Sergei Kourdakov, a former KGB agent and Soviet naval intelligence officer, defected from the USSR at the age of twenty. A year later we met at my Federal Government office in Washington DC. We were watched and followed. “Even you could be spy,” Sergei whispered. My book, A Rose for Sergei, is the true story of our time together.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Anything But Mundane

Definition of mundane (adjective):  ordinary, dull, routine, boring, unexciting

Below is an excerpt from my draft of A Rose for Sergei.  It was a Sunday afternoon and Sergei Kourdakov stopped by my apartment in Arlington, VA.  We only had a few hours to visit before he had to leave for the airport for his return flight to Los Angeles.

”We didn’t have a lot of time left together that afternoon but Sergei remembered that I said I needed to go to the grocery store that weekend because I was practically out of everything.  And, for some strange reason, he said he really wanted to help me grocery shop.  It seemed like such a mundane thing to do, but he was adamant about going with me.

I should have known that a trip to the grocery store with Sergei would be anything but mundane.  Everything in this country was new to him, and he wanted to experience as much as he could.  He had to push the grocery cart, he had to look at everything in the store and ask about all the items.  We laughed the entire time and acted like two little kids in a candy store for the first time.  I could tell that just hanging out together, doing something so ordinary, made him feel like he was normal.  He could forget about his past life, forget about the danger he felt, at least for just a little while.

When we were done shopping he took a wild ride on the back of the grocery cart in the parking lot as he raced ahead of me to my car.  It was quite a spectacle, and I just shook my head in disbelief and smiled.  I didn’t know a lot about the . . . but I was pretty sure that wasn’t the image they usually projected.  As I watched him sailing through the parking lot on the grocery cart, I couldn’t help but think how free he must have felt.  For the first time in his life he was completely free to be himself.  And he loved every moment.”

Sergei and I always tried to fit in as much time together as possible.  It seemed like there was never enough time.  Spending time with Sergei was always an adventure—it was never ordinary.  It was anything but mundane.

Monday, October 21, 2013

When We Were Nine

His smile!  That’s what I noticed first about Sergei Kourdakov on the day we met.  I was caught off guard by his friendliness and kind demeanor.  When he shook my hand, he didn’t let go.  He kept holding onto my hand.  But it was his smile that captivated me.  He never stopped smiling.

As I got to know Sergei better, I had a hard time grasping how he could be so happy.  Sergei lost both parents at a very young age and was raised in Soviet Union orphanages.  I realized it was his choice to be happy.  He was resilient—he had the capacity to cope positively with stress and adversity.

As I was writing A Rose for Sergei, I thought about how very different our lives were growing up.  Sometimes I wondered where Sergei and I were at the exact same time in our childhood.

From Sergei’s book:    

One day in 1960, when I was nine years old, the director of Number One came to me and said, “Kourdakov, get your things packed, you’re going to a new children’s home.” 

“Where is it?” I asked.

“Not far away.  In Verkh-Irmen.”  I didn’t know Verkh-Irmen from Moscow and was a little afraid.

-Sergei Kourdakov, The Persecutor (Chapter 5, pg. 42)

* * *

In 1960, when I was nine years old, I lived on a U.S. Air Force base in the upper peninsula of Michigan.  My father was a fighter pilot and my mother stayed at home taking care of five children.  Our home was filled with love and happy times together.

One of my favorite things to do was to ride around the base on my bike.  I loved the freedom and the feel of the cool wind whipping through my long hair.  I felt safe and secure in the confines of the guarded base.  One day when I was riding my bike, the hem of my jeans got caught up in the bicycle chain.  The pull of the chain yanked my leg back and I flipped over hard onto the street.  I held back the tears as I tried to pull my jeans free.  I was more afraid than hurt, worried about how to get home.  But I knew this was only temporary.

The uncertainty in Sergei’s life was a constant factor that he lived with, whereas my life was stable. 
Even though our paths were very different, they led us to the same place in time.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Payback Time

It was difficult for me to wait while my book, A Rose for Sergei, was being edited by my daughter.  I wasn’t sure what to expect from the editing process.  I wondered what she must be thinking as she carefully scrutinized every chapter, every page, and every word.  Would she like it?  Would she say to try again, or politely suggest that I forget it entirely?  I wondered if all writers felt the same way—were they as critical of their own work as I seemed to be?

My daughter is an editor and I trust her.  But, still, I am her mother.  My thoughts flashed back to when she was in the sixth grade and working on a science project for school.  I remembered when she showed me her results.  I told her, “It’s good, but you need a little more work.  You need to explain why something works better.”  I was encouraging her, and I wanted her to ask questions and learn from it.  She won first place at the school science fair that year.

Payback time has finally arrived.  My manuscript came back with her scrawled notes, in red ink, in the margins:  Why?  Because Sergei defected?  What were the broadcasts for?  What are S&H green stamps?

I secretly held my breath as we talked about the book.  It turned out that this payback wasn’t so bad after all.

“Mom, it’s good.  Your book is good,” she said with a smile. 


Monday, October 7, 2013

Things That Haunt You

The definition of haunt is varied—trouble, disturb, irk, worry, bother, preoccupy, disturb.  During the month of October, we are reminded of Halloween and our childhood memories of haunted houses and spooky ghosts.  But that is not the definition of haunt that I am talking about.

I am referring to other definitions of haunt, like to cause somebody unease or regret.  I am referring to the fact that I will never know for sure what really happened to Sergei Kourdakov in the early morning hours of New Year’s Day, 1973, when his life unexpectedly ended.  That is what haunts my thoughts.

Below is an excerpt from my draft of A Rose for Sergei.  (Sergei was meeting my brother for the first time.  Keith, and his girlfriend, had just picked Sergei and me up to drive us to a party.) 

Sergei and I were sitting in the back seat of the car, relaxing and enjoying the ride through the streets of Washington DC as I pointed out the names of the monuments and buildings we passed.  Keith was engaging Sergei in conversation, politely asking him about the Soviet Union, where he was born, and general questions.  They chatted amicably back and forth until Sergei unexpectedly became extremely uneasy about my brother’s familiarity with his former homeland.

“Why do you know so much about the Soviet Union?” Sergei suddenly questioned.  He spoke in a low, measured, disquieting voice as his eyes darted around the car at everyone, taking everything in.

This is not going well at all, I thought.  I turned and looked directly into Sergei’s haunted eyes.  I felt a cold chill run through me as I tried to comprehend what he must be thinking, that we were taking him somewhere to turn him over to . . . .