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Why Did Lee Harvey Oswald Defect to the USSR Before He Killed the President? Why Did Lee Harvey Oswald Defect to the USSR Before He Killed the Pres...

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Why Did Lee Harvey Oswald Defect to the USSR Before He Killed the President?

The troubled former Marine moved there to discover himself. His failure to find peace in the Soviet Union eventually propelled him to Dallas—with a gun.


Adrift: Oswald never felt at home.(Corbis)

Other Americans had defected to the Soviet Union. They had started coming to Moscow during the 1917 revolution and the subsequent civil war—before moving there was called "defecting"—and thousands of fellow travelers, intellectuals, writers, journalists, and curious observers had arrived in the 1920s and 1930s. With the end of World War II and the start of the Cold War, the number of Americans traveling to Russia plummeted, but 1959 saw something of an uptick. In September that year, Robert E. Webster, a plastics technician from Cleveland, had defected and been granted a Soviet passport. (He had traveled to Moscow to help prepare for the American National Exhibition, at which Vice President Richard Nixon would famously debate the merits of capitalism and socialism with Premier Nikita Khrushchev in an American-style kitchen.) About the same time, Nicholas Petrulli of Long Island showed up at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow to surrender his American citizenship.

There was a superficial resemblance binding Lee Harvey Oswald, who arrived that year, to these other defectors. All of them had trouble building a life for themselves in the United States; most of them had professed communist sympathies. But these similarities masked important differences. John McVickar, one of the consular officers who handled the Oswald case in Moscow, called people like Webster and Petrulli "tentative defectors." Oswald's migration, on the other hand, was not born of whim or circumstance—work, legal trouble, a sexual entanglement. "He seemed to be somewhat more determined about what he wanted to do, and maybe it looked like he had thought about it more in advance," McVickar said in an interview. The idea to move had emerged slowly, with the outlines first appearing two or three years earlier: He would settle down in the USSR, join the cause, and finally fit in.


In fact, Oswald's defection was part of a pattern that had been set in motion almost from the very beginning, by his mother, Marguerite. He had spent his childhood being moved from Texas to Louisiana to New York, back to Louisiana, back to Texas, and had never lived anywhere for very long. His mother, unable to sustain a relationship or hold a job, always seemed to rely on Lee for emotional support: Until he was 10, they slept in the same bed. By his mid-teens, he was looking for ways to escape her. Just a few days after turning 17, Oswald enlisted in the Marines. But he lacked the internal resources to settle in; he didn't know how to forge durable relationships or adapt. Soon, he was looking for a way out of the military.

His exit strategy was the Soviet Union. He had been intrigued by communism for a few years, since he had run into a protester, probably in New York, demonstrating on behalf of the Rosenbergs. Now he began to contemplate moving to Russia and joining the revolution. It's telling that Oswald was seemingly undeterred by important details: He barely spoke Russian. (What little he knew, he learned on his own. Later, the Russians gave him six or seven weeks of lessons.) He wasn't well educated or worldly; and the revolution, as it were, had long ago been snuffed out by the Stalinist terror. What was most important, although he lacked the perspective to see this, was escaping.

Viewed through this prism, the Soviet period simply represents Oswald's last great hope for transcending the awful, peripatetic childhood and adolescence that he had endured—and, by extension, the sense of rootlessness and alienation, the feeling that no matter where he was, he would never belong. He believed he was venturing to Moscow because he was an avowed Marxist, but his Marxism was ill-informed at best, and his ideological commitments were shallow. Similarly, what drove Oswald from the Soviet Union was not anything abstruse or political or philosophical (although he would come to loathe the mindlessness of Sovietism); it was a woman.


After Oswald returned to the United States and killed President Kennedy, 50 years ago next month, he transformed himself from a lost soul into a historical enigma. We insist on not really knowing him, because we do not want to believe—we cannot believe—that what happened happened the way it appears. John F. Kennedy wears a mythical aura, and therefore his killer must wear one, too: Oswald must have been someone else's instrument, or someone else's partner, or a single-minded ideologue. How else could someone so small topple someone so great?

