The Assassin Goes to Russia

Repoter Peter Savodnik explores Lee Harvey Oswald's life in the Soviet Union.

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Fifty years later, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy remains one of the most pivotal and debated events in American history. In "The Interloper: Lee Harvey Oswald Inside the Soviet Union," reporter Peter Savodnik profiles the man behind the crime. Savodnik interviewed Oswald's old acquaintances in the former Soviet republic of Belarus, where he was sent by the KGB, the Soviet intelligence agency, to live and work, shining a new light on Oswald's years as a defector. Savodnik recently spoke to U.S. News about what he believes drove Oswald's actions and why the conspiracy theorists who question whether he acted alone are wrong. Excerpts:

What led you to write this book?

I had been living in Moscow for a few years, and I had given a lot of thought to the American expatriate experience in Russia. And, of course, the most notorious American expat to live in Russia was Lee Harvey Oswald. I was particularly interested in the idea of the American going to Russia to find himself, to find meaning or purpose. Always failing, but hoping chaotically to become a new person in almost a philosophical or metaphysical sense.

How did you go about finding new information on Oswald?

The people who knew Oswald in Minsk [the capital of Belarus] are still alive, and they're not very hard to find. The greater challenge was getting them to speak more candidly and to move beyond the party line, which is what they're accustomed to.

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Why did Oswald defect to the Soviet Union in 1959?

Because he was looking for meaning. And, more to the point, he was looking for a new life that was wholly separate from the world that his mother had created for him. He had a very, very complicated relationship with her, and he had been wanting to get as far away as he could. He went to the Marines as soon as he could, [which was] a failure for Oswald, and he immediately jumped to the Soviet Union.

What was his life like there?

It was weird. The KGB sent him there in January 1960. He spent a little while [living in a hotel], and then he was moved into a very nice apartment with a lovely view of the river. He had a good bit of space – an apartment that would have gone to a family of three or four, probably 260 square feet. He was given a job at the factory, and he was supposed to weld television sets together. And the whole while, of course, they were watching him very carefully. They were actually watching him through a peephole in a neighboring apartment and then, of course, all the people in his life were informing on him.

Why did he return to the U.S. in 1962?

When Oswald arrived in the Soviet Union, he was a novelty. Eventually that celebrity wore off and then the colder, harsher realities of the Soviet Union began to sink in. Starting early in 1961, he begins to take concrete steps to leave. I should add that he probably would not have left had the woman whom he fell in love with when he got there said yes to his marriage proposal. She had no desire to leave the Soviet Union. But she said no, so Oswald was forced to move on. And then he met Marina Prusakova, and in June 1962 they left.

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What do you think was Oswald's motive for killing President Kennedy after his return?

I don't think he had any particular animus toward John F. Kennedy. I think that Oswald was at root suicidal and homicidal. He was ferociously angry with the world. And if you look at the pattern that courses through his life, he always tends to make it about a year, year and a half, wherever he is, before there's some kind of internal breakdown. And curiously enough he'd been in the United States for 17 months when the assassination took place. So, in that light, the assassination is not so much an attack on John F. Kennedy as it is an attempt to achieve world, historical importance and to reconfigure his life permanently.

What do you say to conspiracy theorists who question whether Oswald acted alone?