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 explains 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 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."
In short, fear of automation has a Soviet quality to it. We should never forget that "jobs" are the easy part; we could create millions stateside by virtue of abolishing the tractor, computer and internet, to name but three technological innovations. Of course we would be intensely poor if we were to erase the "robots" that author immense productivity (and that is a magnet for job-creating investment), and sure enough the Soviets were poor for them embracing what sadly captivates all too many luddites today.
So while Oswald was sentient enough to see some of the U.S.S.R's contradictions early on, we're again talking about someone who had spent his life on the outside looking in. He reached the Soviet Union as a revolutionary of sorts, a believer in the Soviet way, but a read of The Interloper strongly indicates that Oswald's passion was a creation of his craving for acceptance, permanency, and substance, as opposed to a heartfelt expression of solidarity.
That's the case simply because Oswald was plainly ignorant about the Soviet Union. As Savodnik writes, "he did not really grasp that the revolution he had traveled thousands of miles to join had been consumed by a massive and terrifying violence a quarter of a century earlier." Furthermore, "His embrace of a caricatured workers' paradise was obsolete. (In fact, it had never existed). He was unknowingly wading into a country that was not the place he expected it to be. He was an outsider still, but he did not know it."
Lost on this ultimately shallow arriviste was any knowledge of what he was celebrating, but that those whose friendship he pined for knew all too well: "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 made it impossible to speak or act or even think way people once did before the revolution."
Solidarity with What Cause?
Somehow the KGB saw him as a valuable asset.Oswald's naivete brought to mind the character Dave Stoller in the 1979 movie Breaking Away; Stoller was desperate to erase his "cutter" identity by virtue of adopting an Italian accent in pursuit of his dream to race with the legendary bikers on Team Cinzano. The problem, as Stoller found out all too painfully was that up close, the team members were cheaters, and worse, mean. Ever in search of approval, to be a part of something meaningful, Oswald arrived in Russia itching "to display his solidarity with the cause," only to sound clueless or; at the very least, behind the times in a country full of people desirous of capitalistic comforts that had always eluded them.
Life had been awful in the paradise that was a creation of Oswald's hopeful imagination such that when he arrived, he was expressing witless support of a revolution that the Russian people were trying to forget. Once an outsider, always an outsider.
What realistically saved him among the Russians who halfway befriended him (Savodnik writes that most of Oswald's friends were KGB plants who informed on him throughout his time in the Soviet Union) was the fact that he was "exotic" for being an American, and as such finally interesting, substantial, and at least on the surface, accepted. But of greater importance to Oswald's faux assimilation was the sheer incompetence of Russian officialdom such that they actually thought this most forgotten of Americans might be of some use from a military intelligence perspective. And so they provided him with a good (by Russian standards) job, good (again by Russian standards) living conditions, and they made sure that he was surrounded by somewhat substantial people (this plainly mattered to someone who had largely lived a solitary life) who made him feel like he mattered. That this included women was a big deal considering a previous life in America that was bereft of girlfriends.
KGB Dotes On a Loser
Somehow the KGB saw him as a valuable asset. After all, he'd served in the marines, but his time in the marines ended badly. Oswald had nothing to offer the KGB, and what's strange about all this is that the much-vaunted KGB had no clue just how worthless this American afterthought was. There are so many angles to this story, but the fact that our supposedly fearsome enemy wasted time on Oswald – and didn't have intelligence sources who could confirm his non-existent status in the U.S. – loomed large for this reader.
After all that, if Oswald's belief system had been anything more than shallow, the interloper wouldn't have left the Soviet Union in 1962. Figure that he'd found a wife in Marina, he had the potential to move up within the Minsk Radio Factory, and Savodnik indicates that their children would have attended the 'right' schools. The problem was that his belief system was never that great to begin with. Realistically, Oswald didn't know what he thought. Though he doesn't deserve sympathy, it's sad to say that his religion was the human acceptance and respect that was always fleeting.
Oswald was a fraud.Even considering how his life might have unfolded had he and Marina stayed, figure that's debatable too. Indeed, his brief period of stature in Russia was bound to end at some point, particularly once the KGB realized he wasn't all that he'd built himself up to be. Stripped of what made him exotic and/or useful, Oswald was bound to be exposed as something much less on the way to a life parallel to his American experience. He wouldn't have had ideology to fall back on simply because what could be called an ideology was a jumble of contradictions.
