Lee Harvey Oswald Inside the Soviet Union [INTERVIEW]Historians/History
tags: JFK, Lee Harvey Oswald, JFK assassination, Kennedys
David Austin Walsh is the editor of the History News Network. Follow him on Twitter @davidastinwalsh.
His fellow Marines called him “Oswaldskovich,” because he never shut up about his admiration for communism or the Soviet Union. None took him seriously. But the diminutive nineteen-year-old Marine was serious. After obtaining a hardship discharge from the Marines, Lee Harvey Oswald left the United States for the Soviet Union in 1959. Arriving in Moscow on October 16, he declared that he wished to renounce his U.S. citizenship and become a Soviet national.
Soviet officials, puzzled by the sight of Oswald, sent him to Minsk, where he would live until 1962, returning to the United States with a wife and infant daughter, along with a murderous rage that will culminate in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas on November 22, 1963.
Even fifty years later, Oswald's Minsk period remains understudied, despite the fact that Oswald's time in the Soviet Union was the longest period of stability in his life. In his new book, The Interloper: Lee Harvey Oswald Inside the Soviet Union Peter Savodnik, a journalist who lived and worked in Moscow and has extensively traveled around the former Soviet Union, dives into the foreign life of America's most notorious assassin.
I recently spoke with Mr. Savodnik over the phone about his book.
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First, the $64,000 question: Why did Lee Harvey Oswald kill John F. Kennedy?
Lee Harvey Oswald did not have any particular animus for John F. Kennedy. This was driven entirely by his own biography and history. There's a great deal of self-involvement, there's a great deal of desire to elevate himself, to become this world-historical figure. Tragically, he accomplished that. ... I think it's fair to say the Kennedy assassination had very little to do with John F. Kennedy.
Now, on to his biography – and the major point of your book: the biography of Lee Harvey Oswald. Oswald grew up in very trying circumstances in the early part of his life.
Yes, Oswald moved twenty times with his mother before he turned seventeen, which is when he joined the Marines. Every move is prompted by one of his mother Marguerite's failures -- personal, professional, or otherwise. Usually, it has to do with a man, sometimes it has to do with a job, but the threat that courses through his childhood and adolescence is a frenetic, harried, peripatetic that is entirely his mother's concoction. For Oswald, he never ever has a sense of home, or rootedness, and it fills him with this sense of rage, which he not surprisingly directs against his mother. And so the Marines, and then later the Soviet Union, should be viewed as an attempt by Oswald to find structure, to find place. He failed at both.
Why did he turn to Marxism as a salve, as opposed to another form of religion? And he was in the Marines as well. Why couldn't he find a sense of purpose or place there?
There are any number of possible outcomes -- or temples, so to speak -- he could have turned to. I think that the allure of Marxism was its anger. Marxist doctrine is shot through with this furious rant against the bourgeoisie, against capitalism, against the society that had produced him. There's a logic in that. He's deeply unhappy and he stumbles on this whole world that stands in direct opposition to the world that he comes from. And not only that, but it offered immediate salvation, or immediate asylum. There is a power that comes from Marxist doctrine, a sense of belonging to something right now that is on the cusp of doing something very, very important. So from Oswald's vantage point, the Soviet experiment, as he would have seen it, was this marvelous opportunity to transcend where he came from.
What kind of a Marxist was he? Did he evince any sort of sophisticated understanding of Marxism or communism, or of the Soviet Union in general, before he left for Russia?
No, he was a superficial Marxist. Oswald lacked the historical or political consciousness of a genuine radical. He had acquired the vernacular of radical politics. He had tapped into or been drawn to the emotions which that politics helped to foment, but did he have a deep understanding of how revolutions unfold, and the relationship between the proletariat and the means of production? No. He only had the Marxist argot. He had the superficialities of radicalism, but that's what appealed to him: the sense of belonging, of being very serious. In many respects, once he got beyond the superficialities, he found the actual substance, the content, the experience of communism and the Soviet Union very difficult to navigate.
What was he expecting when he went to the Soviet Union?
He was expecting the future was going to resolve itself, that history would end. And in this place, he would join this much larger-than-life cause, and he would break permanently with the United States, and he would live happily every after in the Soviet Union. He imagined himself taking part in something bold and totally separate from anything he had come from.
There's something about a sort of metaphysical break when it comes to his migration to the Soviet Union, and I think that in a way he set himself up for not only failure but terrible disappointment. Of course, we can't extricate ourselves permanently or perfectly from wherever it is we come from, no matter how much we try, and we are always functions of our place, even if we wish not to be. Oswald in a way sort of set up the disaster that was to come before he even arrived in Moscow.
Could you describe Oswald's relationships with women? Obviously he married in the Soviet Union, and there was the woman, Ella German, with whom he had some sort of relationship.
I don't think he had much experience with women, if any, before moving to the Soviet Union. He had alluded to some relationships when he was in the Marines, but as far as anyone knows there was no girlfriend, or no evidence of a girlfriend, there was just some kind of bravado or talk.
In the Soviet Union, he was a celebrity, at least for a little while. And this opened up certain avenues or possibilities that would not have been available to him otherwise. Also, he was put into an apartment that was a short walk from the Institute for Foreign Languages in Minsk, where one would meet girls who were studying English and were interested in foreigners, and were probably more adventurous, you might say. So Oswald benefitted from all that. Not surprisingly, as his novelty began to wear off, his interest in Minsk began to wear thin.
Describe a typical day in Oswald's Minsk.
