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.

Dallas, Texas -- Lee Harvey Oswald holds a Mannlicher-Carcano rifle and newspapers in a backyard. This photograph is one of the controversial backyard photos used in the assassination of John F. Kennedy investigation in 1963.
National Journal
Peter Savodnik
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Peter Savodnik
Oct. 10, 2013, 2 a.m.

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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