Those rumors about the death of Soviet defector-turned-evangelist Sergei Kourdakov just won’t go away. And apparently, if the Underground Evangelism (UE) mission agency of Glendale, California, has its way, they never will. Kourdakov, who worked for UE, died early January 1 of a self-inflicted gunshot (see January 19 issue, page 39) that was ruled an accident by a coroner’s jury last month in San Bernardino, California. But evidence notwithstanding, UE seems intent on convincing its constituency that he died a martyr, a victim of assassination.
The whole affair has opened old wounds in persons once associated with UE, and an embittered congressman who feels he was burned by UE hints he has called for investigation of UE by authorities. (UE has been the subject of postal investigations in the past, but the cases were dropped.) Charges are flying between UE and former staffers who have fallen out with the organization and gone on to establish their own missions to eastern Europe.
A study of the situation by CHRISTIANITY TODAY has raised serious questions about UE’s operations and credibility. UE founder-president Loy Joe Bass is inclined to attribute much of the mess to the fierce fund-raising competition among missions to Iron Curtain countries. But it is deeper than that.
The most glaring recent innuendo in the Kourdakov case is contained in an epilogue to a book manuscript on the young Soviet’s life. In it, Bass implies that an assassin was in the fated motel room with Kourdakov and a girl companion, and that the attacker left when the girl ran to call police. (The Kourdakov “autobiography,” written by Bass and colleagues V. Dale Smith and George Santa with Fred Bauer of Guideposts, was offered to publishers this month on a bid basis.)
It was such statements by Bass in the first place, declared San Bernardino county coroner Bill Hill, “that led me to call the inquest so that we could put to rest all these rumors.” Hill said he had been “outraged” by some of Bass’s press releases prior to the inquest. Bass, called to testify under oath at the inquest, said he knew of no cause of Kourdakov’s death other than an accident, whereupon Hill privately instructed him to relay this word to the news media.
Earlier, Bass had mailed a pamphlet to his “co-workers” (UE’s contributors). It bore the headlines: “Sergei Kourdakov Killed.… [He] had warned his life was in danger. Told many his death would look like suicide or accident, ‘but don’t you believe it!’ he cautioned.” He cited alleged threats against Kourdakov’s life, recent fears, and “the perfect place and time” for “an accident” to happen—midnight in a “rural county … with a small population and relatively small law enforcement staff.” In reality. San Bernardino county suffers from urban sprawl and has one of California’s largest police forces. Bass went on to deny four rumors: that Kourdakov’s death was a suicide, that he did not believe in God, that he was involved in misconduct with a girl, and that he was a Communist agent.
Asked why his press releases and letters to the UE constituency had evaded the facts and insinuated assassination, Bass in an interview replied it was to “balance” rampant rumors of suicide, to show that there were “other possibilities.” (A chief source of the suicide theory is former UE worker Richard Wurmbrand, who now operates his own mission to Communist lands from a warehouse-like building a few blocks from UE’s modern headquarters.)
The jury sat through about three days of testimony from a parade of witnesses, from the seventeen-year-old girl who was with Kourdakov when he shot himself to a ballistics expert. Testimony established that Kourdakov, 22, had been killed by a bullet from a .38-caliber Smith and Wesson revolver he’d mishandled. The bullet entered the lower right side of his head at almost a vertical angle from a distance “of no more than twelve inches.” Part of it lodged in his head; the other part lodged in the ceiling.
Kourdakov first hit the headlines in late 1971 when as a radioman in the Soviet navy he jumped from a trawler off British Columbia and swam ashore seeking asylum—and God, he said later. He carried along a number of photos and other documents; many of these were later reproduced in Bass’s magazine, Underground Evangelism.
While his story was being checked out by Canadian officials, Kourdakov was baptized in a Russian Orthodox church in eastern Canada. He stayed for a while in the home of a Russian Orthodox family in Ontario and attended their church. But Valentine Bobowich, a girl he met in St. Catharines, introduced him to Pentecostal churches, and at a youth conference in the Ukrainian Pentecostal Church in Toronto Kourdakov received the Pentecostal experience. He was baptized by immersion by the church’s pastor, William Dawidiuk. Dawidiuk and others arranged for Kourdakov to give his testimony in a number of Pentecostal and Baptist churches, for which he received hundreds of dollars in offerings. (He was also getting $47 a week from the Canadian government.) American mission agencies and Christian publications sought his services.