He was quickly integrated into the mechanism of daily proletarian life in the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic. He would awaken relatively early in his apartment, and he would walk about eight minutes to the radio factory where he worked in the experimental department, and he probably would have been there until late afternoon or early evening, ate dinner, he might have read a good bit -- he was fond of reading -- visited friends, gone to the conservatory or the opera, which was a short walk away from his apartment, and he probably would have retired early.
For a while I think he was captivated by this lifestyle, because it was new to him and it was much more comfortable and much more stable than he had ever experienced. But it was not terribly electric, it did not offer a lot in the way of possibility or newness. So it's not surprising that after just a few months, he began to grow tired of it.
Could you describe that process of disillusionment? It wasn't uncommon, after all, for American communists to experience disillusionment with the Soviet Union. It sounds like Oswald's disillusionment stemmed as much from personal as political reasons.
Nothing illustrates the thinness, the superficiality of Oswald's ideology as his growing disillusionment with the Soviet Union. He began to tire of Minsk as his celebrity began to wear off. But this had nothing to do with an intellectual or ideological coming to terms with some kind of intellectual maturation, although Oswald tried to explain it that way. It had everything to do with the fact that he was not good at fitting in, at settling in, so as the realities of day-to-day life began to pile up, as they began to impose on him, he became less enchanted. And his disenchantment began to morph into a kind of anger and frustration.
This was deepened by his friendship with Pavel Golovachev, a few conservations he has with some other friends and associates, and he tends to get rather, not just tired, but really kind of fed up with the whole lifestyle. And by the time we get to late 1960, he's beginning to think that maybe he's made a mistake -- he's not quite sure, but he's thinking that.
What prompts him to take the first concrete steps to extricate himself from the Soviet Union is his break with Ella German. At every step of the way, what leads Oswald to trying to remove himself from the Soviet Union is not anything intellectual or ideological -- nothing substantive in that respect. It's always personal. It's always a friend or a woman. I think that, more than anything, sheds a spotlight on the one-dimensionality of his ideological commitments, as it were.
What was his wife, Marina, like? What attracted her to Oswald and why did she come back with him to the United States?
Oswald met Marina in March of 1961, and he immediately sees in Marina the antidote to Ella German, who had really broken his heart. He had fallen deeply for Ella, and he had proposed to her and she had said no, and he saw in Marina somebody who was meant to distract him and carry him forward. And it's not surprising, because in many ways Marina was the antithesis of Ella. Whereas Ella was rather innocent and timid and curious and prone to a kind of girlishness, Marina was anything but that. Very garrulous, very sexual, very clear about her objectives. She clearly saw in Oswald a ticket to ride, an opportunity to leave Russia. Even though Oswald says in his diary that Marina was surprised when he informed her he wanted to go back to the United States, she never puts any resistance. In fact, she is quick to get moving on the bureaucratic process involved in that to emigrate. I think that Marina's a very complicated character, and I think it's fair to say in Oswald she saw a very good opportunity.
Upon his return to the United States, was there a particular moment where Oswald decided to act violently?
Yes, I think that there is a process here, in the same way there had been a process in the Soviet Union, in the same way there'd been a process in the Marines, and the same way there'd been a process coursing through his adolescence. And that process, that pattern was the same one that had occurred over and over in his life, and that was to attempt to settle in. He struggled. With each failure to settle in, with each failure to secure a job or hold onto that job, with each failure to secure an apartment or placate his wife, to build any kind of life... with each failure, his internal pressure mounts. His sense of dislocation, of alienation -- this sense that he's in the wrong place. He's always under this impression.
As this realization deepens and becomes more omnipresent and more unavoidable, he feels a greater and greater need to get out, to escape. And his attempted murder of Edwin Walker is clearly about that. It's about escaping the status quo and achieving some kind of greatness, as it were. Oswald told Marina that killing Walker would have been like killing Hitler, so clearly Oswald imagined himself playing some kind of grand world-historical role, and it's noteworthy that the way in which he went about attempting to kill Walker was exactly the way he went about successfully killing John F. Kennedy. He found a spot, not very far, from where Walker was. He had a rifle, he had positioned himself, he prepared in advance to take his shot, after he took the shot he left the rifle there, and then walked away and found his own way home.
The two events -- the failed assassination of Walker and the successful assassination of Kennedy -- just represent a ratcheting up, and eventually there's this culmination of violence, which is meant to enable Oswald's escape from his life, and this way, the homicide is as much a suicide.
Why do you think that so many Americans still cannot accept that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone assassin of John F. Kennedy.
Probably three reasons.
One, we tend to think of Kennedy as having been so great and really all-powerful, almost mythological, and at the same time we tend to think of Oswald as so low, that it seems unfathomable that somebody so low, so inconsequential, could topple someone so great.
Two, Jack Ruby did inestimable harm to the whole process of America coming to terms with what happened. He deprived the country of its opportunity for working through all of the evidence, all of the details surrounding the assassination, so there's kind of a breathlessness, an awful void, that's left in the wake of Oswald's assassination.
Three, maybe more fundamentally, I think that modern man, especially in modern America, is just congenitally incapable of making sense of tragedy. We want to impose order and logic on everything. So if we don't understand something, we assume that there is some sort of plot or conspiracy -- that there is an order, and we're just not seeing it. As opposed to seeing the Kennedy assassination as the way we ought to see it: as one of the great public tragedies of the twentieth century. And that's all it was. That's not to suggest it was in any way any less than that, but it's just that we refuse to see it in its true light.
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