For instance, Savodnik writes that Oswald expressed a desire to end "the personal income tax," but at the same time wanted a tax on "surplus profit gains." Ok, but individuals own corporations, which means individuals would have their personal income confiscated. Savodnik suspects that "he didn't know how to make an argument. He had feelings, and he taped those feelings onto words and ideas he didn't really understand (German idealism, anarchy, 'surplus profit')."
In short, Oswald was a fraud. He would have been an obscure object of pity had he not murdered someone famous. Oswald's communism or Marxism or refutation of the U.S. was a stab for relevance, it seems, as was his horrid final act in November of 1963.
By 1962 a dissatisfied Oswald moved back to the United States, along with Marina and their baby daughter June. Interesting is that upon return to the U.S. Oswald added nine more addresses to a growing list, including visits to the Cuban and Soviet embassies in Mexico City with an eye on joining the Cuban "revolution," or returning to the Soviet Union. No interest. He was still searching, and then all readers know what happened next. Thankfully Savodnik, through tireless detective work, pieced together Oswald's Soviet period. Readers will not be disappointed.
As for critiques, if there was one that stood out, it had to do with Savodnik's description of the American society that rejected Oswald. Savodnik indicated that it was a "postwar American society," one defined by "materialism, atomization, and alienation." While perhaps a fair description of the U.S., it felt like a reach as it applied to Oswald. Seemingly no society would accept or embrace at any time such an oddball.
Oswald's problem wasn't the United States or the Soviet Union as much as his problem was Lee Harvey Oswald. We're a product of our choices, and Oswald made bad ones. No doubt he had a rough childhood, but relative to much of the rest of the world that Oswald was born into, he had it pretty good.
After that, there were questions. Questions of the good kind. Savodnik traveled to Moscow and Minsk, entered the hotels and apartments that Oswald lived in, interviewed people who knew him, etc. It would have been interesting to learn a lot more about the subsequent lives of the people who crossed paths with the interloper.
Just as we long gave the bumbling Soviets too much credit, so do conspiracy theorists flatter those in our own government.Thinking about Oswald's time in Minsk, Savodnik writes of his proximity to at least one grocery store, to theaters, and to the various cafeterias ("canteens") at the Minsk radio factory. This was interesting mainly because in Hedrick Smith's The Russians, along with Geoffrey Bocca's The Moscow Scene, readers were introduced to massive lines for everything (Smith), and awful restaurants defined by even worse service (Bocca). Is this what Oswald experienced, or were the 1960s relatively better economically than the 1970s were?
And while Savodnik's book was not about the Soviet economy, he did write of massive apartment construction under Nikita Khrushchev, not to mention that by 1960 4.8 million Soviet households had televisions. On the subject of apartments, how did the collectivist Soviet system produce the wealth necessary for massive building projects, along with the creation of a major military? Was the Soviet economy free in some ways such that more taxable wealth was being created than is commonly thought? How did a collective produce so many televisions? What was the source of Soviet access to so much hard global currency? The assumption here has long been through commodity sales, but it's never been totally clear. It would be interesting to know more of what Savodnik learned about the Russian economy while studying Oswald.
Lastly, readers might be curious how Savodnik dealt with the "lone gunman" question that won't die. It says here he handled it very well simply because he addressed the subject in the book's introduction: "Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in murdering John F. Kennedy." And then at book's end, Savodnik makes the important point that conspiracy theorists aren't interested in learning who killed JFK as much as they're trying to "justify and perpetuate a conviction that there is something deeply and characterologically dark about the United States."
Amen. Indeed, we can't forget that this is government we're talking about. To believe the conspiracies is to believe "a web of supposedly interconnected interests" not only planned the murder of a president, but that they were wise enough to find a convenient stooge in Oswald to take the fall; all this without anyone involved spilling the secrets of the plan. Just as we long gave the bumbling Soviets too much credit, so do conspiracy theorists flatter those in our own government.
But the main thing is that Peter Savodnik has connected lots of the Soviet dots in the oddly fascinating story of Lee Harvey Oswald's Soviet period. Readers will really enjoy this, while perhaps continuing to wonder how someone so small and inconsequential has long captivated so many.