In my first blog I wrote about the film The Way Back and the question of authenticity in memoirs. In the one of the responses which followed, I was directed towards Forgive Me, Natasha by Sergei Kourdakov. At first glance, one of the most incredible elements of this memoir is the fact that a Soviet naval officer managed to jump ship off the coast of Canada and swim ashore to start a new life. As the cleverly titled 2004 documentary Forgive me, Sergei shows, however, other parts of the story turn out to be more questionable.1 This excellent film follows the story of Caroline Walker, a Christian journalist, who believed God had called her to make a film about the life of Sergei until her encounters with his friends, relatives and colleagues in Russia made her question key elements of the memoir.
Forgive me, Natasha narrates a difficult childhood in a barbaric orphanage, from which Sergei emerges not as a criminal – like many of his peers – but an academic success and rising Komsomol star. Whilst training for the navy, he becomes a brutal persecutor of Christians, but then himself experiences conversion. As Walker, finds, however, no one in Siberia where he grew up or Kamchatka where he studied was ready to corroborate Sergei’s story: the monster who ruled the orphanage is remembered by others former charges with great love and affection; the believers in Kamchatka say they met for worship without too much interference; and Sergei’s fellow ‘persecutors’ deny the charges entirely. The latter might of course have vested interest in labeling Sergei a liar, but the weight of the evidence is convincing and as a result of the interviews Caroline was increasingly convinced that the story did not hang together, even though this revelation is clearly painful for her. At the end of the film there is a poignant moment when she questions Joe Bass, the then-president of Underground Evangelism – the missionary movement which supported Sergei – about the authorship of the text; whilst she desperately wants to be convinced that Sergei’s story is the truth, Bass responds angrily to the direction her doubts are taking her and walks out of shot.
As Sue Vice has argued in her work on false Holocaust testimony, the huge cost to the author of their “testimony turning out to be false may actually blind us to that very possibility.”2. The same is surely true of accounts of Soviet persecution, like Rawicz’s The Long Walk and other Gulag memoirs, which impose a moral imperative to believe. This is not to say that all readers were convinced; indeed, in the early post-war period European intellectuals sympathetic to the Soviet cause were often unwilling to countenance accounts of the Gulag, but by the time Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago was published in the 1970s, this left-wing scepticism had significantly weakened.3 Published just a year before the first translation of Solzhenitsyn’s opus, Forgive me, Natasha was also a condemnation of the Soviet system, although its focus was rather different. Instead of focusing on arrest, interrogation, prison and camp labour, it showed how brutality spread to new arenas of Soviet life in the post-Stalinist era. The “persecutor” (the original title of the memoir) no longer had to be a prison guard or NKVD officer, but could be a young Komsomol member and naval student, carrying out raids in his spare time. In many ways this accurately reflects changes which occurred in the 1950s and early 1960s when reforms initiated under Khrushhcev brought about a significant reduction in the camp population and conferred much greater responsibility for maintaining law and order onto ordinary citizens who were urged to join volunteer patrols and brigades. As Sergei’s account suggests, there were certainly clashes between the brigadeers and the trouble-makers they targeted.4 Yet the kind of sustained savagery described in Sergei’s memoir does not marry with other accounts. There were, it is true, incidents of believers being beaten to death – for example, the case of Nikolai Khmara who died in custody in early 1964 – but this was certainly not a usual occurrence, as testified by the huge outcry from his fellow believers and the internal investigations subsequently carried out by authorities.5
It is worth noting that despite the popularity of Sergei’s memoir at the time of publication – and the decline of an intellectual left ready to defend the Soviet bloc at all costs – sceptical voices, coming from perhaps unexpected perspectives, were heard, particularly with regard to the violence described in the memoir. In a 1974 review Albert W. Wardin, himself a scholar of Baptist history with a particular interest in Eastern Europe, suggested the number of attacks on believers was inconceivably high.6. Interestingly, Wardin also suggested that members of Underground Evangelism probably wrote much of the memoir for Sergei. Perhaps one possibility is to see the text as the work of more than one author. It could be that Sergei’s own memories, provided in a series of interviews, were interpreted (perhaps rather loosely) by members of a missionary movement who already had their own vision of what life must be like in the Soviet Union. And it is certainly worth remembering that whilst Sergei’s memories might be different from those of other people, this does not necessarily mean they were intentionally false; there is nothing to say that Sergei did not experience his own childhood as more difficult than other kids growing up in the orphanage, or that he did not feel remorse over involvement in certain Komsomol initiatives.
Whoever the author, or authors, of the memoir they certainly created a powerful text, as shown both by its popularity at the time and by its ongoing appeal to a later generation (including Caroline Walker). The power of Sergei’s story is, I believe, the fact that he is not a victim throughout, but is instead a “persecutor” who repents. This is a familiar pattern in other memoirs from the Soviet Union; we might think, for example, of Lev Kopelev’s Education of a True Believer, which recounted – from the viewpoint of a by then elderly dissident – his experiences as a young idealist actively involved in the brutal process of collectivization. This desire for the author to experience a journey of self-discovery in part reflects cultural expectations of a good story, with the conversion offering a satisfying climax to the account. But it also has a political implication. As Benjamin Nathans has noted, western visitors to the USSR were inclined to ask those involved in dissidence or non-conformist art “When did your eyes open?” 7 A belief that most people were in the dark meant Soviet society could remain “totalitarian” (i.e. a worthy enemy) whilst the scattered individuals starting to see the light gave hope; their freshly opened eyes meant that at least a handful of “surrogate soldiers of Western liberalism” – to borrow Nathans’ terms – could enter into “the ideological battles of the Cold War.” In the case of Sergei and Underground Evangelism, though, the Cold War is not just an ideological battleground, but also a religious one. Increasingly, I think, the Cold War took on religious dimensions which mapped on to existing political and ideological divisions, helping to give the West an ever stronger sense of mission, in a way – perhaps – that the atheist drive no longer could in the USSR. This is, at least, one of the issues I hope to probe in my new(ish) project on evangelical Protestantism in the post-war decades – about which I plan to blog more over the course of the coming months.
- I am very grateful to Andrey Shcherbenok for drawing my attention to this film ↩
- Sue Vice, “False Testimony,” in The Future of Memory, ed. Rick Crownshaw, et al. (Berghahn, 2010) ↩
- Tony Judt, Past Imperfect: French intellectuals, 1944-1956 (Berkeley, 1992), p. 3; I am also grateful to Marc Elie for helpful comments in this regard. ↩
- On the Komsomol brigades, see Juliane Fürst, “The Arrival of Spring?: Changes and Continuities in Soviet Youth Culture and Policy between Stalin and Khrushchev,” in The Dilemmas of De-Stalinization: Negotiating Cultural and Social Change in the Khrushchev Era, ed. Polly Jones (London: Routledge, 2006) ↩
- GARF f. 8131, op 31, d. 97865 ↩
- Albert W. Wardin, Journal of Church and State, 16 (1974), 346-347 ↩
- Benjamin Nathans, “When did your eyes open?,” London Review of Books, 13 May 2010, pp.25-26. This pattern is also found in memoirs of French intellectuals who, in old age, asked how they could have been so blinded to the truth of communism. See Judt, Past Imperfect, p. 5. ↩