But, in truth, the assassination was not some divine, inscrutable event perpetrated by one of history's great ciphers. The shooting in Dallas may have demarcated two American histories, one of rise and one of fall. (The country before the murder looks brilliant, beautiful, and prelapsarian—like a place we've heard about but don't really know or can't remember. America since Nov. 22, 1963, has been filled with a sense of ineluctable decline that seems to quicken every year.) But the proximate cause for this break, Lee Harvey Oswald, is not unknowable. He is prosaic and sad.

If we limit ourselves to the events immediately surrounding the assassination, it's difficult to make out Oswald's personality, his identity, his fears and ambitions. But the whole of Oswald's life—and especially his two and a half year foray into the Soviet Union, the most important chapter in that life—shows that the mystery is not so mysterious. The assassination was not a grand, existential confrontation in which America succumbed to the forces of darkness; it was a tragic confluence of vectors. And they began to come together in Moscow, where Oswald had gone to find himself in 1959. His failure to do so once he arrived set him on a seemingly inexorable course toward Dealey Plaza that autumn day.


Oswald traveled to Moscow with a six-day tourist visa on the Oct. 15, 1959, overnight train from Helsinki. At the station, an Intourist guide met him, and he told her, almost immediately, that he had no plans to go home. He wanted to live in the Soviet Union forever.


The KGB was not receptive to this idea. Agents quickly determined he wasn't a spy, but they didn't see what he offered them. He was told he would have to leave. Having staked so much on this trip, Oswald was devastated. He returned to his hotel and slashed his wrist. The KGB found him soon after and rushed him to Botkinskaya Hospital. The Russians had never encountered an American who wanted to stay in their country that much. After he was released from the hospital, they moved him to the rather upscale Hotel Metropol, and then they made him wait. They said they were debating what to do with him.

The Metropol, which opened in 1901, was lavishly appointed, even regal, but it had lost some of its sheen. It's near the Kremlin, and Oswald's second-floor room had a view of the Bolshoi Theater. Its style was more czarist than Soviet. It had long enjoyed a famous clientele: heads of state, railroad titans, famous poets and musicians, revolutionaries, government ministers, and members of the nomenklatura. Everything about the Metropol was oversized: the hallways, the ceilings, the staircases, the rugs, the marble columns, and the doors, which were tall and thick. In the lobby, a five- or six-piece band, mostly brass, played Russian folk songs.

Six weeks after he arrived in Moscow, Lee wrote to Robert Oswald, his brother, about how at home he already felt. "These people," he reported, "are a good, warm, alive people These people would never think of war, they wish to see all peoples live in peace but at the same time they wish to see the eonomicly enslaved people of the west free, they believe in their Ideal and they support their government and country to the full limit." (His letters and diary entries are riddled with errors and misspellings, marking his lack of formal education beyond the 11th grade. I have not cleaned these up for fear of distorting his meaning or conveying that he could read and think more clearly than was the case.) He didn't expect to do any fighting, but made clear that he was willing. Oswald explained the terms of his future relationship with Robert: "In the event of war I would kill any American who put a uniform on in defense of the American government—any American." He expected his defection would transform not only his own life but his relations with everyone he had ever known. "I want to, and I shall, live a normal happy and peaceful life here in the Soviet Union for the rest of my life," he wrote. "[M]y mother and you are … not objects of affection, but only examples of workers in the U.S. You should not try to remember me in any way I used to be, since I am only now showing you how I am. I am not all bitterness or hate, I came here only to find freedom, In truth, I feel I am at last with my own people." Oswald imagined himself taking part in a global revolution—he started his letter by explaining why he and his "fellow workers and communist's would like to see the present capitalist government of the U.S. overthrown."

Like the Bolsheviks who overthrew the Romanov dynasty four decades earlier, he was filled with fury, sanctimony, disdain—and of course naïveté and lack of historical or political perspective. It would take many months before the realities of Soviet life forced him to reconsider his defection. Most other defectors figured out quickly that they had made a mistake (maybe because they had been "tentative" to begin with) and, after a month or two, after the end of a short-lived relationship or at the onset of depression or loneliness, they clamored to leave. In Oswald's case, it would take him more than a year to come around.

