Book review – Sergei by Sergei Kourdakov
Sergei, an autobiography by Sergei Kourdakov, is a book that I read multiple times as a teenager. Sergei was a police squad leader whose job was to break up secret meetings of Christians, usually in a most violent way. As a young believer, close in age to some of the persecuted young people mentioned, this book left a massive impression on me, along with a fascination for Russia, her people and captivating history.
With Russia’s name once more popping up more frequently in the news, I decided to re-read this unforgettable true story. Published firstly in 1973 as Sergei, then in other editions as The Persecutor, and Forgive Me, Natasha, this is the life story of Sergei Kourdakov.
From a historical perspective, the book is intensely interesting. Sergei’s story is a gripping tale and gives a fascinating insight into what it was like to live in communist Russia in the 1950s and 1960s. It chronicles his own strong belief in, and subsequent disillusionment with, the communist system, showing it to be corrupt and far removed from any noble goals it may have initially purported to have.
It is also a tragic book. Sergei’s own childhood was anything but happy. An orphan at four, he spent most of his childhood years in communist-run children’s homes, where no love or care was shown. Most of the children ended up in lives of crime, but Sergei’s determination to make something of his life led him to join the Navy. As a navel cadet he was asked to lead a new police squad to raid meetings of Christians. 150 raids were carried out over the next two years, during which time Sergei and his recruits inflicted harsh and brutal treatment on the believers present at the gatherings. People died or were severely disabled as a result of the injuries inflicted. Viewed through the eyes of the persecutor rather than the persecuted, it’s pretty graphic in places and certainly doesn’t make for easy reading.
Despite this, I couldn’t help but be encouraged. As Sergei and his supervisor discovered, the more they persecuted the believers, the more the numbers grew. Sergei was struck by the growing numbers of young people amongst the believers, those of his own age who had grown up in the same communist system as he had. One girl in particular, called Natasha, survived two brutal beatings, yet was willing to be beaten a third time. This made a great impression on Sergei and he realised that she had something that he didn’t.
I was also encouraged by how God can use His Word. One day Sergei was given the task of burning confiscated Christian literature, and a handwritten copy of the words of the Lord Jesus in the opening verses of Luke 11 made such an impact on him that he became sickened by the brutality and soon resigned from his role. God’s Word truly is living and powerful.
It’s a challenging book. I’m in awe of these believers; I’m not sure I could go through what they did. And yet, some day we might have to. We live in an increasingly atheistic country and we don’t know what’s around the corner. What we can be sure of is that the same God who was with the Russian Christians in those days will be with us, whatever may happen.
The book isn’t without its faults. Since Sergei died shortly after the draft copy was completed, it’s difficult to know how much of what is written is Sergei’s own words, and how much is by the editor. Memories of early life seem unusually vivid, and he also indulges in a little bit of boasting as to his physical strength, which I personally found rather amusing. He was twenty-one when he completed the manuscript, and had only professed faith in Christ a short time earlier, after his remarkable escape to Canada which is also detailed in the book.
Russia did not take defection lightly, especially from those in a position such as Sergei was. He mentioned a number of times that he felt that someone was after him, and, if he died, it would have all the appearances of an accident. Sergei died on the 1st January 1973. The inquest ruled his death to be an accident.
As years go on, tastes in literature change, and I was curious to find out whether I would be as impacted by this book now as I was fifteen or twenty years ago. I was. This truly is a gripping story, and, clichéd as it may sound, one which will stay with you long after you turn the final page.
Sergei by Sergei Kourdakov was published by Oliphants in 1973. It appears to be out of print, but reasonably-priced second-hand copies are available to buy online. As mentioned, it is also known as The Persecutor or Forgive Me, Natasha.
(For an insight into what happened when the Iron Curtain opened, and Bibles were finally allowed to be freely distributed in Russia, I recommend Louis Smith’s and Douglas Yade’s book, To Siberia With Bibles, published in 2001 by Guardian Books.)