Lee Harvey Oswald Inside the Soviet Union
By Peter Savodnik
Basic Books, 288 pages
In 2011, a paranoid schizophrenic named Jared Loughner approached Gabrielle Giffords at a campaign event, drew a handgun, and shot the congresswoman from Arizona in the head. He then trained his weapon on a crowd of Giffords’s supporters, killing six and injuring dozens. Within hours, pundits were busy excavating Loughner’s online life, reading tea leaves (most in search of connections to the Tea Party), and attempting to ascribe political motivation to a psychological breakdown.
Loughner had no coherent ideology—his Internet trail was full of ramblings on numerology and 9/11 conspiracies—but then, the ideologizing of political violence demands low evidentiary standards. Consider that soon after the murder of President John F. Kennedy, countless partisan opinion columnists argued that Lee Harvey Oswald’s actions might have been influenced by the extreme anti-Kennedy environment in Dallas. It was a theory so common that the Warren Commission investigation into the Kennedy assassination addressed—and dismissed—the argument: “The Commission has found no evidence that the…general atmosphere of hate or right-wing extremism which may have existed in the city of Dallas had any connection with Oswald’s actions.”
In light of what was quickly discovered about Oswald’s background, it was a bizarre connection. Because, unlike Loughner, Kennedy’s assassin was outspokenly political, the target of his ire the very right-wing extremists some accused of providing his motivation. It is often forgotten today, but Oswald self-identified as a Marxist revolutionary, defected to the Soviet Union, attempted to defect to Cuba, agitated on behalf of the Castro dictatorship, and tried to assassinate the well-known John Birch Society supporter Edwin Walker (unsurprisingly, Gen. Walker would himself become a JFK assassination conspiracy theorist).
While deluded theories of Lyndon Johnson’s supposed complicity in Kennedy’s murder, of grand mafia plots, of violent Cuban expatriates are treated with uncommon respect, few are aware of these details, nor is it widely known that just months before he murdered President Kennedy (and Dallas police officer J.D. Tippit), Oswald had considered hijacking a plane and flying it to Havana. Or that the notorious photos of him taken in his backyard show him clutching both the Carcano rifle later used to shoot the president and copies of the Daily Worker and the Militant.
According to recent polling data, 60 percent of Americans believe Kennedy’s death was the result of a conspiracy—with only 24 percent believing Oswald acted alone—so it’s not surprising that so few writers have attempted to assess the migratory background and extreme ideology of a man often dismissed as a “patsy.” Peter Savodnik, a journalist and former editor at the Moscow Times, redresses this problem with The Interloper: Lee Harvey Oswald Inside the Soviet Union, his absorbing reflection on Oswald’s three years cohabitating with America’s Cold War enemy. (He quickly dispenses with the conspiracy theories, stating flatly and correctly on the first page that “Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in murdering John F. Kennedy.”)
Savodnik sees Oswald’s “fragmented and peripatetic youth,” which found him constantly uprooted and shuffled between schools, as key to his disenchantment with the United States. In his teens, Oswald’s rebellion found an easy outlet in the ideology of Soviet Communism—an attraction, Savodnik argues, not so much motivated by a core belief in Bolshevism but by his correct belief that the Kremlin acted as a “refutation of everything that [he] had come from.” It was the anti-America for a young man increasingly compelled by anti-Americanism.
Despite his immature ideological posing, Oswald first joined the Marine Corps because “unlike any political theory, it offered something concrete and immediate: he could go far away from home now.” But this too failed to mitigate his personal discontent. While serving in the Marines, Oswald complained in a letter to his brother of his complicity in American imperialism. He loudly talked of his Marxist politics, leading his fellow soldiers to call him, without much affection, “Oswaldskovich.” In one of his first letters from Moscow, the former Marine boasted to his brother that “in the event of war I would kill any American who put on a uniform in defense of the American government—any American.”
Savodnik argues that Oswald’s defection to the Soviet Union was an act of “angry desperation draped in ideology.” Because he “imagined himself to be deeply ideological—that he fashioned himself into a sort of Che Guevara figure—did not mean that he, in fact, was.” This is doubtless true; despite the self-conscious references to “Hegelian idealists” and confused references to the “labor theory of value” in his writing, there is little evidence that Oswald understood the political concepts he claimed were motivating him. His writings, mostly found in letters to friends and family, contain the occasional clear, if quotidian, observation, struggling to breathe under an excess of Marxist juvenilia. (Savodnik renders Oswald’s writing exactly as it appeared on the page, revealing what appears to be a rather severe case of dyslexia.)
Oswald’s contempt for his homeland reads like a less-literate version of Henry Miller’s “Air Conditioned Nightmare,” a thunderous attack on American jingoism, class pretensions, and obsession with money. He rails against the “resurgent Americanism in the U.S.”—by which he seems to mean “nationalism”—a country “polite” and “pointless,” full of “formless, patriotic gestures.” He wonders what would become of someone who not only expressed contempt for the government, but also “to the people, to the entire land, and complete foundations of his society.”
But it was, in some ways, his Americanism that would ultimately cause his rupture with Soviet Communism: “no nightclubs or bowling alleys, no places of recreation accept the trade union dances,” in Oswald’s words. As Savodnik documents, Oswald’s experiences with Soviet authoritarianism slightly recalibrated his views. He seemed surprised to discover that, in Communist countries, “no choice, however small, is left to the discretion of the individual.” But the evidence assembled by Savodnik suggests that a failed romantic relationship, not a failed ideology, provided the real motivation for his 1962 return to the United States.
Savodnik isn’t making a new argument here, though it is one that bears repeating. The Warren Commission Report concluded that “while his defection resulted in part from Oswald’s commitment to Marxism, it appears that personal and psychological factors were also involved.” Oswald’s politics might have been guided by failure, but this doesn’t mean that his ideology is to be discounted.
After all, he didn’t run from his past to reemerge in Sweden; he returned to the United States to fight on. His experiences with the dictatorial rigidity of Soviet life and Communist Party discipline didn’t send him seeking a new ideology. Instead, he continued on his radical path, presaging an argument that would become common among American radicals: that the violence and illiberalism of the Soviet Union weren’t features of Marxism, but an unfortunate bastardization of it. And as Savodnik points out, “if there is anything about Oswald that is far-seeing, it is that the language he used to describe the United States anticipated the language that American radicals, six of seven years later, embraced.”
While most of The Interloper is concerned with Oswald’s Soviet experience, Savodnik offers a thorough and smart précis of Oswald’s psychological collapse upon returning to the United States in June 1962, when he became active on behalf of the “Fair Play for Cuba Committee” and attempted either to return to the Soviet Union or settle in Havana.
There are moments when The Interloper can feel slightly padded with speculation (necessary, considering the impossibility of obtaining KGB documents) and excessive biographical detail of the bit players in Oswald’s Russian life. But these are minor quibbles. Beyond the much-needed exploration of Oswald’s experience, readers are provides a vivid snapshot of the Soviet Union in the decade following Josef Stalin’s death. And in the book’s epilogue, Savodnik drops the historian’s voice and offers a coruscating essay (“a conjecture”) on the motivations of a man both “ordinary” and “exceptional.” In the end, Savodnik’s interloper mattered only because of the way he intruded so evilly upon the course of 20th-century history.