Letters From Minsk: Lee Harvey Oswald Comes in for the Cold War

Downtown Minsk apartment building where from 1959-62 the Soviets put up American defector Lee Harvey Oswald, who was later suspected of having assassinated President John F. Kennedy (1963). Photo by Matthew Stevenson.

This is the tenth in a series about train and bicycle rides from Switzerland to Belarus, in those carefree days before pandemic lockdowns.

Unlike my hunt for the Hotel Garni, I found Lee Harvey Oswald’s Minsk apartment in less than fifteen minutes, as the American defector was given a place to live in an elegant building overlooking the Svisloch River, Victory Square, and Yanka Kupala Park. Not far away was the philharmonic. As Randy Newman might croon: “My life is good.”

To put this housing assignment in a local context, imagine you are a 19-year-old Russian defector to the United States and, after denouncing the Soviet Union in Washington, D.C., you are given a free apartment in New York City overlooking Central Park and a job at Westinghouse—with few questions asked.

I could not go inside the apartment building. Nothing commemorates Oswald’s presence at this site from 1959 to 1962.

After the assassination, Oswald’s residence in the Soviet Union proved an embarrassment for the Russians, although I am sure Moscow breathed easier when it figured out that the marching orders that Lyndon Johnson gave to the Warren Commission were not to link the presidential killing to the Russians.

Johnson didn’t want to go to war with the Soviet Union over the assassination, so his packed jury spun the narrative that Oswald was a “lone gunman” with no strings attached to any minders and who just by chance had lived for several years in Belarus, perhaps in a Potemkin Village.

Had anyone from the Warren Commission ever come to Minsk and stood on the sidewalk in front of Oswald’s apartment building, they would have concluded that at the very least Oswald was a pawn in a larger Queen’s or Commissar’s Gambit.

Lee Harvey Oswald, College Bound

Like everything else pertaining to the Kennedy assassination, there are competing narratives of Oswald’s time in Minsk. By the time I found his apartment building, I was well versed in both schools of thought.

For lone-gunman orthodoxy, I had read Peter Savodnik’s The Interloper: Lee Harvey Oswald Inside the Soviet Union, which states at the beginning: “It is the facts of his life, and especially his life in the Soviet Union, that tell us what we need to know to conclude that he alone was responsible for killing President Kennedy.”

Savodnik describes how Oswald got to Russia, shortly after he was discharged from the Marine Corps, in autumn 1959. In the Marines, he was a radar operator at the Naval Air Facility Atsugi, in Japan, where, among other aircraft at the base, there were U-2 spy flights that regularly overflew the Soviet Union. Francis Gary Powers would take off in a U-2 from Atsugi in May 1960, when he was shot down and captured by the Russians.

Presumably with money he had earned in the Marine Corps (it assumes he spent none of it), Oswald got out of the service with $1100, of which he invested $220.75 for a berth on freighter that took him from New Orleans to Le Havre, France.

According to the Warren Commission and his mother, Oswald planned to enroll at a college in Switzerland (to which he had applied and sent $25 as a down payment), but that was just a cover story, clearly, as he didn’t head to Europe with spiral notebooks or in a raccoon coat.

Oswald Pads His Expense Account

From the moment that Oswald arrived in Le Havre, his European travels moved in strange directions.

He didn’t catch a train to Paris, Zurich, and Graubünden to attend college in eastern Switzerland, which would have been the normal route, but instead crossed the Channel to England.

From London, having apparently missed some intended connection to Finland, Oswald flew to Helsinki, not something a backpacking 19-year old American or even a defecting American would ever have considered.

In 1959, nearly everyone in Europe, especially teenagers, took trains and boats; internal European flights were too expensive.

While waiting in Helsinki for his Russian visa, Oswald stayed in a luxury hotel—the kind favored by intelligence operatives with expense accounts rather than discharged Marine privates with their life savings hidden in their skivvies.

For reasons no one understands, Oswald’s Russian visa came through immediately: I have been to Russia more than a dozen times, and each time I have sweated for weeks over the visa.

