Fishbowl 5: Author Chronicles Lee Harvey Oswald in Soviet Union

Peter Savodnik, former reporter for The Hill and now an author living in Sri Lanka, has written a book due out in the fall about John F. Kennedy‘s alleged assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald. The book, being published by Basic Books, is titled The Interloper, and it’s about Lee Harvey Oswald’s nearly three years in the Soviet Union, from 1959 to 1962. Savodnik just started a new Twitter feed — @HistoricOswald — that will offer factoids about Oswald and include the occasional update on book-related, e.g., publication date, readings, and events. So we caught up with him to find out more.

1. What is interesting about Oswald in the Soviet Union? Oswald has always been an elusive and amorphous character. The conspiracy theorists have not helped to bring him into focus. In fact, they have made the problem worse by insisting on Oswald’s unknowability. That unknowability makes the conspiracy, whatever conspiracy, more believable. But it doesn’t do anything to shed light on the truth — about Oswald and his role in the Kennedy assassination. The truth is that Oswald was complicated but not unknowable, and we can learn more about him by looking at his period in the Soviet Union than by looking at anywhere else. It is in the Soviet Union, and especially in Minsk, where he lived for two-and-a-half years, that the true Oswald comes to the surface.

2. How did you do research for this book — what did that entail? I spent several months living in Minsk and finding everyone who had known Oswald and was still alive. Then I traveled to Israel to meet Oswald’s ex-girlfriend, and I went to Japan to check out the Marine base where he served. I also spent a lot of time in Moscow meeting with ex-KGB, historians, political scientists, writers and artists from that time — the late fifties and early sixties — to learn more about the Soviet Union under Nikita Khrushchev.

3. How long did it take you to write the book? One year.

4. What most surprised you in your journey in writing it? Getting to know Oswald. He’s a mostly unlikable character, but there are aspects of his personality, smidgens of who he is, that were sympathetic. This was fascinating and a little troubling.

Find out why you might feel sympathy for Oswald…5. What aspects are sympathetic? Oswald’s father died two months before he was born, and he had a crazy, terrible mother, Marguerite, and you can certainly trace a line from the very beginning of his life to his assassination of the president. I don’t mean to exculpate him. But I do mean to underline the frenetic and fragmented life that she imposed on him. This involved constantly moving, being uprooted, meeting new people, losing others. There was this blurry, frantic tableau of landscapes and personalities that defined his whole childhood. There was a whirlwind quality to it, and it was not a happy whirlwind. It was a state of uncertainty, fear, anxiety. There was about Oswald a sort of characterological rootlessness, a sense that nowhere was home, and nowhere could ever be home — a great hopelessness and, later, a desperation.

The reason he defected to the Soviet Union…was that it offered something akin to a family, a sense of place, and that was what Oswald craved, and who could blame him for that? And, in fact, for some time, Oswald’s Soviet experience, with all its ideological and cultural furniture, was very family-like. It was deep and, in a way, warm, and it was holistic. It was like an embrace. The great mystery is why he ever left. The life he had in the United States, and the life that he could reasonably expect to return to, was never as good, or would never be as good, as what he had in Minsk. Of course, there are good reasons for his departure, and they are a central concern of my book.

Understanding Oswald… This book is not meant to be yet another argument for the lone-gunman theory. That has been dealt with ad nauseum, and any questions surrounding Oswald’s guilt should have been put to rest a long time ago. The Interloper looks at Oswald in a three-dimensional light. It views him as a person, not a cog or puppet who was a part of a much bigger conspiracy or machine. Only then, after we have looked at him up close, can we make sense of the question that still rightly puzzles so many, which is, ‘Why would anyone have killed John F. Kennedy?’ Only when we understand Oswald the man — his psychology, his ideological commitments, his ambitions — can we start to understand how it is that he was led to murder the president.