The Interloper: Lee Harvey Oswald Inside the Soviet Union
Basic Books. 267 pp. $27.99
Editor’s Note: In the half-century since President Kennedy’s death, one arm is capable of holding all the reliable works that attempt to understand the assassination by understanding the assassin. Two of the most outstanding in this niche are Jean Davison’s Oswald’s Game (1983) and Norman Mailer’s Oswald’s Tale (1995), the latter notable for the author’s negotiated access to the Minsk KGB’s file on and surveillance of Lee Harvey Oswald.
Yet the book against which all such efforts must be measured is Priscilla Johnson McMillan’s Marina and Lee, which is being reissued this fall by the Steerforth Press. As Thomas Powers observed in his 1977 New York Times review, Marina and Lee was a “miraculous book . . . miraculous because McMillan had the wit, courage, and perseverance to go back to the heart of the story and the art to give it life.” McMillan restored agency to Oswald, and by so doing left no room for the tapestry of conspiracy theories that had been woven around him, possible only so long as he remained a cipher. So rich was the book’s texture that when Mailer sat down to write his Oswald biography, he quoted long passages from Marina and Lee verbatim, and in his acknowledgments wrote that a “special statement is necessary to cover the contribution of Priscilla Johnson McMillan.”
The 50th anniversary is ripe for another look at Oswald, if only because the end of the cold war opened a window for reportage that had not been possible earlier. What is not explicable or defensible is Peter Savodnik’s calculated neglect of Marina and Lee in The Interloper. Savodnik, regrettably, did not think he could pull off his book without pretending that McMillan’s book did not exist.
Despite this shabby behavior, The Interloper is one of the few books deserving of attention on this anniversary. Washington Decoded asked Priscilla Johnson McMillan, a member of its editorial board, for her considered opinion.
The Interloper may be the one book appearing this year that attempts to understand the Kennedy assassination by taking a microscopic look at the assassin. The result is a nuanced and sympathetic view of Lee Harvey Oswald, a view so human that it crowds out and leaves no room for mechanistic theories of a conspiracy.
The author, Peter Savodnik, is a Russian-speaking writer who spent many months in Minsk, the city in which Oswald lived during most of his 2½ years in the Soviet Union. There, Savodnik interviewed Erich Titovets, a man who knew Oswald fairly well, and the very few others who remember the interloper who arrived in 1960 hoping to remain forever. Savodnik even traveled to Israel to interview Ella German, the attractive Jewish woman whose rejection of Oswald’s marriage proposal in January 1961 had much to do with the American’s rejection of Soviet life and eventual decision to return to the United States.
Savodnik sees Oswald as a seeker after something affirmative who, in reaction against a childhood of moving from place to unhappy place with a selfish, unstable mother, longed for a home and steady sense of purpose. But Oswald wanted something more. He was a Marxist who idealized the Soviet Union as a country that treated all of its citizens equally and provided baseline amenities to everyone. What he found instead was a bureaucracy such as he had encountered in the Marine Corps and ‘round the clock surveillance by the KGB. He recorded his hopes and disappointments in his “Historic Diary” and in “The Collective,” several essays he wrote while in Minsk.
Naturally, Savodnik uses Oswald’s writing to trace his feelings about his life in the USSR and concludes that he felt isolated and alone, having failed to connect and find a place for himself within the society he had idealized from afar. It was in Minsk, Savodnik says, that Oswald realized that he would always be a outsider, an interloper, and where the “desperation and fury coursing through his whole life were most fully on display.” Savodnik goes so far as to say that if the reader understands Oswald’s life in Minsk, he or she will understand much about how the Kennedy assassination came about.
This claim is a stretch: the anger and violence that were to characterize Oswald’s behavior after his return to the United States were barely visible during his time in Minsk.