Oswald then took the train to Leningrad and another on to Moscow, where at the American embassy he went through an almost public denunciation of his passport and citizenship, as if performing in a one-act play, which included an attempted suicide in his Moscow hotel room. (Usually it was those told that they could not leave the Soviet Union who tried to kill themselves; few trying to get in were so desperate.)

Patsy, Pawn or Provocateur?

In correlating Oswald’s life in Minsk to his later involvement in the assassination, Savodnik assigns competence to Oswald that he hardly demonstrated in what was otherwise a life of random failure. He writes:

Oswald was an ordinary man, but he was also exceptional, and not just because he killed a president. On January 7, 1960, the day the Soviets sent him to Minsk, he was made into—and this is not meant to sound dramatic or overly literary—an antihero. Once they capitulated to his demand that he be allowed to stay in the Soviet Union, he was elevated, almost magically, with a great and sudden force. For the first time, he had done something that most other men could not have imagined doing: he had convinced the KGB to let him stay in their country, and he had gone to great lengths to persuade them—trying to kill himself and then waiting them out in a somber and lonely hotel room.

I have a hard time believing that Oswald “broke” the KGB. At his best, to use Oswald’s own self-description, he was a patsy—and for any number of overlords.

He did poorly in school, dropped out of the tenth grade, floated through the Marine Corps, dabbled at revolution (on the left and the right), and sold his soul to any number of bidders, from a spectrum that included Karl Marx, tough guy Guy Bannister, and reactionary lowlife David Ferrie, if not Clay Shaw and the CIA.

The only possible explanation for Oswald’s presence in Russia is that he was a foot soldier in someone’s great game, sent in motion to ingratiate himself inside the Soviet Union, on the off chance that he might turn up a few intelligence nuggets along the way—be it for the Americans or for the Russians. I suspect not even Oswald knew for whom he was working.

Spy vs. Spy vs. Oswald

Shorn of his American passport, Oswald then “went over” to the Russians, who (publicly anyway) accepted his cover story of seeking asylum and embracing a Soviet way of life, although I am sure, at a professional level, Oswald looked to the Russians like some off-the-shelf American operative dispatched to the Soviet Union on some bizarre recon mission thought up by some not-very-bright guys in the Pentagon.

From Moscow the Russians “assigned” Oswald to his luxury flat in downtown Minsk and gave him work in a radio factory, where (depending on which account you read) he either sang the praises of shop stewards Marx and Lenin or refused to speak Russian and sulked in a corner, doing very little on the job. (I subscribe to the theory that Oswald wasn’t much of a radio builder.)

At best, the Russians would have hoped that they could use the gullible Lee Harvey Oswald to infiltrate an agent of their own back into the United States, in the spirit of what MAD Magazine calls “Spy vs. Spy.”

Marina Baits the Traps

Enter Marina Prusakova, who in short order would marry Oswald and move with him back to Dallas (where purely by happenstance their circle of friends included CIA handlers). Savodnik describes her:

In 1959 Marina moved to Minsk to live with her aunt and uncle; the latter was a member of the Communist Party and a lieutenant colonel at the Ministry of Internal Affairs, or MVD. Marina became a pharmacist at Clinical Hospital No. 3. She worked six days a week, from ten a.m. to four thirty p.m., and earned 45 rubles per month. Like most Russians in their teens and early twenties—Marina turned eighteen that year—she was a member of the Komsomol, or the Communist Party youth league.

In other words, Marina had the pedigree of a state operative, someone who could be counted on to bait the honey trap for a lonely American living in a luxury apartment building in a regional Soviet city.

Figure this: just before her first encounter with Lee, Marina was also romantically linked to another American defector who arrived in Russia about the same time as did Oswald, only he went to Leningrad.

Clearly Marina was a busy woman, but she married Oswald six weeks after meeting him in 1961 and almost immediately became pregnant, which would have made it difficult for him to leave her behind in Russia.

The Oswalds Come in from the Cold

In 1962, with a wife and baby, Oswald decided it was time to return to America, which involved a series of exit interviews at the American embassy in Moscow.

