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  • Matt Crumpton

Ep 35: Oswald in Russia (Part 1)


 

When we left off, Lee Harvey Oswald had just been discharged from the Marine Corps, serving his last day on September 11, 1959 so that he could go back to Fort Worth and help his supposedly ailing mother. In this episode, we begin our examination of Oswald’s time in Russia.

 

How did he get to Russia? What’s going on with his time in Helsinki, Finland? And what happened once Oswald made it to Moscow?

 

In the last episode, we determined that Oswald never intended to care for his mother, and his mother was aware that he didn’t actually plan to care for her. Marguerite told her first doctor – Dr. Goldberg -  that her son was going to defect to Russia according to an FBI report. And she mentioned to her landlord that her son would only be in town for a few days - when Oswald arrived at Marguerite’s apartment after he had been discharged from the Marines.

 

So, keep in mind that, as Oswald makes his way from Santa Ana to Fort Worth, and eventually to Russia, he is on a mission that was important enough for him to start it three months earlier than he would have without the early discharge. I’m still unclear on why Oswald couldn’t have just waited until December to go to Russia. But, for whatever reason, he decided that his trip to the Soviet Union couldn’t wait – so much so that he involved his mom in creating a fraudulent reason to leave the Marine Corps early.

 

USA to Finland

 

On September 16, 1959, Oswald left Fort Worth on his way to New Orleans. When he arrived, he went to see Lewis Hopkins’ Travel Consultants at the International Trademart in New Orleans on September 17.[1] Hopkins also regularly handled travel arrangements for Clay Shaw, who would go on to be prosecuted by Jim Garrison for involvement in the assassination of president Kennedy.[2] Now, it could be just a coincidence that Oswald’s travel plans were made by the same person who helped Clay Shaw make travel arrangements. After all, he was working in the same building as Shaw. But, it’s weird enough to warrant mentioning.

 

Lewis Hopkins said that Oswald asked for the cheapest and earliest ship to Europe. He paid $220 cash for a one way ticket to Le Harve, France.[3] On September 20, Oswald boarded the Marion Lykes freighter, making his way across the ocean.[4]

 

The night before he left, Oswald wrote a letter to his mother where he said QUOTE “Just remember above all else that my values are different from Roberts or yours. It is difficult to tell you how I feel. Just remember this is what I must do. I did not tell you about my plans because you could hardly be expected to understand.”[5]

 

Now, if Marguerite Oswald really told Dr. Goldberg that her son would be defecting to Russia 9 months before he did, as the FBI report says, then she wouldn’t have been surprised about him going to Russia.[6] She would have known that this was what he was doing all along. Similarly, she told her landlord, Grace Craner, that Lee would not be home very long. So, Marguerite knew that Lee was leaving. That’s why this letter is a little confusing and seems like it could be written for some audience other than his mom. But, maybe she was still against him leaving and, even though she knew he was going, she didn’t want him to go. In that case, the letter could be genuine.

 

After 18 days at sea, Oswald’s ship docked at Le Havre, France, on October 8.[7] The next day, Oswald’s passport says that he arrived in Southampton, England. He then made the 80 mile trek to London so that he could catch a flight to Helsinki, Finland.[8]

 

The only flight from London to Helsinki that would be consistent with the date stamp’s on Oswald’s passport was Finn Air flight 852, which arrived in Helsinki at 11:33pm on October 10.[9] There is a CIA memo from Richard Helms, the CIA’s deputy director of plans, to the Warren Commission that says that Oswald could not have cleared customs and traveled from the airport to the hotel in time for him to arrive at 11:33pm and be checked in to the hotel by midnight, which is when the hotel says Oswald arrived.[10] The memo, CE 2677, speculates, that Oswald may have taken another route to get to Finland.

 

That’s not the only question mark around his arrival in Helsinki. Oswald’s name was not found on any of the arrival lists for flights into Finland.[11] In December of 2023, the Finnish Intelligence Agency, known as Supo, released declassified documents that said Oswald most likely arrived from Helsinki via Stockholm.[12] But, there were no Swedish stamps on Oswald’s passport.

 

So, we don’t know for sure how Oswald got to Finland. The fact that there is no record of him entering the country (aside from his passport stamp) is definitely strange. But, it’s also possible that Oswald didn’t arrive at the hotel at midnight exactly and someone just wrote midnight to make sure that he paid for the night’s stay. If so, then the flight arriving from London at 11:33pm, would make a lot of sense.

 

Helsinki

 

Regardless of how Oswald made it to Helsinki, things start to get more interesting for Oswald in Finland. Upon arriving, he checked in to Hotel Turni, a 5 star hotel where presidents, royalty, and celebrities stayed when they visited. The hotel also served as an espionage headquarters for the British and Soviets at the end of World War 2.[13] After staying at Hotel Turni for two nights, Oswald checked in to the Klaus Kurki hotel for another three nights. Klaus Kurki was another very expensive place to stay (though not quite as fancy as Hotel Turni). The two hotels were only about 3 blocks apart.