One reason it took him so long to get his bearings is that, outside the Metropol, the Soviet Union was changing. For decades under Josef Stalin, who died six years before Oswald arrived, Russians had lived in a walled-off universe. During this period, the most basic categories of Soviet consciousness—the ways in which people constructed the world and imagined themselves in it—had been revolutionized and then imbued with the state's all-consuming paranoia and cynicism. It had become so dangerous to think certain thoughts—one could never be sure what might slip out accidentally, consciously, unconsciously in one's sleep, in the middle of a heated conversation—that people had been conditioned to think differently. They had expunged from their minds certain words or thoughts, and they had imbibed an ever-shifting vernacular that reflected the whims and political sensibilities of the supreme leader. After World War II, Russians were not a radicalized mass of peasants and workers, as the Bolsheviks had imagined them, but a shadow of a people.

But in the years after Stalin died, the Soviet Union was becoming something nobody ever imagined it would become. A new series of words and developments had entered the national lexicon: the ottyepel, or thaw; the "secret speech" in which Khrushchev, the new premier, criticized Stalin's overreach; the rehabilitation of hundreds of thousands of Gulag prisoners; the Hungarian uprising, and the Warsaw Pact's violent suppression of it; the revolts in East Germany and Poland; and the reawakening of Russian culture.

Oswald arrived with the old vocabulary. He was familiar with terms like "capitalism," "imperialism," and "proletarian dictatorship," but he seems not to have grasped that these concepts sounded stilted or ironic to Russians in the late 1950s, when a new skepticism had set in. Oswald's effort to display his solidarity with the cause made him sound ignorant of people and events that were very real to all Russians: the purges, the show trials, the famines, collectivization, the five-year plans, the war, the occupation of Central and Eastern Europe, and the creation, over three or four decades, of a vast network of informants and spies who had made it impossible to speak or act or even think the way people did before the revolution. Oswald hadn't imagined that Russians were reexamining communism. His perspective—the revolt against America, the inexplicable fondness for "the worker"—seemed out of step with a country that had recently hosted the American National Exhibition and was, tentatively, seeking peaceful coexistence with the West.

He didn't see any of this when the KGB installed him at the Metropol. The most important thing about his new home was that he didn't know how long he'd be there. It was a sort of purgatory. As if to heighten this sense of in-betweenness, the KGB made a point of not giving him any hints about what might come next. Oswald knew nothing about the status of his case or what was being said or done about it. "I wait," he wrote in his diary. "I worry I eat once, stay next to phone worry I keep fully dressed." Soon, he hoped, someone would tell him where he was going next.


Most Americans who defected to the Soviet Union at that time were sent to Ukraine, but Oswald went to Belorussia. He had come to Russia, he had told the Russians, to be a Communist, and he wanted to serve the cause. He imagined this would mean living in Moscow. But the KGB wanted him far from anything important (government officials, Western reporters), so they sent him to a provincial city on the western-most fringe of the Soviet Union—which just happened to be one of the few places in the country where the Marxist idea and even Stalinism were still very potent, mostly cordoned off from the swirling, reformist currents in Moscow, Leningrad, and beyond. Oswald's wish had been granted. He would live among real proletarians in a city that had been rebuilt after the war in the Stalinist-monumentalist style. On Jan. 7, he wrote in his diary: "I leave Moscow by train for Minsk, Belorussia. My hotel bill was 2200. rubles and the train ticket to Minsk 150. rubles so I have a lot of money I hope. I wrote my brother & mother letters in which I said 'I do not wish to every contact you again.' I am begining a new life and I don't want any part of the old."

It was evening when Oswald stepped off the train on Jan. 7, 1960. He did not know where he was, except that it was called Minsk. He seems not to have known in which direction he had been traveling (west), or how far he was from Moscow (408 miles). He was probably unaware that he was in the Soviet Socialist Republic of Belorussia. He did not know anything about the geography or sociology of this particular subset of Homo Sovieticus, or about the regional economy, which revolved around a network of collective farms. He also didn't know that here, army bases were tucked away in the green-black forests and air-force jets constantly flew overhead.

