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, April 28, 2014

Talking About Borscht

A group of us were at a dinner party recently where we sampled Polish sausage.  The conversation then turned to how Polish sausage was used to make borscht.  I was familiar with the traditional Russian beet soup because of my connection to Sergei Kourdakov.  To be honest, borscht was not my favorite dish.  But I remembered that it was Sergei’s favorite.  He had even given his recipe for borscht to my brother Keith.

A few days after the dinner party I decided to email Keith and ask him about the long-ago recipe exchange.  While waiting for his response, I couldn’t help but laugh when I thought about that afternoon when all of us were twenty-something.  The memories of us gathered at my brother’s favorite bar in Washington DC were still clear.  I remember thinking at that time how it seemed so out of character for Sergei and Keith, two strong and muscular weight-lifters, to bond while talking about soup.  But then again, maybe it wasn’t so strange after all.  We had beer mugs in our hands and Keith and Sergei were exchanging all kinds of funny stories.  I was really happy that they got along so well.

In Keith’s email he wrote that the original borscht recipe was typed on a half sheet of paper, “I did some re-write to get it more in line with how recipes look in the U.S.  Sergei said he got this recipe from a Ukrainian friend and it was his favorite...has a little more meat in it.”

Sergei’s Borscht

2 medium onions, minced
½ stick butter
2 pounds beets, chopped
2 medium purple turnips, chopped
1 medium celery root, chopped
2 large parsnips, chopped
2  16-ounce cans tomatoes and liquid
1 small bay leaf
1 tablespoon brown sugar
2 teaspoons salt
6 peppercorns
½ cup red wine vinegar
3 quarts beef broth
1 pound potatoes, shredded
1 small green cabbage, shredded
1 Polish sausage, cut into ½ inch slices
2 cups sour cream
1 small bunch dill, snipped

In a large kettle, over medium high heat, sauté the onions in the butter for 8 minutes.  Stir in the beets, turnips, celery root, parsnips, tomatoes, bay, brown sugar, salt, peppercorns, vinegar, and 2 cups of broth.  Stirring constantly, bring to a boil, then cover.  Reduce heat, and simmer 30 minutes.  Make sure vegetables don’t run out of liquid.  Add remaining broth and potatoes, and cook 15 minutes.  Add cabbage and cook 15 minutes.  Add sausage and cook 15 minutes.

Serve in soup plate and pass sour cream and dill for toppings.

Best made hours or days ahead.  Freezes well.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Taking Pictures

I wasn’t aware that there were not many photographs of Sergei until a reader called it to my attention.  She had just come across my blog and sent me a very touching email.  I did a quick Google search to check it out for myself.  I found about a dozen pictures that are actually of Sergei Kourdakov.  I didn’t count the repeats or the different book cover photos.  The other hundreds of pictures that popped up in my search were related in some way or other to the word “Sergei.”  But they were not what I was looking for.

I also checked the photographs in each version of Sergei’s book.  My hardback copies of The Persecutor and Sergei each have the same twenty-seven pictures in them.  My paperback copy of Forgive Me, Natasha has only thirteen pictures.  My sister’s paperback copy has even less photos in it.

One reason there aren’t many photographs of Sergei is because he only brought a few with him when he defected.  He stashed personal papers and photographs in a waterproof pouch that he fastened securely to a belt.  He hoped they would survive, along with him, during his treacherous swim to freedom.  Sergei showed me his photos and identification papers that were secured in the plastic pouch.  All these items are pictured in the hardback version of his book.

There would have been a lot more pictures of Sergei if he had lived longer.  No one expected Sergei’s life to end so suddenly at the age of twenty-one.  In retrospect, I wish I had taken a few more pictures, but I don’t like interrupting the moment to pose for the camera.  I prefer to keep many memories to myself.

After hearing from another reader, a young French student, I decided to add two more pictures of Sergei to the side bar of my blog.  I wanted to share the humorous side of Sergei.  If you read The Persecutor you wouldn’t know Sergei even had a humorous side.  In one photo, Sergei surprised me when he suddenly scooped me up in his arms.  In the other picture I retaliated by trying to pick him up.  Sergei was so startled by my actions that he was almost knocked off balance.  He threw his head back and could not stop laughing.  I had never seen him so completely carefree until that moment.

