Why Lee Harvey Oswald Fled to the Soviet Union

The years Kennedy's assassin spent in Minsk only deepened his isolation, biographer Peter Savodnik says.
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A copy of an envelope containing a letter sent by Oswald to the Supreme Soviet asking for political asylum in the former U.S.S.R. (Reuters)

To mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy, a wave of books has been published in the United States covering everything from Kennedy’s legacy to alleged new details about his death. One new title examines the Soviet chapter of the life of Lee Harvey Oswald, the man who shot Kennedy. Oswald defected to the Soviet Union in 1959 and spent two and a half years living in Minsk before he grew tired of the adventure and returned home. In The Interloper: Lee Harvey Oswald Inside the Soviet Union, Peter Savodnik looks at why Oswald fled America, his life in Minsk, and what ultimately led him to climb to the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository in Dallas and aim a rifle at Kennedy’s head on November 22, 1963. An interview with the author follows:

You write that Lee Harvey Oswald's decision to defect to the USSR was part of an unhappy pattern that existed throughout his entire life and was established by his mother.

Peter Savodnik: Before joining the Marines [at the age of 17] and leaving home, Oswald moved 20 times with his mother. And each move was precipitated by some failure on her part—a failed relationship, a lost job, or some rupture or crisis. The point is that Oswald never has, throughout his childhood or adolescence, anything akin to a home, a sense of rootedness. And if you view the Soviet foray through this prism, then it becomes pretty clear pretty quickly that the whole point of going there—even if Oswald wasn't aware of it—was to find some sense of permanence, a place to call home.

Why the USSR? What did he see in that country and what did he hope to do once he got there?

I think that the initial appeal [for him] came through communism, or Marxism, with its very violent and bellicose language and its appeals to overturning established wisdoms or powers. And that certainly [played] into—or fueled or comported with—Oswald's anger and sense of dislocation.

And then, of course, it was only a very small half-step to get to the Soviet Union, to get to this place that kind of embodied all the kind of Marxist revolution [ideas] that he had been hearing about and reading about.

And what made this, of course, more alluring from Oswald's point of view was that no country represented the total refutation of America and of everything he came from as much as the Soviet Union [did].

Oswald was in Moscow when he asked for Soviet citizenship. Why did the authorities ship him off to Minsk, 675 kilometers away?

The most important thing from the KGB's vantage point was that Oswald be far away from anyone or anything important. So they just wanted him somewhere sleepy and boring and quiet. And that's why almost all the other American defectors were also sent to provincial cities. In the case of almost everyone else, they were sent to Ukraine. In the case of Oswald, he was sent to Minsk. I don't think we should read too much into going to Ukraine versus going to Belarus. I think the more important point is that, in all these cases, defectors were sent somewhere far from the capital.

Oswald's life in Minsk begins well enough, but he eventually becomes unhappy. What made him lose his enthusiasm for Soviet life?

The most important change that takes place over the course of Oswald's two and a half years in Minsk is, from the very beginning, this sort of waning celebrity. The first six months or so, he's a celebrity. He's this oddity, he's "the American in Minsk." But over time, that begins to fade. People become accustomed to him, they no longer regard him as all that special or important. And as his novelty begins to fade, his interest in this place begins to fade. So that's the first thing.

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