Two representatives of the Red Cross met Oswald in the station and escorted him to the Hotel Minsk, on Prospekt Stalina. The boulevard was wide, with a handful of new low-lying buildings with neoclassical facades. They looked stately. In recent years, Minsk had been infused with a new life, but it was still hemmed in by a quiet order that was absent in most cities, which overflowed with people, signs, colors, and movements. In his diary, Oswald sounded less excited or curious than overwhelmed.

By traveling to Minsk, Oswald had also just stepped into America's blind spot. For months at a time, the U.S. Embassy and the State Department would have no idea where he was or what he was doing. It would be more than a year before he made contact again with anyone in his family. The Americans were not even sure if he was still one of their own: In early 1960, a State Department official responsible for keeping tabs on him made a note in Oswald's file that he "may have been naturalized in the Soviet Union or otherwise … expatriated himself," according to a State Department memo to the Warren Commission. After that note, Foggy Bottom told American diplomats in Moscow that they "should take no further action in the case unless the Embassy comes into possession of information or evidence upon which to base the preparation of a certificate of loss of nationality." There was no point in doing anything more until it became known which country Oswald belonged to. At the same time, State Department officials issued what was known as a look-out card with his name on it. The United States was now officially ignorant of Lee Harvey Oswald's whereabouts.

It is a measure of how closely the Soviets watched him that, the day after he arrived, the mayor of Minsk, one Vasily Ivanovich Sharapov, made his introduction. Sharapov, Oswald wrote, "promisis a rent-free apartment 'soon' and warns me about 'uncultured persons' who somethines insuit foriengers." This red-carpet treatment was not unheard of. "[I]mmigrants in the USSR," Oswald wrote, "are treated with more respect than the Russians treat each other … [T]his is part of the nation wide drive to impress all foriengrers as to the high level of life in the USSR."

The KGB may have been keeping him close because it still did not know—or did not believe it knew—why he had come all the way to the Soviet Union. According to the FBI's report on Yuri Nosenko, the KGB officer who handled the Oswald case in Moscow, Nosenko said that, after Oswald left Moscow, his file was "transferred to the regional office of the KGB at Minsk and that office was instructed to maintain a discreet check" on him. The security organs had not ruled out the possibility that he was a "sleeper agent" for American intelligence. And they thought that if he felt at home, he would be more open. So agents gave him a job and, by Soviet standards, a spacious apartment with a balcony and a view of the Svisloch River. They created a whole world for him. By installing Oswald in an apartment that was close to the opera, the conservatory, and the Foreign Language Institute (where, his friend Ernst Titovets said, one found "more adventurous girls" who wanted to practice their English), the KGB did not have to do much. They simply had to watch.

On Jan. 13, 1960, six days after he arrived in Minsk, Oswald showed up for his first day of work at the Experimental Department in the Minsk Radio Factory, just an eight-minute walk from his home. The factory designed and manufactured radios and television sets for the entire communist world—from East Berlin to Warsaw to Moscow to Khabarovsk and Vladivostok. Oswald, in "The Collective," a long essay he wrote that was meant to be the beginning of a book that never materialized, called the factory "a fine example of average, and even slightly better than average, working conditions." He said it employed 5,000 workers full time and another 300 part time. Fifty-eight percent of the employees, he said, were female. Oswald wrote that the factory churned out 87,000 radios and 60,000 televisions, but he didn't indicate whether that referred to a cumulative output or just a year's production. Oswald noted that the full employment rate that the Soviets were so proud of could be explained by a lack of automation in factories and a "democratic corps" of workers whose job was to shuffle reams of paperwork from one office to the next. The factory's crowning achievement, when Oswald arrived, was the "combination radio-phonograph-television set," which, Oswald noted, was shown at the Soviet exhibition in New York in 1959.


