LEE HARVEY OSWALD, DISAPPOINTED REVOLUTIONARY

Wall Street Journal on October 5, 2013, published an article by Peter Savodnik on his recent book on Lee Harvey Oswald in the Soviet Union. On the morning of Jan. 7, 1960, Lee Harvey Oswald boarded a train in Moscow heading west. That evening, he arrived in Minsk, in the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic. He had just a few things: a change of clothes, a diary, a copy of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot,” which the KGB had given him for his 20th birthday. He was exuberant. In Minsk, he expected to build a new life and to escape his past—his mother, Texas, the Marines. He had written a letter to his mother and his brother, Robert, telling them to forget him. “I do not wish to [ever] contact you again,” he wrote. “I am beginning a new life, and I don’t want any part of the old.” Excerpts below:

Oswald’s Russian foray was a failure, of course. Two-and-a-half years after turning up in Minsk, he and his wife, Marina, and their baby, June, left the Soviet Union. He had hoped to join the revolution, but there was no revolution to join. Long before he arrived, it had been snuffed out by the Gulag, the purges, the war.

He returned to the U.S. in June 1962 more alienated than he had ever been. Seventeen months later, he murdered John F. Kennedy…

[Oswald] is viewed not as a three-dimensional character in a Shakespearean tragedy—which he was—but as an instrument whose actions were orchestrated by others: the mob, the CIA, Fidel Castro, the KGB.

But a closer look at Oswald’s life—his history, his personality, the relationships he forged, the fragmented political tracts he wrote—makes it abundantly clear that he was capable of killing the president all by himself. If we focus on his Soviet period, the most important chapter in his truncated, 24-year life, it is possible to piece together a more complete picture of Oswald.

To do this, I interviewed people who, for the most part, had never spoken publicly about him: former friends, acquaintances, co-workers, neighbors.

He didn’t fit in with the Marines,… Even before he was shipped off to Japan, where he served on the air base at Atsugi, he began to dream about living in the Soviet Union. His mind was filled with fantasies of a country that had never existed, and as he grew more alienated from the military, he grew more determined to move to the workers’ paradise. In September 1959, he sought and received an early discharge from the military.

The next month, about three weeks after Khrushchev returned from his first visit to the U.S., Oswald went to Russia. Having arrived in Moscow on an overnight train from Helsinki, he soon told his Intourist guide, who reported directly to the security organs, that he had no intention of staying just six days, as his visa allowed. He wanted to become a Soviet citizen.

The KGB was familiar with this personality type. The Americans who defected to the Soviet Union during the Cold War were usually lonely, wandering, dislodged souls. They made for good propaganda, but most were erratic and unstable.

On day six of his visit, the Soviets told Oswald that he had to go home. Devastated, he returned to the Hotel Berlin. “I am shocked!!” he wrote in his diary. “My dreams! I retire to my room.…I have waited for 2 year to be accepted. My fondes[t] dreams are shattered.” He filled the bathtub with cold water, got in and slashed his wrist. The KGB found him, and he was rushed to Botkinskaya Hospital.

Now the KGB had a problem. This was an awkward moment for an ex-Marine to try to kill himself in Moscow.

Once he was released from the hospital, Oswald was moved to the Hotel Metropol, a three-minute walk from Red Square. His Intourist guide told him not to go anywhere. Oswald spent most days in his room, studying Russian grammar, eating, waiting to be released from purgatory. He saw almost no one. After eight weeks, a little man knocked on the door of Oswald’s room and told him he would be going to Minsk.

Oswald thought he had ventured to the Soviet Union in the service of some ideology or cause, but that was a lie he told himself.

He thought that he wanted to do battle with the capitalists. “In the event of a war, I would kill any American who put a uniform on in defense of the American government,” he wrote to his brother—but the security organs knew what he really wanted.

Two months after Oswald arrived in Minsk, he was moved into apartment 24 at 4 Kommunistichiskaya Ulitsa. The 266-square-foot apartment had high ceilings, a workable kitchen, a narrow bathroom, an even narrower vestibule and a compact bedroom that also served as a living room, with a lovely view of the Svisloch River. There was a balcony, too.

The apartment was the centerpiece of the kolpak (the “dome” or “shroud”) that the KGB built for him. The kolpak was like a village in the middle of Minsk, and it was tightly knit, small, watchable. There were no boundaries or guard posts, but it was a de facto prison,.. This sounded special, but it wasn’t really. This was how the local KGB office in Minsk covered itself. Moscow had wanted Oswald far away from anyone important, so they had sent him to the provinces, and now Minsk had been given a mission—to monitor the American, a former Marine, a crazy man who had tried to kill himself.

