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16 Jan

Martin Paulsen (Norway)
Klassekampen, 05.02.2014

Lee Harvey Oswald’s Minsk

The assassination of John F. Kennedy on 22 November 1963 made Lee Harvey Oswald one of the most well known assassins in world history, and the object of dozens of conspiracy theories. Many have asked if he did it alone, or if he could have been an agent for KGB, at a time when the Cold War was at it’s coldest. Two recent books show that the Soviet security service might have played a part, but not as directly as the conspiracy theorists like to think.

In his new book, Interloper, the American journalist Peter Savodnik argues that all these conspiracy theories around Oswald’s possible employers have contributed to conceal a more important discussion about why he did it. Savodnik thinks that the answer is to be found in Minsk in the former Soviet Union, where Oswald spent two and a half years from 1959 to 1962. Lee Harvey Oswald’s stay in Minsk is central also to one of the most widely read and discussed Belarusian contemporary novels, Uladzimir Niakliaiew’s autobiographical The vending machine with mineral water with taste and without.

The leftist Oswald travelled to the Soviet Union in autumn 1959 and applied for residence permission. At first he was rejected, but after an attempted suicide he got his way. He was moved from the metropolis of Moscow to the far more provincial Minsk, where he received an apartment and a job at a radio factory. He got married, but never settled and returned to his native country one and a half years before the fateful assassination.

Interloper focuses on Oswald’s stay in the Soviet Union, but also looks into his childhood and youth under unstable conditions in the post-war USA, what Savodnik describes as a «fragmented and frenetic» existence. Oswald’s father died just before he was born, and his mother is described as «constantly unstable». He makes a fundamental point of the fact that Oswald moved so often. Before he turned 17 he had moved more than 20 times. This also explains the book’s title. «Interloper» means intruder and the term is used by Savodnik to describe Oswald’s inclination to run away from his old life and impose himself onto the new surroundings.

To a large extent, Savodnik’s book is based on Oswald’s own diary and writings. In addition, the author has done a tremendous job in interviewing Oswald’s acquaintances in Minsk. He does a good job in making his way into the inner circles of Oswald’s friends in the Belarusian capital. He talks to the people Oswald worked with and some of his closest friends. The interviews and Oswald’s own notes give a good background to describe the person Oswald, his development from an impatient and hopeful young man, who thought he would find a new and more real home, to the disillusioned and desperate man who would a couple of years later kill the American president.

Savodnik uses a broader brush when he paints the picture of the Minsk Oswald arrived in. He emphasises the very particular historical situation, which had arisen in a city that had been completely destroyed during WW II and in a country that had lost a third of its inhabitants. The city and country that had arisen from the ashes became the perfect lab for the social experiment of the Soviet authorities as they were looking to build communism.

The new Minsk was an unequivocal statement of the totalitarian impulse, stripped down and neatly fitted together, and without any history, energy, cultural edifices, or anything else that might feel busy, loud, urbane or unexpected. (Excerpt from The Interloper)

Exactly this local historical context is also the topic for Niakliaiew’s The vending machine with mineral water with taste and without, but with a totally different point of departure. This autobiographical novel tells the story of a group of youngsters in Minsk in the early 1960s that use the limited political thaw under Khrushchev to pursue the lifestyle of the stilyagi – Soviet hipsters dressed in rockabilly clothes with a preference for jazz.

In 2012, the novel was awarded the most prestigious literary prize in Belarus, the Jerzy Giedroyc prize. Niakliaiew, who is best known for his poetry, is not just anybody in Belarus. In 2010 he challenged Aleksandr Lukashenka during the presidential elections. The challenge resulted in a house arrest, based on the accusation of encouraging mass protests.

The novel is also a hommage to Minsk of the 1960s. The title refers to a landmark in central Minsk, a soda vending machine where the Jew Salamon Maiseievich sold soda with and without taste. In addition, every chapter is given name after streets in the city centre — and both the Soviet and pre-Soviet name is included. No wonder the novel carries the subtitle A Minsk novel. Niakliaiew calls forth the memories about the city’s history that are erased from Savodnik’s book.

In the middle of all this appears Lee Harvey Oswald, under his local nickname Alik — at the margins of the action, but with a distinct presence. The main character — known by the author’s nickname, Valodzja – and his friends get to know Oswald at the dance floor in the House of the Worker’s Union. “He probably came over because we were dancing with Asia” Valodzja reasons. “We danced rock-n-roll and he started dancing with us. He danced well. Better than Haryk Klyabanaw. And nobody dances rock-n-roll better than Haryk.”

