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Wandering Oswald

An interview with Peter Savodnik, author of "The Interloper: Lee Harvey Oswald Inside the Soviet Union."

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Peter Savodnik’s The Interloper: Lee Harvey Oswald Inside the Soviet Union hones in on a period in the life of John F. Kennedy’s assassin that has been less researched than one might expect: the nearly three years Oswald spent in Moscow and Minsk. The Soviet Union was supposed to be the end of the line for Oswald, the place his wanderings would finally end and where he could carve out a life for himself. But there, too, he failed. “By the time Oswald returned to the United States … his desperation had morphed into something much darker and with a momentum and force it had previously lacked,” Savodnik writes. Savodnik’s meticulous reporting spans four countries—Russia, Belarus, Israel, and the United States—where he tracked down and interviewed Oswald’s friends, acquaintances, co-workers, and even a former love interest. 

Texas Monthly: Where did the idea for this book come from?  

Peter Savodnik: I had been living in Moscow for a few years, and I had spent a lot of time reporting from the Soviet Union and thinking about expatriates in the general sense. Lee Harvey Oswald is probably the most notorious American expatriate in the Soviet Union ever. I was fascinated by the idea of the wandering American, the alienated American, who goes to communist Russia in search of meaning and purpose. And he emerges, in this classically Russian way, not enriched but actually depleted, drained.

TM: What would you say is the book’s biggest revelation about Oswald’s time in the Soviet Union?

PS: There were two things I found particularly compelling and fascinating. The first was the world that was created for him in Minsk. The security organs really created this village inside the city for him, setting him up with a job, an apartment. It was quite sophisticated, really. It’s fascinating when you think of the choreography and the degree to which Oswald was made to believe that he was making decisions of his own free will when in reality he was acting out predetermined behaviors that had been concocted from the KGB office.

The other thing that has struck me is just how poorly understood Oswald has been as a three-dimensional character, as a human being, in the fifty years since Kennedy’s death. When you pull back just a little bit from his biography, the assassination makes sense. What has been almost entirely obliterated by all the conspiracy theorizing, is the most important component of the whole calamity, which is Oswald himself. Instead of regarding this person as some kind of character in a Shakespearean tragedy, which is much closer to the truth, he is constantly regarded as a cog in someone else’s machine. And the irony of that is so long as you view him that way, you fail to make sense of what was actually going on. As long as you insist there was a mystery, the mystery persists. Unless you look at Oswald as a full-fledged human being, you’re never going to make sense of the assassination. This is a tragic confluence of vectors and force. You have a president who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. You have a character, Lee Harvey Oswald, who has spent years trying to find meaning, who has managed somehow— despite the simplicity of his background and his lack of education and sophistication—to insinuate himself into lots of places that the vast majority of people would find it very difficult to insinuate themselves into. There’s this lurching, interloping quality to everything about Oswald. He’s constantly seeking meaning or purpose or depth, and there’s this great desperation surrounding everything that he is. And the fact that it culminates in this great homicidal and suicidal explosion shouldn’t come as a great shock.

TM: Why Minsk? While reading your book, I found it so interesting that the KGB chose to send Oswald to this bland provincial capital, which had been razed to the ground by the Nazis and then rebuilt by the Soviets. Do you think if they had sent him somewhere with a deeper history and more colorful present he would have become disaffected with the Soviet system so quickly?

PS: There’s obvious peril in trying to speculate too much, but I would put it this way: There are very few places in the Soviet Union that were as thoroughly Soviet as Minsk. Even today it’s one of the most two-dimensional places in the whole former imperium. You really don’t sense that there is much else residing beneath the Soviet landscape. Of course, there is. There are cultural sediments and histories and a complicated tapestry of peoples in Minsk. But not nearly as much as one finds in any number of other major hubs scattered across the Soviet Union, in Ukraine or the Caucasus or certainly in what was Leningrad, now Petersburg. All of these places have these very complicated cultural and political identities.