I was young . . . I thought we had forever to take pictures.

Monday, April 14, 2014

It Was All a Mistake

It would be great if there were “take backs” in life.  Sometimes we get our wish and sometimes we don’t.  I remember when I was twenty-one and got a traffic ticket while I was driving to work.  I was stopped at a traffic light before a major intersection.  I knew not to stop in the service road that ran parallel to the main street.  One, because it blocked the service road, and two, because the Arlington County Police had been parked there all week ticketing people for doing just that.

As I waited for the red light to change, a Police Officer walked over to my car, signaled for me to roll down the window, and asked to see my driver’s license and car registration.  I had no idea why he was questioning me.  Right after he checked my documents he told me he was giving me a ticket for blocking the service road.  I was shocked and indignant as I told him I wasn’t blocking the service road.  I was a little bolder than usual that morning and slightly on edge after having another sleepless night.  It was to be expected…Sergei Kourdakov’s funeral had just been a month ago.

The Police Officer asked me to get out of the car.  He then politely pointed to a foot-wide, white line on the pavement before the service road.  He told me I needed to stop before that line in order to not block the intersection.  I stood there and stared blankly at the white line as traffic maneuvered all around us in every direction.  The wheels of my car were not over that line, but the front end of my car protruded over the white line by about two feet.  And for that he was giving me a ticket!  I pointed out that cars were indeed able to pass by on the service road as we stood there talking.  It didn’t matter.  Those cars had to jog a little to the left to avoid my car.  I thought life is unfair sometimes.

A few weeks later I sat alone in the court room waiting for my case to be called.  No lawyer, no parents, just me.  I was sure the judge would see things my way.  He had to.  I got a ticket because two feet of my car protruded over a white line and didn’t block traffic!  As I nervously sat listening to the other cases, I glanced across the aisle and noticed the Police Officer who had ticketed me.  He looked up at that moment, caught my eye, and signaled for me to come with him.  We quietly walked to the back of the room while court was in session.

The Police Officer showed me the ticket and told me he had reconsidered.  He said he made a wrong decision that day.  He should have given me a warning and he was taking back the ticket.  I told him I didn’t know what that meant.  What happens now? He said I was free to leave.  It never happened.  He took back the ticket.  I couldn’t believe what he was telling me.  I thanked him for reconsidering and scurried out of the court room, my high heels echoing loudly on the tile floor.

I took a deep breath of cool winter air when I reached the outside.  It was a relief after the stuffy confines of the building.  I headed to my car, anxious to get back to the office.  As I quietly drove through the streets of Arlington I thought about the unexpected outcome in the court room.  I thought about Sergei and how life is unfair sometimes.  I wished someone would tell me that it was all a mistake…that a wrong decision had been made and I could take back the last month…and Sergei was still alive.

Monday, April 7, 2014

On Course

January 1971 . . . the wheels are now in motion.  Sergei Kourdakov would soon be aboard the ship that brings him near the coast of the United States and Canada.  His plans to defect from the Soviet Union are always in the back of his mind.  That very same month, I accepted a new job offer that would take me out of the Pentagon to the office where we would eventually meet.  We were still teenagers that January . . . only nineteen years old.

* * *

Excerpt from The Persecutor:

“I knew in my heart I would not be coming back—not to that.

With my decision firmly made, I plunged back into my studies and duties as Chief of the Youth League, eagerly waiting the time I could go to sea.  A month later, in January 1971, I graduated from the naval academy as a radio officer and was commissioned Cadet Second Lieutenant Sergei Kourdakov of the Soviet Navy.  I was assigned immediately to sea duty and shipped out aboard a Soviet destroyer.”

- Sergei Kourdakov, The Persecutor (Chapter 19, pgs 231-232)

* * *

Excerpt from A Rose for Sergei:

“I don’t know what I was happier about, the promotion or a chance to work in a building where I could tell if it was day or night or snowing or raining.  I had windows and sunshine.  My new office was located on the fourth floor of the Pomponio Building in Rosslyn, Virginia.  The area where my desk was situated had a wall of windows at the end of the room.  I had a view to die for that overlooked the Key Bridge and Georgetown.”

* * * 

Unbeknownst to us we were on course to meet in the fall of 1972.