UE first established contact with Kourdakov in Toronto in January, 1972, according to Bass’s testimony at the inquest. Bass said he stopped over on trips to and from Europe in February and visited the youth, signing him to a book contract with a $500 advance. In March, Bass assigned V. Dale Smith to push negotiations, and in April a contract was signed, effective May 1, tying Kourdakov to UE. (Smith, Bass’s Munich-based European director and formerly a broadcaster, owns an ad agency in Mexico City. Bass once identified him as “Marcus Gonzales,” director of UE’s Cuban work.) In May, while other missions were seeking him, Kourdakov suddenly dropped out of sight in Canada, setting off frantic searches and speculation that he had been kidnaped or murdered. He emerged a few weeks later in the United States in UE’s employ.
Bass told the jury a management program had been drawn up to involve the likeable, happy-go-lucky Kourdakov in English classes, Bible study, and speaking in churches. The program, authored by Smith, dealt mostly with developing Kourdakov’s potential as a UE fund-raiser. Various agreements provided for the youth to receive a salary starting at $150 per week with periodic increases to $225 per week, 10 per cent of the net offerings in meetings (after expenses), 25 per cent of gross sales of cassettes, 50 per cent of book royalties (a recent UE announcement said the book would be published in seven languages), and all expenses. Affidavits showed Kourdakov earned $1,688 after taxes in October, 1972, and got $2,600 for expenses. Earnings averaged $925 per month during Kourdakov’s span of service with UE, said Bass.
(The Royal Canadian Mounted Police has reportedly located two brothers of Kourdakov in the Soviet Union. They may be awarded his royalties and shares in UE sales when the estate is probated. That decision will most likely be made by Hill.)
Although it was not mentioned, Kourdakov was also fed a stream of information on religious life in the Soviet Union by Angelo Cosmides, a San Francisco translator and Soviet affairs researcher who services UE and other agencies.
Ann Johnson, a dark-eyed blonde high school senior who attends a Pentecostal church in Glendale, followed Bass to the stand. She said she had first met Kourdakov at a church youth camp in August and that they dated the next few weeks. In September and again in December Kourdakov was a guest of the Johnson family in their suburban Los Angeles home. On Saturday, December 30, Miss Johnson said, she and Kourdakov went to the mountains above San Bernardino for a weekend of skiing and work. Kourdakov took along a Russian typewriter to work on immigration papers and a novel. He also took along the revolver from her father’s gun cabinet, she said.
Most motels were booked but they finally found a room that afternoon at the Giant Oaks Motel in Running Springs, she stated. They bought some beer and wine, had dinner, and slept together that night. (Miss Johnson insisted that a polygraph report be entered for the record showing their love-making stopped short of the sex act.) She added that they had encountered briefly three men outside the restaurant; there was a brief exchange of words, apparently in Polish. Kourdakov said, “Shut up, guys,” but didn’t seem rattled, she affirmed, and the pair didn’t see the men again. She emphasized that she and Kourdakov were in each other’s presence the entire weekend.
On Sunday afternoon Kourdakov showed her how the gun worked, replaced all but one of the five bullets (“so it wouldn’t go off the first time” if jolted accidentally, he told her), and put it under their bed.
That night they sipped champagne as they watched the New Year’s Eve celebrations on TV, the girl stated. The window was closed and the curtains were drawn at the time. Kourdakov at one point stood by the bedside and joked with her, then got the gun and held it in an upward position at the side of his head, still smiling at her. Miss Johnson said she looked away toward the TV set and then the gun went off. “Sergei had a horrified look on his face,” she said, and then he fell. “I thought he was kidding around. I said, ‘Sergei, get up.’ ” She said she tried to pull him up, saw the blood, then got the key, locked the door behind her, and ran to the nearby restaurant to call her father and the police.
Another witness, a youth from San Diego, said he found her crying outside the restaurant and tried to comfort her. Both he and Miss Johnson recall her saying, “Sergei killed himself; he didn’t mean to do it.”
When a sheriff’s deputy arrived, Miss Johnson went with him to the cabin and gave him the key to get into the room. (Bass in his epilogue to the Kourdakov book says they found the door already open.)
A truck driver in the next room said he was awakened by a noise at the time of the incident but did not realize it was a gunshot and went back to sleep.
The girl’s father, Eugene Johnson, 43, an electrician, said he knew Kourdakov had the gun and, indeed, that it was with his blessing despite the law against possession of firearms by aliens, because “a hyped-up kook” might attack the youth. Bureauracy moves so slowly, declared Johnson, that Sergei would be dead by the time legal permission came through. “So I felt obligated,” he explained.
Private detectives hired by UE alleged that Bass had misled them—a charge he denied. They said they could find no evidence of foul play.
The hearing was interrupted and the jury’s deliberations were postponed a week when Hill learned from congressman Earl F. Landgrebe that UE representatives were allegedly spreading the assassination-by-Russian-agents theory in the legislator’s northwestern Indiana district. Again there were no facts to support the theory, and the jury proceeded. UE deputation director Don Kyer, a former Salvation Army officer, said it was probably all a misunderstanding but allowed as how a film representative might get carried away a bit “because people want to believe Kourdakov was assassinated.”