The scene here described by Niakliaiew is one of the key episodes in Savodnik’s book, where he goes into detail describing how Oswald got to know his future wife, Marina. The reason why it is so important for Savodnik to understand the details of this episode is because it can tell us something about whether or not Marina was a KGB-agent who was attached to Oswald so that they could control him. If Marina were the one to initiate the acquaintance, this version is more probable than if Oswald had been the one to take the initiative. Notwithstanding his good sources, Savodnik is at pains to establish the exact course of action. He concludes that Marina’s personality did not really fit that of a classic KGB agent and that if she reported on him to the KGB, that would be because they had recruited her after her relationship with Oswald started.

This discussion about KGB’s part is not just related to the question of whether or not Oswald killed JFK on behalf of the KGB, a theory that is rejected by both Savodnik and Niakliaiew, but it is also a central topic for both writers’ description of Minsk of the 1960s. Savodnik writes about how KGB staged a city within the city for Oswald when he arrived in Minsk, to make their surveillance as easy as possible. He was given an apartment with large windows in the very city centre, only a short walk away from his job. Everything was transparent and easily controlled. This strategy, known in Russian by the phrase pod kolpakom – under surveillance — was widely used by the Soviet secret services.

KGBs surveillance plays a key part also in Niakliaiew’s novel, but here the importance of the KGB is not only connected to Oswald’s presence or to the 1960s. The novel’s plot is linked to the accusations that the main character and his friends constituted a group devoted to an anti-Soviet conspiracy. They are called into interrogations at the KGB and several of them end up in jail or at a psychiatric institution. In the novel, this episode marks the transition from the golden years of youth under the weak puff of thaw during Khrushchev’s reign, to a grown up reality where the KGB has laid the premises of the main characters life. Both in the novel and in Niakliaiew’s personal life connections are made to present-day Belarus. KGB still carries the same name and their prison in central Minsk, where Niakliaiew was taken after the 2010 elections, is the same.

 

Being a stilyaga implied entertaining a particular worldview. An oppositional attitude to everything that was grey and average. That is, everything Soviet. Exactly because of this worldview, and not the greasy hairstyle or the colourful shirts, the stilyagi risked being excluded from the Komsomol or thrown out of university. (Excerpt from The vending machine with mineral water with taste and without)

In Interloper the assassination of Kennedy is referred to only in passing. Savodnik is more concerned with the underlying explanations for the assassination that he finds in the despair and anger Oswald felt when it turned out that Minsk and the Soviet Union was not a home for him either. He, who had identified so closely with the declared ideology of the Soviet Union, did no longer find any outlet for his aspirations and he directed his aggression for this failure at Kennedy. The Minsk Savodnik’s Oswald arrived in did not fit his dreams and KGB’s scheming behind the scenes contributed to make Oswald realise this faster than he would otherwise have done.

Niakliaiew’s Oswald is very much the same womaniser that Savodnik describes, but the Minsk of the Belarusian writer carries a very different flavour. Where Savodnik describes an absolutely clean historical sheet after World War II, Niakliaiew gives the scene to those who opposed this Soviet idea. But also for him KGB plays a central and defining role. Just as Minsk of the 1960s was a police state, Minsk of the 2010s is so too.

The authors

Peter Savodnik is a journalist based in Washington, D.C. with a long experience reporting from the former Soviet republics. He has written for numerous publications, among them The New Yorker, Wired, GQ, and Washington Post.

Uladzimir  Niakliaiew (1946) is a Belarusian writer best known for his poetry. He has headed both the Belarusian writers union and the Belarusian PEN centre, and in 2010 he ran as a candidate in the presidential elections. On election day he was brutally assaulted and later arrested, accused of planning mass unrest. He was sentenced to house arrest, but was released in summer 2013.

The books

Interloper tells the story of Lee Harvey Oswald’s stay in Minsk a couple of years before he killed John F. Kennedy. The author Peter Savodnik has investigated the rich literature on the Kennedy assassination, Oswald’s own notebooks and interviewed many of those who knew Oswald during his stay in Minsk.

Awtamat z hazirowkaj z siropam i bez (The vending machine with mineral water with taste and without) is an autobiographical novel which describes what it was like to grow up in Minsk in the early 1960s. It thematises how the ideals of the Soviet postwar generation were formed in a conflict between their own desire to express themselves and the needs of the Soviet state to maintain absolute control.

Originally published: http://www.klassekampen.no/article/20140205/PLUSS/140209914