The fact that on his way into the Soviet Union Oswald had threatened to divulge Marine Corps radar secrets to the Russians (this in the charged era of downed U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers) seemed not to matter at all.

With almost no fuss, diplomatic personnel in Moscow gave Oswald back his passport (that which he had renounced) and lent him $435.71 for the return trip to the U.S.

If you have ever had dealings with an American embassy while traveling abroad, you will know that they are not always so accommodating. (I once had to go three separate times to an embassy just to get my signature notarized on a form.)

For Oswald the U.S. embassy in Moscow was as accommodating as some hotel business center.

Of Oswald’s time in Minsk, Savodnik writes:

The KGB appears to have been troubled by one thing: they still did not know—or they did not believe they knew—why he had come all the way to the Soviet Union. They thought that if he felt at home, he would be more open. So they gave him a job and, by Soviet standards, a spacious apartment, with a balcony and a view of the river, the Svisloch. They created a whole world for him. According to the FBI’s report on Yuri Nosenko, the KGB officer who handled the Oswald case in Moscow, Nosenko said that after Oswald left Moscow, his file was “transferred to the regional office of the KGB at Minsk and that office was instructed to maintain a discreet check” on him. The security organs had not ruled out the possibility that he was a “sleeper agent” for American intelligence.

“Had not ruled out”? How can the Soviets ever have trusted Oswald, who with a military background came to them directly from the U.S. embassy in Moscow, as they would well have known?

Closely Watched Man

Not only did the KGB have Oswald under almost 24-hour surveillance (electronic or personal, with the arrival of Marina) while he was in Minsk, but the Americans were similarly obsessed with tracking his movements, which would not have been the case if he were simply a utopian, cut from the cloth of Lincoln Steffens, who dreamed of seeing the future work in the Soviet Union.

Savodnik writes: “In a sign of how serious the whole affair had become, on May 31 [1962] at four p.m., the American ambassador, Llewellyn Thompson, sent a personal, two-line telegram to the secretary of state, Dean Rusk. ‘Oswalds leaving here June 1,’ the telegram declared.” American ambassadors do not routinely alert the secretary of state every time an expatriate American citizen decides to go home.

This high-level exchange came two years after FBI director J. Edgar Hoover personally had written a memo to the State Department, inquiring about Oswald’s passport and birth certificate, writing: “Since there is a possibility that an imposter is using Oswald’s birth certificate, any current information the Department of State may have concerning subject will be appreciated.”

Oswald was a man on many watch lists, although after the assassination both the FBI and the CIA implied that they had never looked into him.

As author Don DeLillo asks in his novel Libra: “Who arranged the life of Lee Harvey Oswald?” Looking up at Oswald’s plush riverside Minsk apartment building, I asked myself the same question.

Harvey & Lee: Did Oswald Speak Russian?

For a more jaded view of Oswald’s time in Minsk, I turned to a voluminous book, John Armstrong’s Harvey & Lee: How the CIA Framed Oswald.

The book has 982 pages, and I will not dwell here on Armstrong’s theories about how two men (consistent with J. Edgar Hoover’s fears in his memo to the State Department) shared one identify as Lee Harvey Oswald, except to say that it explains how a witness could have seen “Lee” in Florida while “Harvey” was in Russia.

Armstrong backs up his case with voluminous research and interviews with witnesses who had encounters with both men at the same time, in different locations. (Harvey spoke native Russian; Lee did not, which explains the many witnesses in the JFK case who swear that Oswald either did, or did not, speak Russian.)

The book costs $85 on eBay but if you approach it with an open mind, you won’t mind racing through it: Armstrong’s deadpan style of writing works well for his narrative.

Even if you don’t buy into Armstrong’s theory of “two Oswalds”, it’s still possible to read his biography of Lee Harvey Oswald and come to a better understanding of Oswald’s time in Minsk, which despite Norman Mailer factional account, Oswald’s Tale: An American Mystery, remains a black hole in American history.