On March 16, two months after he started at the Experimental Department, Oswald was moved from the Hotel Minsk to Apartment 24 at 4 Kalinina Ulitsa, about 20 minutes by foot, or two tram stops, from the hotel. The building was in the center of the city, and it had been designed in the monumental, Stalinist style—looming archways, thick columns, oversized windows. It was meant to feel powerful, domineering, even regal. The apartment was 266 square feet and had three rooms: a kitchen, a bathroom with a toilet, and a bedroom-cum-living room. There was also a balcony, a vestibule, a small built-in wardrobe, and views of the river and opera house. The interior walls, made of wood and plaster, were nearly 6 inches thick, and the brick exterior was more than 20 inches thick, which meant it was quiet. His neighbors rarely heard him, and he seemed oblivious of them. Oswald called the apartment on Kalinina Ulitsa "a Russians dream."

The only person in the building he was known to spend any time with was Sergei Skop, a metal lathe operator at the Experimental Department. For about a year, three or four times every week, Oswald and Skop walked to the factory together. Skop said in an interview that they never talked about important things, and even though he liked Oswald, they never became close. Partly, he said, that was a matter of age; Oswald was 10 years younger than Skop, and Skop sometimes thought of him as a boy who seemed unsure of how to behave. Skop called him "nice," "decent," and "ordinary." "I'd ask him, 'Why do you live alone? Why don't you get a girl? There are lots of girls at the plant.' " But it never went beyond that.

In the two and a half years they lived in the same building, Skop and his wife never invited Oswald to their home, and Oswald never invited them. Still, Skop said, it was known around the factory that Oswald had what Russians considered a big place. Before Oswald moved into Apartment 24, Skop said, a man who had been a partisan during the war and his family had lived there—and now Oswald was living there alone! In Skop's view, this meant that Apartment 24 went only to people who had done great things or, in Oswald's case, come from the United States. Skop said his apartment was twice as big as Oswald's, but there were six people in it. He, his wife, and son were living in one room. Another family was living in the other room. The two families shared a kitchen and bathroom.

It is unlikely that Oswald realized he was living in what amounted to a village inside a city. He had been strategically situated within a 10-minute walk of most everywhere he needed to go—the factory, the grocery store, friends, associates, the opera house, the movie theater, the river, the park, and the Foreign Language Institute. A 1964 CIA report on Oswald's Soviet period included a simple street plan of the city center that shows Oswald's apartment building and other locations that played a role in his everyday life, including the house where his coworker and onetime love interest Ella German lived (just opposite the river); the building where his future wife, Marina Prusakova, lived with her aunt and uncle (three and a half blocks away); the building where engineer Alexander Ziger, who became friendly with Oswald and served as something of a father figure, lived with his family (on Krasnaya Ulitsa); and the Palace of Culture of the Council of Trade Unions, where he met Prusakova (on the other side of the river, at October Square). It was as if the KGB had constructed a little world just for him.

Oswald spent the spring and summer of 1960 settling into that world. He may have known he was being watched—he certainly thought he was important enough to warrant watching—but he probably had no idea how all-encompassing that surveillance would be. As it turned out, he couldn't make a cup of coffee, take a shower, or go to bed with a woman without someone watching or listening to him. During this time, he developed what looks to be the only friendship he had that was not arranged by the KGB, with Pavel Golovachev. He also faced some challenges that prompted him to begin reassessing his Russian dream.

Oswald probably thought that he was finally building a life for himself. For the first time ever, he had a job, an apartment, and a little extra money. He could go to the opera; he could go to concerts and movies. (Local theaters were showing Soviet films about the revolution, the war, and the Virgin Lands program, Khrushchev's campaign to boost agricultural output. They were also showing American films such as Rhapsody, starring Elizabeth Taylor, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, and War and Peace.) Oswald attended occasional dinner parties at the nearby apartment of Alexander Ziger and his wife, Anna, and their two daughters. He went on walks with Ella German, with whom he had fallen in love (or at least thought he had). He even enjoyed a degree of what he perceived as celebrity. He turned 21 in October. For a young man with no high school diploma, a dishonorable discharge from the military (the Marines had downgraded his discharge after they learned of his defection), and limited vocational experience (at some point in early to mid-1960, he was elevated to "level 2" (out of six levels) at the Experimental Department), he had done well. To anyone who knew about Oswald's childhood, his time in the Marines, all his scrimping and plotting to defect to the Soviet Union, and the rather tortuous journey he had been on since arriving in Moscow six months earlier, he looked ready, at long last, to leave behind his adolescence and his many angers and frustrations.

