in spiritual terms (Sergei had negligible biblical literacy or theological understanding), was nonetheless politically and culturally potent, affording stark confirmation of the evils of Soviet Communism.
An audio tape of the Kourdakov story, with narration by Bass and excerpts of Sergei's testimony, was sold by the ministry for "a suggested donation of $4." (It can still be heard on line today.) An autobiography, with numerous photos and extensive details of Sergei's pre-conversion life in the Soviet Union—detailing his leadership in clandestine but state-sanctioned brutalization of Christians—was being hastily prepared in the fall, to be published by Fleming Revell in 1973. The contract gave Sergei 50 percent of the royalties; he was already earning 25 percent royalties from the tapes, a regular salary from UE, and 10 percent of net offerings received at all public events. In short, he was quickly learning the American way of life. But even those most intimate with Sergei's sensational story could not have anticipated what came next.
On January 1, 1973, several months shy of his 22nd birthday, Sergei Kourdakov died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in a cabin in the San Bernadino Mountains he was sharing with a 17-year-old girl. He had borrowed the revolver from the girl's father. Initially investigated as a possible suicide, his death was ultimately ruled accidental, the result of a fatal miscalculation in a game of Russian roulette or sheer recklessness: despite his boasts about his KGB past, Sergei was actually inexperienced with firearms.
Underground Evangelism, anxious to put the best face possible on the complicated circumstances of Sergei's death, dubbed it "strange and uncertain," proposed the likelihood that this was a KGB "hit," and all but accused the local police force of investigative incompetence. Bass sent out a press release within a week of the shooting, claiming that Sergei had warned him, "If you ever hear I have had an accident or committed suicide, don't believe it. I know how the Soviet police work, because I was one of them." To which Bass added, rhetorically, "What better time than midnight on New Year's Eve, and what better place than that small, tourist-packed resort area, for Sergei Kourdakov to have an 'accident'?" This suggestion, however askew from all the evidence, and indeed from the eyewitness account of his young female companion, was successfully enough disseminated in Christian circles that a reflection on Sergei's life written for a church publication in 2002 says matter-of-factly, "The KGB assassinated him in Los Angeles just before his 22nd birthday." A radio dramatization, "Unshackled: Sergei Kourdakov, Persecutor of Christians," produced in 1997, mentions the purported threats that Sergei's life would be ended by a staged "final accident" and then adds, "Sergei Kourdakov was shot to death on January 1, 1973. It was ruled an 'accident.' " The misleading language and crucial omissions perfectly mimic the Bass script.
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.
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.)
The second, more disturbing, narrative occurs in the context of Sergei's reported attempt, with fellow KGB operative, Victor Matveyev, to entrap a young Christian by feigning interest in God. Claiming to be a seaman, he tells her "a wild, made-up story" about falling overboard and almost drowning, then thinking about God while fighting for his life in the sea: "As I got more and more into my story, a total lie, Victor had a hard time keeping a straight face …. Once we were out on the street, Victor said, 'Sergei, that was a tremendous story. You almost had me convinced you were a Believer.' "
How much of the "wild, made-up story" of "Sergei Kourdakov, Persecutor of Christians," is his own, and how much was created for him by others will always, perhaps, remain a mystery. That it is made up, however, no one who views Forgive Me, Sergei can doubt.
What then? Does the truth about Sergei Kourdakov matter, when an "edifying lie" has been so moving, so faith-inspiring, to so many for forty years? Does it matter that the Lord's people were bilked out of millions of dollars for a good cause by a contrived narrative? Does it matter that a 21-year-old defector, whose conversion may well have been genuine, was encouraged by Christian mentors, explicitly or implicitly, to lie about his past? Does it matter that ordinary people who were part of the tapestry of Sergei Kourdakov's life were turned into villains, rapists, thugs, and murderers? Does it matter that those who loved and revered this young man are devastated or made cynical when they learn that he is no St. Paul after all but just (as one friend says) "an ordinary rascal"? Does it matter that genuine victims of religious persecution have the credibility of their own torments diluted by sensationalist fiction? That the suffering church is betrayed with a kiss?
Caroline's answer, the film's answer, is yes. The truth is, in the end, the only thing that matters.
"You're not interested in the truth," Joe Bass scoffs as he aborts his interview. Then he adds, sarcastically, "What was it a philosopher asked one time: 'What is truth?'" He had apparently forgotten that these are the words spoken by Pilate, as recounted in John 18, just after Jesus says, "Everyone that is of the truth hears my voice." Sophistical Pilate condemned the witness and refused the Truth standing before him. And no amount of handwashing made things right.
Perhaps someday, Bass or his colleagues will release the tapes and acknowledge the fissure between truth and lies in Sergei Kourdakov's story. Until then, Forgive Me, Sergei bears quiet, patient witness. And Caroline Walker Pallis proves indeed to have been a pen in God's hand.
Katherine Jeffrey is a freelance writer and book editor in Whitney, Texas, where she lives with her husband, David.
1. Members of Bass's family claim that he had also visited Sergei in Vancouver, in the fall of 1971.
2. He reportedly spent time with Military Intelligence at the Pentagon sharing information about Soviet submarine technology.
4. Marilyn and John Schreiber, First Baptist Beacon (West Concord, MN), 2002: frontiernet.net/~jamsch/Sergei.1.html.
5. A DVD of the film can be purchased through the website www.forgivemesergei.com.
6. This "fact" was emphatically denied by Pastor Daviduik.
Copyright © 2013 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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