Sleep Walking to the Soviet Union

Here are some passages from Armstrong that at the very least indicate that there was more to Oswald than met the gullible eyes of the Warren Commission (which concluded that he was a lone gunman who killed the American president perhaps to etch his name in history):

—On Oswald’s trip to Europe, Armstrong writes:

Lewis E. Hopkins was the manager (and part owner, along with Charles F. Davis) of Travel Consultants, whose offices were in the International Trade Mart, located at 124 Camp Street [in New Orleans, Louisiana]. Hopkins handled travel arrangements for Clay Shaw, Director of the Trade Mart, and also handled travel arrangements for Lee Harvey Oswald on or about September 18 (Travel Consultants records showed the date as September 17).

It may just be a coincidence, but Clay Shaw is noteworthy, because New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison charged him in 1967 with conspiracy to kill JFK.

—On Oswald’s ability to get a Russian visa in two days, Armstrong writes:

If this dispatch [a loophole in the Soviet visa procedures] were given to the Warren Commission, they would have reason to believe that Oswald had been coached by the US Embassy in Helsinki (CIA). The CIA knew that Helsinki was the only capital in Europe where the Soviet consul was allowed to issue visas “in a matter of minutes” and they also knew that it was Golub’s practice to contact the applicant’s Embassy, instead of the applicant directly, after he had approved the visas. If the Commission had this information they would have known that Oswald had been in contact with the US Embassy (CIA personnel) in Helsinki.

—About Oswald’s expenses as he got closer to Moscow, Armstrong writes:

It is worth noting in the 4 days prior to entering Russia, Oswald’s spending habits changed dramatically. The normally frugal Oswald resided in one of the most expensive hotels in Helsinki and booked first-class accommodations Intourist (a private guided tour of Moscow). The most logical explanation for his free spending and the speed with which he obtained a visa is that he received direction and money from the CIA.

Other than his pay in the Marine Corps, meagre at best, Oswald had no other sources of income.

—On Oswald’s demeanor in the US Embassy in Moscow, Armstrong writes:

Oswald, who claimed to know the provisions of US law, must have been aware of or considered the possibility that he could be arrested. The fact that he returned to the US Embassy on several occasions is a good indication that he had no fear of arrest or incarceration by Embassy officials or being charged with a crime. A former Embassy secretary recalled that Oswald had unprecedented access to areas that were allowed only to individuals who worked for the US in an official capacity. [Emphasis of Armstrong]

When he renounced his passport and citizenship in 1959, Oswald made a big deal (perhaps for the benefit of KGB eavesdroppers at the embassy) that he planned to tell the Russians about his radar work for the Marines in Japan.

—On the strange background of Oswald’s wife Marina, Armstrong writes:

It is not a coincidence that both Webster and Oswald “defected” a few months apart in 1959, that both tried to “defect’ on a Saturday. Both possessed “sensitive” information of possible value to the Russians. Both were befriended by Marina Prusakova, and both returned to the United States in the Spring of 1962. These “defectors,” acting in perfect harmony, were both working for the CIA.

—Of his Minsk apartment, Armstrong writes:

On March 16, two months after Oswald arrived in Minsk, he was given a small, one-room apartment on the 4th floor of a modern building overlooking the Svisloch River. His new accommodations did not go unnoticed by his co-workers and neighbors as most Russian citizens, including war veterans, invalids, and families with children, had to wait years for an apartment.

It’s possible that the Russians put Oswald in a swank apartment building (albeit in Minsk) as if to say to the world that defecting Americans in Russia would lead the good life on this side of the Iron Curtain, but more likely the housing decision was made because he would be easier to watch coming and going from a building next to a park in the center of town. The Russians wanted Oswald where they could watch him.

—On the marital languages of the Oswalds, Armstrong writes [who added the emphasis]:

Researchers have always suspected that conversations within Oswald’s apartment were monitored and recorded by the KGB. These suspicions were confirmed when Normal Mailer published a few of these conversations in his 1995 book, “Oswald’s Tale,” assuming the transcripts are genuine. But it was not until I met Ana Ziger, in 1998, that I realized Mailer had failed to find the answer to the most important question: What language were Oswald and Marina speaking? Where are the original KGB tapes? [Ziger told Armstrong that Oswald struggled to speak Russian.]