Then, in March 1960, Oswald became close with Pavel Golovachev. At the time, both men were working in the Experimental Department, and Oswald felt a warmth he never had for other Minsk friends. When they first met, Oswald described him admiringly in his diary: "[a] yonuge man my age friend very intelligent a exalant radio tehniction his father is Gen. Golovacha commander of Northwestenr Siberia. Twice hero of USSR in W. W. 2." More telling are the letters that Golovachev wrote to Oswald after he and his new wife, Marina, left the Soviet Union. (Oswald's letters to Golovachev are unavailable.) The letters emphasize the personal: Golovachev conveyed his warmest wishes to Lee and Marina, said he'd be sending some pictures, and needled Oswald for not having written back to him sooner. Lee and Marina had stayed at Golovachev's on their last night in Minsk, and Golovachev was with them at the train station when they left for the United States. Perhaps what most bound Oswald and Golovachev is that they were both outsiders. They had both struggled to carve out a niche for themselves. They were both filled with a sense of aimlessness and a great deal of uncertainty about who they were supposed to be. Golovachev had a few big advantages—he was intelligent, and he had a powerful father—and he wasn't as angry as Oswald. But it must have been apparent to both that they shared their feelings of otherness, and that must have reinforced a certain bond.


Golovachev disdained certain aspects of Soviet life and generally adopted a posture of fatigue and helplessness. This may have stemmed from his troubled relationship with his father; both of his sisters told me that Golovachev identified Soviet authority with the general. His criticisms were more attitudinal than substantive; they had less to do with specific policies than they did with a posture or feeling about life in the Soviet Union. He hated, for example, the rigidity of daily life, the inability not only of the authorities but of ordinary people to think or act outside narrowly construed compartments. And he was skeptical of the propaganda that the state doled out—about the Cold War, the marvels of socialism, and the evils of capitalism.

Before long, Oswald was echoing his friend. Less than six weeks after they met, Oswald wrote in his diary of his first May Day in the Soviet Union: "… all factories ect. closed after sptacular military parade all workers parad past reviewing stand waving flags and pictures of Mr. K. ect. I follow the Amer. Custom of marking holiday by sleeping in in the morning." What's most striking about this entry is its uncharacteristic glibness—"Mr. K.," "sleeping in." Before arriving in Minsk, he had accorded the Soviet leadership great respect. Also surprising is Oswald's suggestion that he was just following an American custom by skipping what would have been considered his duty as a worker—attending the annual May Day festivities. Seven months before, he had tried to kill himself because the Soviet authorities wouldn't let him stay in the country. Now, he was skipping its most cherished holiday. He had told American diplomats in Moscow that he never wanted anything to do with his country again; now he was using it as cover.

By early summer, Oswald seems to have grown bored, despite his friendship with Golovachev and his ongoing pursuit of German. In his diary, he wrote: "I have become habituated to a small cafe which is where I dine in the evening the food is generally poor and always eactly the same, menue in any cafe, at any point in the city. The food is cheap and I don't really care about quiality after three years in the U.S.M.C." His habits made things much easier for the KGB. Not only was Oswald's life circumscribed by an invisible village, but he had also developed daily routines that could be watched and counted on with some confidence. Moreover, Golovachev was informing on him, according to documents declassified only after the Soviet Union's collapse.

Oswald appears not to have had any inkling of Golovachev's double life, but he must have intuited that their friendship had limits: In the coming months, new people, new friends and, eventually, Marina Prusakova, his future wife, would occupy more of his time. Golovachev never disappeared from Oswald's life—the KGB would not have let that happen—but he receded somewhat. Oswald was getting by. In his Oct. 18, 1960, diary entry, Oswald writes: "My 21st birthday sees Rosa, Pavil, Ella at a small party at my place … Rosa and Ella are jelous of each other it brings a warm feeling to me. Both are at my place for the first time. Alla and Pavil both give ash-trays (I don't smoke) We have a laugh."