(UE has nearly 100 film men in Canada and the U. S. who show UE movies in churches and collect names for the UE mailing list. Described as independent contractors, they are paid the equivalent of from 50 to 60 per cent of offerings. Kyer explains that offerings go into UE’s overseas literature fund and that the men are paid out of the operating fund. The film people account for about 20 per cent of UE’s income, says UE treasurer Joe Beliveau. UE’s income in 1970 was $1.07 million, and the 1971 total was $1.7 million. Last year’s figures were still being audited last month.)
Landgrebe, a Lutheran known for his staunch anti-communist stance and an erstwhile Bible smuggler himself, says he engineered Kourdakov’s entry into the U. S. on UE’s behalf but feels now he was “exploited” by UE. He is distressed by Bass’s “repetitious and unfounded insinuations” and by UE’s fund-raising tactics. Just prior to the inquest, Kyer—under instructions from Bass—called Landgrebe’s office and offered to forward a $300 honorarium that the congressman apparently turned down at a speaking engagement at UE’s conference last year. Landgrebe wonders if it was an attempt to buy him off in some way, but Bass insists he was only trying to find out if Landgrebe was upset by a possible mix-up involving the honorarium. At any rate, the legislator implies that authorities have been requested to investigate UE.
Bass was born and raised in Fort Smith, Arkansas. He attended the Bethesda Bible Institute, a Pentecostal school in Portland, Oregon, served a short stint with the “Wings of Healing” organization, then struck out for Nigeria and the Philippines as an independent Pentecostal missionary-evangelist. In the late fifties he opened shop in Tulsa, Oklahoma, as Evangelism Center, came up with the UE name in 1962, and moved to California.
Bass’s switch to UE followed a visit to Yugoslavia where evangelist Nick Gruick, an American Pentecostal of Yugoslavian descent, had been ministering for five months. Gruick, now a missionary in Haiti, recalled in a telephone interview that Bass showed up in Osiejk with a movie camera, took pictures in Gruick’s church services (including scenes of hands raised Pentecostal-style in praise), and asked to preach but was denied because he lacked the government permission then required. He was, however, allowed to lead in prayer several times—and he did so on camera. Bass went on to visit elsewhere, but several days later Gruick was ordered out of the country because, Gruick charges, “Bass had done something wrong.”
When Bass returned to the U. S. he put out both a silent movie he narrated and a pictorial booklet entitled, “The Red World.” Bass is portrayed as holding “a series of crusades behind the Iron Curtain” with “thousands marked by the Communists” because they accepted Christ under his ministry, a claim he supported with close-ups of persons with hands uplifted. In one picture, Bass is shown in front of a building purportedly “a thousand miles behind the Iron Curtain.” The building is actually Communist headquarters in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, about 200 miles from the Italian border.
In another picture, Bass identified Gruick as his “associate and chief interpreter.” In fact, said Bass, Gruick’s help “was so great that the Communists gave him twelve hours to flee the country.… His forced departure worked very many hardships upon [me], but [I] continued the crusades and they grew even larger than before.” Bass closed by taking credit for “trail-blazing this ever-spreading revival behind the Iron Curtain.” Meanwhile, said he, “I felt more like an observer than a participant,” a comment that insiders insist is closer to the truth.
Bass’s credibility in print has been questioned in other notable instances. Former UE overseas director Haralan Popov, a refugee minister from Bulgaria, claims that Bass altered his book Tortured For His Faith without his knowledge, injecting untruths into the translation from the original work in Swedish. Indeed, asserts a UE office employee at the time, Bass “gave us strict orders not to let Mr. Popov see the manuscript until after it was published.” Popov quit UE last year, obtained the rights to his book from UE, and has asked the publisher to revise it.
After Stephen Bankov and his family left Bulgaria in 1969, UE signed him aboard and transformed him in print from the deacon of one church that he was into the pastor of fifty-six underground churches. Bass justifies the wording by saying Bankov performed the “function” of a pastor. Readers are led to believe that Communists forced the Bankov car off the road in Austria. Ladin Popov, Haralan’s brother (he left UE in 1970) under whose ministry Bankov became a Christian, was escorting him at the time and says it is simply not true. Popov claims there is other fiction in the Bankov book.
Additionally, former employees speak of fabrications in UE’s magazine, fundraising appeals, and financial reports.
UE is virtually a case of one-man rule. All members of UE’s board of directors (currently five) are UE employees, including Bass, his wife, and treasurer Beliveau. The turnover among the other members has been high; most have left amid controversy, usually over how UE’s money is handled. In all, there are about forty UE employees, most of them workers at the headquarters office.
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