Can Faith without Facts be Genuine?
Caroline Walker Pallis researched Sergey Kourdakov in Russia
L a d u s h k I n - - A US-American friend long active in Russia and I have wondered for decades about the percentage of truth contained in the book “The Persecutor”. It was first published by the erstwhile “Underground Evangelism” in 1973. Indeed, we both dreamt of some day visiting Siberia and the Russian Far East in order to find those locations and persons mentioned in the book. What had raised a red flag for me initially was an expose written by Edward Plowman (1931-2018) in “Christianity Today” on 13 April 1973.
Only in recent days did I discover that this had already happened back in 2004. It involved a 53-minute documentary by the Texan Caroline Walker (Caroline Walker Pallis since 2009) directed by the Polish Jesuit Damian Wojciechowski, then active in Russia. It was entitled “Forgive me Sergey”. You can see the film under: “https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EkEqC0jHdJ8”.
Sergey Nikolayevich Kourdakov (also Kurdakov, “Курдаков” in Russian) was a sailor from Siberia, who fled by swimming around five km from a Russian navy ship to an island of British Columbia early on 4 September 1971. Only weeks later, he converted to the evangelical faith in Toronto and became a speaker for the “Underground Evangelism” mission then based in Glendale/California. Born in 1951, he died on 1 January 1973 of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. His story, published posthumously by Underground Evangelism, appeared in at least 14 languages and millions of copies. In North America it was entitled “The Persecutor”; another frequent title was “Forgive me Natasha”.
Couched as a Saul-to-Paul story, this boy from a brutal orphanage in a Siberian village left for Petropavlovsk on the Kamchatka peninsula to train as a naval officer. During his two years of training, 1969 to 1971, he was supposedly involved in 150 attacks on evangelical believers and their gatherings. One of those most viciously attacked was a young girl named Natasha.
Perhaps the most disarming and convincing aspect of the film is the fact that Caroline Walker had gone to Russia in the late 1990s in order to substantiate Kourdakov’s story. Prior to her research she had even written a never-accepted film script based on the book. Speaking from Costa Rica at the end of the film, L. Joe Bass, the founder of Underground Evangelism and its successor, “International Christian Aid”, accuses Ms. Walker of “having an agenda”. She indeed did have an agenda during her research: proving and corroborating the story of Sergey Kourdakov. Yet the end result was the exact opposite – a most painful realisation for the researcher. Yet, despite this major let-down (she described it as a betrayal), she remained affectionate towards Sergey. Caroline Walker was not exactly a campaigner – she strikes one as soft and almost timid. She wrote in a blog long after the documentary’s release that she hated to see herself on film. She was a Pentecostal, deeply religious and pietistic.
A few of the discoveries captured by the film: “Big Irene”, the “imposing and fearsome” head master of Sergey’s orphanage in Barysevo/Siberia, is shown at an anniversary gathering to be rather small in size, very much appreciated and cherished by her one-time underlings. There had been a shortage of grain in 1963, but no one had come close to dying of starvation at the orphanage, as Sergey claimed.
At a meeting with Boris, Sergey’s older brother (their father died in 1959), Boris concludes initially that his guest must be speaking of another Sergey Kourdakov – a case of mistaken identity. Their father, a normal “kolkhoznik”, a farm employee, had not been killed on Khrushchev’s orders. In the book, Sergey claims to have been in far-away Moscow 17 times – Walker could not find evidence of a single visit.
In his book, Kourdakov reports on a “famous Soviet author” who wanted to write a book about him. Writing in 2011, Walker Pallis reported that Sergey`s classmates had recognized the name of the “famous author” as a local writer who occasionally told stories at the orphanage. She concluded: “If Joe Bass had wanted to fabricate this tale about the Soviet author, he surely would have chosen a real famous author.” This was a clear indication to her that Sergey himself, and not strictly his North American ghost writers, had been involved in fabrication. Plowman reported that “Guideposts” magazine and others had helped write the book.
Natasha Zhdanova, the girl mentioned in one of the book’s titles, was located by a Russian editor prior to 2010. She was Sergey’s pen pal; the two had personally never met. Very surprised about appearing in a book, Natasha had been living then, as now, in Ukraine. Apparently, Sergey simply attached fictional stories to the names of real persons.
In 2012, Caroline mentioned that someone in Petropavlovsk would surely have confirmed the fact if 150 raids had taken place there in the early 70s. Yet not a single Baptist could confirm that any raids had taken place at all. She concluded: Believers in the closed zone of Kamchatka “likely enjoyed more religious freedom than other regions”.
The true believers
Sergey Kourdakov’s story had been at least partially debunked prior to the book’s posthumous appearance. We’ve mentioned Plowman’s article of April 1973”; another early doubter was the Baptist historian Albert Wardin. Even Richard Wurmbrand (1909-2001), the Romanian pastor and perhaps the best-known of the anti-Communist Christian fighters, had complained that Underground Evangelism was exploiting a very young and immature Christian. A Soviet-born blogger, Igor Yantaltsev, added in 2018: Sergey “didn't think that it would be a (big) deal if he embellished a few things. . . . He found himself in an anti-Soviet atmosphere and it was another temptation he failed to withstand, namely the need to tell them more about how horrible life in the Empire of Evil was. There was the demand - he provided the supply. The kid picked up speed, started drifting and lost control.”