But Minsk was a place that had been so thoroughly and tragically gutted during the Second World War that there was this opportunity for the Soviets to create this Stalinist ideal of a city. And it was so perfectly hermetically constructed that even to this day there’s something stifling about being there. It’s hard to feel as if there are many things that are going to happen in Minsk. Oswald was never going to feel at home there. It’s entirely imaginable that the KGB could have replicated his Minsk experience in another city, but it also seems likely if they had done so he would have encountered people who were less committed to the Stalinist ideal.

TM: Most other American defectors at the time, you write in your book, were sent to Ukraine. Why do you think the KGB sent him somewhere different?

PS: The KGB understood what kind of life he wanted. He fancied himself spending his time arguing about the finer points of Marxist-Leninism and residing in a very comfortable apartment in the central part of Moscow and taking part in some grand cause. The KGB’s response to that was, “If you want to take part in the grand cause, you can go out into the proletariat and we’ll put you somewhere that is really emblematic of who we are.” I don’t think it was intended necessarily to drive him crazy, although from the KGB’s perspective, he had nothing to offer them, so what was the advantage in making life particularly comfortable for him?

TM: Norman Mailer traveled to Minsk for six months in 1992 and 1993 for Oswald’s Tale. Last year, the New York Times reported that he was the only person to ever see Oswald’s entire KGB file. Were you able to see pieces of this file too? 

PS: This is a complicated story because the Belarus in which Mailer was operating back in 1993 was a very different country than it is today. Mailer, to his immense credit, got there right after the collapse, in a period where the country was still in flux and there was this democratic window. It was possible, if you were to find the right person, to say, “I want to get this file,” and to make that happen. Now, things of course are thoroughly bogged down [under authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko].

But the bigger problem now is verifying any kind of authenticity. One of the gentleman I spent a good bit of time interviewing was one of Oswald’s tutors, Stanislav S. Shushkevich, who went on to be Belarus’s first leader after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Shushkevich met with Mailer in ‘92 or ‘93 and helped him get access to the KGB archives. Today, Shushkevich is on the outs—he’s part of the democratic opposition. He made the point to me that you can go to the KGB press office and tell them what you want and you won’t be able to verify that what you’re seeing is truly the Oswald file. That was a good point that never occurred to me before I heard it from a Belarusian. I had spent almost six months looking very assiduously for the Oswald file and for KGB documents—and I kept looking—but when he said that to me it became clear that it would be much more fruitful  to find the people who were still alive and lived in Oswald’s orbit and spend a lot of time with them.

TM: One of the people you tracked down for your book was Ella German, perhaps the love of Oswald’s life, though that love was ultimately unrequited. As you write, “it was his break with her that would force him, more than anything else, to reassess his life in the Soviet Union.” Had Ella spoken to many reporters through the years?

PS: I don’t know that she had spoken with anyone. When I found her, she was living in Akko just north of Haifa near the Lebanese border. Initially she seemed reticent to talk. What’s different about Ella was that almost every other person I spoke with about Oswald had these very established ideas about him. They had developed their own stories, almost like party lines, about who he was and it took a long time to pierce through that and to get to something more authentic.

First of all, after he left the Soviet Union, no one knew he was going to be somebody they should remember. After the assassination suddenly people start thinking about Oswald a great deal, asking themselves “Who was this person?” and “How do I reconcile my experiences with him and the assassination?” But then they were told—all of them—that they can’t talk about him, ever. And so for thirty years, they didn’t talk about Oswald at all. Then the Soviet Union collapsed and the Oswald issue resurfaced and suddenly it became their defining feature: people wanted to talk to them because of their connection with this person. So, as a result you have all of these developed lines or positions about who Oswald was.

It was different with Ella because she had not been approached by a lot of journalists, and also because her disposition. There’s something both innocent and charming about her. You can understand why an American, particularly Lee Harvey Oswald, who was kind of casting about in Minsk, would have been attracted to her. Because she didn’t have these set answers about him she was a great window into his thinking.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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