An Amazon search for books about Lee Harvey Oswald unearths endless reading that would last several lifetimes for all but the very bookish. It’s mere speculation, but seemingly never has someone so unimportant and – in a sense – unknown in life achieved such literary notoriety in death.
Once in Russia, Oswald headed to Moscow in hopes of starting a new life as a Soviet citizen.
While most focus on a question that just won’t die (did he or didn’t he kill Kennedy, and if he did, was he the lone gunman?), far fewer address Oswald’s time in the Soviet Union. That’s what’s so interesting about Peter Savodnik’s 2013 book The Interloper: Lee Harvey Oswald Inside the Soviet Union. Most interesting for this reader were the various economic anecdotes that Savodnik unearthed in his extensive research of Oswald’s rather staged (by the KGB) life in Minsk. And it’s the economic story of his time in the U.S.S.R. that will mostly be covered here.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Oswald’s pre-Soviet life was defined by unhappiness and uncertainty. By his seventeenth birthday, he had already “moved twenty times.” The constant movement wasn’t driven by parental employment opportunities (Oswald never knew his father), as much as it was a function of constant “failure or crisis” in his mother’s life; the crises usually involving men “who flitted in and out.” Savodnik’s theme, one informed by the title, is that Oswald never fit in anywhere. He was the living definition of interloper, having averaged 10.2 months per address.
Collectivism is just a fancy word for horrid poverty.
The above rates mention simply because Savodnik questions just how much of a true believer Oswald was. While he describes him as an “avowed Marxist,” he doesn’t hide from the broader truth that this loner really had no fixed or well-thought-out ideas as much as he was searching for acceptance; maybe dignity, or better yet, the prominence that had always eluded him.
Since the U.S. in a literal and figurative sense didn’t accept him, maybe its foremost enemy would. Oswald, having washed out of the U.S.M.C. in less than honorable fashion, “was filled with anger and even rage.” His decision to defect was “a refutation of the place he came from,” but the refutation was arguably driven by the realization that the place he came from didn’t want him.
Mugged by Reality
Fascinating about Oswald’s initial glimpse of the U.S.S.R. concerns how he knew he’d entered. Having boarded a Russia-bound train in Helsinki, upon arrival in the U.S.S.R. Oswald noticed that a “transformation had taken place. Suddenly, the fences were rusted, the peasant homes looked like they might collapse on themselves, and the power lines sagged and listed.” Though Oswald’s dissatisfaction with his chosen country was yet to come, it’s easy to presume that this initial sighting was evidence of him being mugged by reality in the cruelest of ways. Collectivism is just a fancy word for horrid poverty.
Once in Russia, Oswald headed to Moscow in hopes of starting a new life as a Soviet citizen. Savodnik notes that this marked “the beginning of intense spying on Oswald by the KGB during his entire time in Russia.” That this nobody rated so much attention from the Soviets requires a brief digression, in particular to the musings of Edward Crankshaw, a Sovietologist from long ago who died in 1984.
Describing Soviet officialdom in one of his countless Russia-focused columns, Crankshaw contemptuously observed that “Their sycophancy, their barefaced lying, their treachery, their cowardice, are so blatant, their ignorance so stultifying, their stupidity so absolute, that I have found it impossible to convey it with any credibility to those fortunate enough to never have encountered it.”
Crankshaw’s observation requires mention for it perhaps explaining why the Soviets would bother spying on someone who seemingly wore his less than average-ness in loud fashion on his sleeve. How else to explain why the Soviets didn’t see what the Americans who knew him plainly did? In fairness, Oswald’s desperate plea to remain in the Soviet Union was initially rejected only for the KGB to reverse course when he attempted suicide, but the mere notion that they gave him the time of day in a sense underscores the incompetence of an enemy that American officialdom took entirely too seriously.
To this day “Russian intelligence” oddly connotes competence in the eyes of Americans (see the mindless freakout over “Russian hacking” of Election 2016), but history – including Oswald’s history with the Soviets – tells us we flatter them with wasted attention.
Savodnik seems to share the above sentiment, at least as it applied to Oswald. Responding to a once popular view that this wannabe Russian was “programmed” to kill for the Soviet Union, Savodnik writes that the Interloper “was difficult and irascible and, at times, histrionic, self-pitying, and reckless. He could hardly have been counted on to do or finish anything. That a professional, clandestine organization would rely on Oswald to pull off what would have been one of the most dangerous operations ever – the assassination of an American president – is absurd.”
Back to his life in the U.S.S.R., Oswald was (as previously mentioned) eventually allowed to remain. But rather than keeping him in Moscow, the KGB shipped him 400 miles away to Minsk. He wrote to his brother Robert that “I feel I am at last with my own people.” Or so he thought, or wanted to think.
He reached the Soviet Union as a revolutionary of sorts.
Savodnik is clear that Russian authorities largely created a life for Oswald that was artificial, and surely cushier than what the average citizen in the communist country enjoyed. Oswald lived alone in a 260 square foot apartment (with bathroom) that was part of one of the nicer buildings in Minsk. Contrast that with his friend Sergei Skop who, though he lived in an apartment twice the size of Oswald’s, shared it with six people. Or better yet, consider Ella German, the object of Oswald’s unrequited affection, who lived with her family in one room that was part of a three-bedroom house that three families shared; this house bereft of plumbing such that its inhabitants had to “walk several blocks each morning to get water.”
Interesting about German is that had she married Oswald as he so strongly hoped she would, he likely never returns to the U.S. to begin with; thus profoundly changing American history. At the very least, the impoverished circumstances of Skop and German are a reminder that in societies defined by forced equality, there’s really no such thing.
On January 13, 1960 Oswald began work at the Minsk Radio Factory. Highly notable about Oswald’s employment is what soon became obvious to this far from intelligent American. It’s something that might interest those who decry automation and robots in the here and now. Savodnik writes about Oswald’s observation that “the full employment rate that the Soviets