Ana’s statements clearly conflicted with Marina who said that when she met Oswald (March, 1961) he spoke Russian “with a Baltic accent” and she didn’t realize that he was a foreigner. Clearly, either Ana Ziger or Marina was lying—either Oswald spoke Russian or he didn’t.

Marina’s ability to read, write, and speak English fluently before she left Russia is indisputable. After emigrating to the United States she hid her English-speaking ability in order to protect her “cover” as a probable KGB operative. Harvey Oswald did the same thing in Russia by hiding his ability to speak Russian.

NOTE: If Marina told the Warren Commission that she and Oswald conversed in English, then the Commission would have asked her where and how she learned the English language.

Revolutionary Minsk

On my bicycle I rode around Victory Square and inspected Oswald’s building from various angles, all of which suggested that even today it’s a prime location, the Belarusian equivalent of Marvin Gardens.

Minsk in March was overcast and chilly, but on this day there was no rain. I rode along park sidewalks and looked in at the small museum of the First Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, which was more engaging than I had imagined when standing outside the front door of the small house, wondering if I should knock.

Inside I found photographs of Minsk in the 19th and 20th centuries, which showed snow-lined streets and horse-drawn carriages. I was drawn to some old timetables, and pictures of the Brest and Vilna train stations, not to mention a print of the Hotel Garni, looking more prosperous than it does today.

When the First Congress convened, Minsk had a population of 90,000, of whom more than half were Jewish. (Russians and Poles were minorities in the town.) More than 5 percent of the population worked for the military or police. The rate of illiteracy in the town was close to 50 percent. Only 2 percent of the population lived off rents or investments. Nurses made 180 roubles a year; doctors 2,400 roubles.

Then, careful to stay on sidewalks, I rode my bicycle toward the newer parts of Minsk, around what is now called Independence Square, one of those open plazas of patriotic triumphalism found everywhere in Eastern Europe.

Since I was there, it has been one of the rallying points for the opposition groups protesting against the reign of President Alexander Lukashenko, although, to paraphrase Walt Whitman, that revolution will never get into First Congress museum.

Oswald’s Candid Camera

Actually I was looking for a map store when I rode through the central square, but the expansive urban space reminded of one of the more bizarre footnotes in The Strange Life and Times of Lee Harvey Oswald, International Man of Mystery.

The story is told in John Armstrong’s book, and I have no reason to doubt the accuracy of his account, which reads as follows [emphasis throughout supplied by Armstrong]:

On August 10, 1961 three female American tourists arrived by car in Minsk around 5:00 pm. The tourists were Mrs. Marie Loretta Hyde, Miss Rita Naman, and Mrs. Monika Kramer of Port Angeles, Washington.

After registering at their hotel the women were told an Intourist guide was waiting to take them on a tour of the city. The women recalled that their female Russian guide was about 19 years old, had beautiful blond hair, and spoke English very well. They drove through the city and finally arrived at Central Square around 6:00 pm, where the Palace of Culture was located.

They spent less than 15 minutes in the Central Square, but during that time each took several photographs. Mrs. Hyde took a photograph that included Mrs. Kramer, the guide, their automobile, a young boy, an older man, and Lee Harvey Oswald. Miss Naman also took a picture that included Mrs. Hyde, the Palace of Culture, a young boy, an older man, and Lee Harvey Oswald. The following morning, at 9:00 am, the three women departed Minsk by automobile. . .

It is highly coincidental that two American women, who spent less than 15 minutes in the Central Square in Minsk, both managed to take photographs that included Lee Harvey Oswald. It is also highly coincidental that after they returned to the US, their photographs miraculously found their way into CIA files. Two years later these photographs were provided to the Warren Commission.

I don’t know about you, but I have never sent my travel pictures to the CIA or the Warren Commission.

Next: Napoleon’s Berezina Crossing. Earlier installments can be found here.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.