Oswald quickly slipped into his new life and, for a while, enjoyed it. His closest friend in Minsk was Ernst Titovets, who still lives there. Now in his 70s, Mr. Titovets is a neurologist and speaks English fluently, with a British accent.

He gave me a walking tour of what he called “Oswald’s world.” Inside this little world, it never took more than five to 10 minutes to walk anywhere: the Minsk Radio Factory, where Oswald was a metal-lathe operator; the opera and the music conservatory, which he frequented; the Foreign Language Institute, where there were girls who spoke English and listened to jazz and were more “adventurous.”

Befriending a foreigner, and especially an American, was never a good idea in the Soviet Union,…When I asked Mr. Titovets whether he had been a KGB agent, he laughed and said, “I was never in this situation.” Then he added: “From a patriotic point of view, certainly, we were ready to help intelligence, to help whomever, the government, to defend the country. It’s our duty.” …

For at least a year, Oswald probably did not know that he was being monitored constantly and that much of his life was invisibly choreographed by the KGB.

But even before then, Oswald was having doubts about his new home. He had begun to peer through the protective cordons and to see the Soviet experiment in a more complicated light. In his diary entry for August and September 1960, he wrote: “As my Russian improves, I become increasingly conscious of just what sort of a society I live in. Mass gymnastics, compulsory after-work meetings, usually political.”

On March 17, 1961, Oswald met the woman who would become his wife, Marina Prusakova, at the Trade Unions Palace of Culture.

Less than two months later, they married. Early that summer, Oswald told his new bride that he wanted to go back to America, and she was happy to accompany him—maybe because she was, according to Mr. Titovets, in the employ of the KGB, or because she was a Russian woman who hoped the U.S. would offer a better life, or perhaps it was some admixture of both motives.

The KGB did little, if anything, to tamp down Oswald’s suspicions. Starting in mid-1961, after Oswald had married Marina, they seemed content to let his frustrations and worries mount. They made him wait another year before leaving—just as they had made him wait for two months at the Hotel Metropol, in Moscow, before shipping him to Minsk. But there is no sign they had any reservations about letting him go. As it turns out, it was the bureaucracy in Moscow and Washington that was mostly responsible for the delay.

After the Kennedy assassination, the Soviets went to great lengths to communicate to the Johnson administration that they had not been involved. That Oswald had lived in the Soviet Union did not help, of course, and in the days immediately after the assassination, KGB agents tracked down everyone who had been a part of Oswald’s world, interrogated them, repossessed letters and photographs and issued a very important directive: For the next 25 years, these former Oswald friends were told, you are not to utter the words “Lee Harvey Oswald.” When Sergei Skop, one of Oswald’s co-workers at the factory, asked the KGB what would happen in 25 years, he was informed: “We’ll discuss that then.”

There was no apparent malign intent in the KGB’s treatment of Oswald. They had never thought much of him. If he wanted to go, that was fine. By mid-1962, he was nothing to them but a lazy, whiny American who built television sets in Minsk.

But the problem wasn’t the Soviet Union. The problem was Oswald himself. Despite all his fervor, despite all the official help he received from the KGB, he could not figure out how to stay put. He couldn’t become the man he wanted to be.

So, as he had done many times before, he fled. Each escape carried with it its own violence, and with each lurch the violence ratcheted up. His return to America marked Oswald’s greatest failure in a life shot through with failures.

…it would be correct to say that he was now on a course that he had traveled before, one that would require him to settle into a new life that he did not know how to settle into. He had hoped to extricate himself from this hopeless cycle in the Soviet Union, but he did not have the personal and psychological resources to do that.

In both the Marines and the Soviet Union, Oswald had lasted for a year before first signaling that he wanted out. Then, in both cases, his desire to flee had turned white hot, culminating in a matter of months in a powerful, almost violent rupture.

After he came back to the U.S., Oswald pushed on for almost a year-and-a-half before exploding in front of the whole world, in Dallas.

Mr. Savodnik is the author of “The Interloper: Lee Harvey Oswald Inside the Soviet Union,” from which this essay is adapted. Formerly based in Moscow, he has traveled and reported extensively in the former Soviet Union.

(Comment: Mr. Savodnik’s article on his recent book is interesting but certainly not the last word on the real Lee Harvey Oswald, the man who was a communist and had many contacts with the KGB and the Cuban regime.)

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