A lady’s man, Kourdakov’s behaviour hardly met evangelical expectations. During his questioning by US secret services in Washington around August 1972, he had developed a relationship with a similar-aged secretary, K. Kidd. Her book from 2014, “A Rose for Sergei”, contains at least one photo of her with him in a questionable, compromised pose. Only a few months later, Sergey was reportedly engaged to a 17-year-old Californian. That was the gal with whom he spent the last night of his life.
Despite early evidence to the contrary, the book managed to become a smashing success. Central to the book’s defence is the claim that it was the KGB which murdered Kourdakov. This theory was initially lofted by Joe Bass himself in the book’s first edition. The romantically-attached K. Kidd also saw no other possible explanation in 2014: “The people from his country never forget.” Yet the FBI reports released in 2017 on the accidental-or-otherwise-suicide in California reveal nothing of the kind. See: “www.muckrock.com/news/archives/2017/nov/28/curious-case-sergei-kourdakov-part-1/”. Of course, the entire worldview of true believers would frequently have come crashing down if it was not the KGB that murdered Kourdakov. And that is of course painful.
Bloggers still defending the book after the documentary of 2004 tend to attribute the responses in the film to moral shortcomings unique to the Russian people. Russians apparently have a corner on lying. A person named “Bob” wrote on 18 December 2012: “I believe Sergei’s accounts were 100% real.” People were “giving the interviewer what she wants to hear. That’s part of the Russian way.”
A Mike Walker wrote on 3 January 2016: “Much of what Caroline witnessed in Russia could have been arranged, and that the Russian authorities had every incentive to do so. They likely knew well in advance of her itinerary. . . . It strikes me as naive of anyone to think they could create a documentary favourable to Christianity based largely upon the testimony of those living under the control of Communist authorities.”
The author of the “featheredprop.com” blog site in Somerset/Pennsylvania applied the findings of body language to the documentary and concluded that most of those interviewed were less than honest. Yet he muddied the waters by including Joe Bass among the “liars”. “We will never know” is in such cases a frequent conclusion.
My negative “favourite” is a text from Michael Raykovich in 2019: “These people (in the film) are scared to tell the truth. They still live in Russia and it would be easy for them to meet the same fate as Sergei.”
Michael McDonald blogged on 30 August 2013: “Always amazed that so many ‘believers’ believe falsehoods in the face of evidence”. That’s a disheartening reminder of how unbelievers often define our Christian faith. Faith doesn’t need facts; it can blossom bereft of any facts.
The Reaction in Russia – a commentary
This documentary by Walker and Wojciechowski was shown at a film festival in Novosibirsk when new in 2004. A report on the Internet states that it was difficult for local viewers to stick around for more than 20 minutes. Why do Russians find “The Persecutor” offensive? My Russian spouse and her friends would not touch the story with a ten-foot pole. Though these persons are neither communist nor FSB, they are offended by a description of their country which they view as extremely ideological and stilted. This story does not match Soviet and Russian reality as they have experienced it. Actually, US-Americans aren’t very different: They too tend to react negatively when outsiders trash their country.
North Americans and Russians evaluate events in strikingly different ways. See for ex. the reading of Gorbachev’s legacy in Russia and the West. The West points to liberty and human rights; Russians think of bread and shelter – and the bygone glory of their country.
The frightening truth is that most in the West remain sitting ducks for that which their favourite media and preachers would want them to believe. The majority cannot imagine that their media of choice would dare to serve up propaganda and lies of convenience.
The U.S. elite and its media are now winding up for a full-force onslaught against China. Russia is in no way able to compete militarily and economically with the USA – but economically, China certainly is. Chilling stories on the Turkic Uyghurs of Western China – and on Hong Kong - are waiting in the wings. Evangelicals will be among those leading the charge.
Of course, real problems and real repression exist, but foreign pressure is no alternative to quiet and earnest diplomacy. Tragically, stories of religious repression will once again be instrumentalised to help fill the coffers of American’s military machine.
What´s up with Caroline Walker Pallis? Born around 1968, she still resides in Texas. She became a Roman Catholic in 2004 and married an ethic Greek from the Greek-Orthodox faith five years later. She is now a mother. She did not respond to my requests for a brief interview.
Her pastor had prophesized at the outset that her story would be “incredible”. It was that indeed, but not in the sense it was initially envisioned. Caroline wrote in 2012: “I am so glad that I never sold that screenplay and made a killing off of a lie. (That would have kept me) believing a lie.”
William Yoder, Ph.D.
Ladushkin, Kaliningrad region, 03 June 2020
A journalistic release for which the author is solely responsible. It is informational in character and does not express the official position of any church organisation. This release may be reprinted free-of-charge if the source is cited. Release #20-12, 1.853 words.