Even though Oswald had embraced the principles of the Communist revolution, and even though he was determined to make his home in the Soviet Union, he was, by the fall of 1960, beginning to wonder whether he belonged. Minsk had only so much to offer, and he had heard plenty of criticism of the regime at the Zigers. But it was Golovachev who really pushed Oswald, however unwittingly, to reassess his attitude toward Russia. In his diary, Oswald indicated he had begun to think about whether he should leave the country. This was a haunting proposition. He had traveled to the Soviet Union with the expectation that he would stop traveling once he arrived. Now, one year later, he had reason to doubt that he had escaped the cycle of interloping. 

On top of all that, on Jan. 2, 1961, he proposed marriage to German, and she rejected him. This seems to have been the final straw. A few weeks later, during the winter of 1960 and 1961 (among the loneliest months of Oswald's Soviet period), he took his first, tentative steps to move once again. German told me in an interview that she thought he would have stayed if she'd married him.

His return to America might have happened faster had it not been for two things: bureaucratic inertia (mostly in the United States) and Marina Prusakova.

On March 17, 1961, Oswald attended a dance at the Palace of Culture with his friend Ernst Titovets. By the end of the evening, he had met his future wife. Marina was as different from Ella as any woman in Minsk: Ella was innocent, coy, sweet-natured. Marina was overtly sexual, garrulous, scheming. Oswald was aware of the differences between them. In his diary, he later noted that he ultimately married Marina—about six weeks after he met her, in a simple civil ceremony—because he wanted to forget Ella. For a month or two, it looked as if Oswald might have settled into life in Minsk. He seemed happier. But this was only a temporary state, and Marina, unlike Ella, had few deep connections to the Soviet Union. She was happy to leave with him.

Beginning in June 1961, Oswald spent an entire year cobbling together the visas and passports and money necessary to extricate himself and his family (including not only Marina but their baby, June, born in February 1962) from the Soviet Union. Officials at the Immigration and Naturalization Service, worried by Oswald's defection and his earlier anti-American rhetoric, opposed his effort to return but ultimately couldn't keep him out because he hadn't renounced his citizenship. They could, however, deny Marina a visa. Ultimately, the State Department prevailed on INS to set aside its concerns. But beyond the logistical hurdles, there was another problem with the country he would return to: It was not the same one that he had left two and a half years earlier.

The most important change was that the great Cold War tension of the late 1950s—the fear of American inaction and "softness"—had abated. Before he left, there had been real, if unfounded, suspicions that the United States was falling behind the Soviet Union in science and military power; these were greatly exacerbated by the 1957 launch of Sputnik, and they were reflected in Sen. John F. Kennedy's mostly baseless claim, during the 1960 presidential campaign, that there was a missile gap between the two superpowers. Now those suspicions were mostly gone. President Kennedy, exuding confidence and charm and a conviction that America could (and would) achieve its greatest ambitions, had, temporarily at least, assuaged many Americans' anxieties. Kennedy's 14-minute Inaugural Address set the tone, calling for a historic break from the America of old. The "torch has been passed," the president famously declared, and "a new generation" of Americans born in the 20th century would be running the country from now on.

Oswald did not know any of this. He had limited access to Western media, and he lacked the historical and political consciousness to comprehend the tectonic shifts taking place at home. But he must have known that the United States of 1962 was not the same country it had been three years earlier, and he must have felt more detached from this place than ever. The sense of constant movement, possibility, hope—action—that was central to the whole Kennedy White House was foreign to Oswald. It was not what he knew, or what he felt. He had left America hoping to find a home. He had hoped to escape his childhood, his mother, and his feelings of permanent alienation. Now, having failed, he was plunged back into a country that was even more alien to him than the one he had left. The sense of desperation and rage that had propelled him to leave the United States in the first place would be more intense now, more unbearable. There would be few options left to Oswald except a more durable escape, one that could not be reversed. It would not take very long for him to find it.


Peter Savodnik is author of The Interloper: Lee Harvey Oswald Inside the Soviet Union, out this week from Basic Books, from which the above essay is adapted.

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