 

Oswald’s accommodations in Helsinki raise a few questions. First and foremost, why was he staying in such fancy hotels and where did he get the money for it? The Warren Commission claimed that Oswald had $1,500 in savings.[14] But, the only money that we know for sure Oswald had was $200 from a savings account that he withdrew all of the funds from just before he left New Orleans.[15] When Oswald arrived in the UK, he told a British Immigration official that he had $700 in cash in his possession.[16]

 

So, we don’t actually know how much money Oswald had. My initial thought was that he probably had a lot of money in savings from his time in the military. But, servicemen in Japan in the late 1950s were paid in military script, which could only be used at the base. It could not be converted into cash. This means that the only actual cash savings Oswald had from the Marines would have been if he saved ALL of the $1,107.20 that he earned while stationed in Santa Ana, which was convertible to cash.[17] And if he did that, he would have around $700 in cash left after he paid to travel from New Orleans to France.

 

But, given that he still had to pay for the travel arrangements to make it from Helsinki to Moscow – why would Oswald burn through his limited funds staying at the most expensive possible hotels in Helsinki?

 

The more important question is why did Oswald travel to Helsinki in the first place? There were numerous other cities where he could have applied for a Soviet Visa and traveled to the USSR. We know that Oswald had Finland in mind from the time he submitted his passport because the passport mentions attending the University of Turku, in addition to Albert Schweitzer College.[18]

 

Oswald applied for a visa at the Soviet Consulate in Helsinki on October 13.[19] His visa was issued one day later on October 14.[20] Within one day? That seems like a very fast timeline to get a visa. Was it?

 

According to former KGB agent Yuri Nosenko, the timing of Oswald’s visa was standard. There was no reason for the USSR to not grant the visa since Oswald was only 19 years old and didn’t list his marine service. He just said that he was a student traveling.[21]

 

On the other hand, the CIA made calls to the Soviet Embassy in Helsinki after the assassination in an attempt to find out how long it took to get a visa to Russia. They were told if the applicant applied in person the normal visa process took 5 to 7 days.[22] But, it was QUOTE “impossible within two or three days” to get a visa.[23]

 

According to a declassified July 10, 1964 CIA memo, Oswald said that he planned to stay at Hotel Turni for 5 days when he checked in.[24] We know that Oswald did, in fact, end up staying in Helsinki for 5 days. He ended up switching hotels halfway through, for reasons unknown. But, he was able to forecast with precision how long it would take him to get a visa to the Soviet Union. Lucky guess, I suppose.

 

A declassified CIA document sheds more light on why Oswald may have chosen Helsinki as his entrance point to the Soviet Union.[25] The document says that during a luncheon conversation with Gregory Golub, the Soviet Consulate in Helsinki, Golub told his American State Department counterpart that QUOTE “Moscow had given him the authority to give Americans visas without prior approval from Moscow. Golub stated that this would make his job much easier. And as long as he was convinced the American was all right, he could give him a visa in a matter of minutes.”[26] This conversation took place on July 17, 1959, just a few months before Oswald went to Helsinki.

 

In every other European capital, Soviet visa applications were required to be sent to Moscow for approval. But, in Helsinki only, Gregory Golub had the authority to immediately approve visa applications with no delay.[27]This made Helsinki a very attractive entry point for anyone who wanted to get to the Soviet Union quickly. Still, we’re talking about information shared between diplomats at a luncheon. This was by no means public knowledge. 

 

The same declassified document points to another State Department dispatch which discusses how two Americans who wanted to quickly apply for Soviet Visas in Helsinki were told to go directly to Gregory Golub at the Soviet Embassy. Golub told the Americans that he would approve their travel visas as soon as they made advance reservations with soviet travel bureau – Intourist.[28] This State Department Dispatch – concerning how easy it was for two Americans to get in to the Soviet Union quickly through Helsinki – was sent on October 9, 1959 – the day before Oswald arrived in Helsinki.[29]

 

So, Oswald was able to afford the fanciest hotels in Helsinki even though he was broke. He stayed in Helsinki for 5 days which is exactly how long he said he would be there. And he had his visa for entry into Russia approved immediately at the only place in the world where he could have received immediate approval. Either Oswald was getting some help from someone privy to this information about the Soviet consulate in Helsinki orhe is incredibly lucky.

 

History of American Defectors to Russia

 

Before 1958, it was rare for Americans to defect to Russia. From the end of World War II through 1959 – a period of about 14 years - there were only two defectors from the United States to the Soviet Union. But the numbers suddenly ticked up over an 18 month period in 1959 and 1960 when there were 9 American defectors to Russia.[30]

 

In 1959, the year that Oswald would attempt to defect, there were two other Americans who had already defected before him: Nicholas Petrulli and Robert Webster. Not much is known about Petrulli. But, Robert Webster is potentially a very interesting character.

 

Webster was a plastics expert who worked for Rand Development at the time of his defection. The company was founded by Henry Rand, who worked with the Office of Strategic Services (or the OSS), the CIA’s predecessor, during World War II.[31] George Bookbinder, who was a top executive of the company, also worked for the OSS and reported directly to Frank Wisner, who was one of the founders of the CIA.[32] On top of that, Christopher Bird, who was working for the CIA at the time, served as the Washington DC representative of Rand Development in the 1950s.[33] In other words, there are clear connections between Rand Development and the CIA during the time when Robert Webster defected to Russia. That doesn’t mean the CIA used Rand Development. It means they could have.

 

Webster went to Russia in 1959 on behalf of Rand to promote products at a trade show in Moscow. It was during this trip to Russia that Webster defected.[34] When Webster went to the Soviet Office of Visas and Registrations to defect, he was accompanied by Henry Rand and George Bookbinder and US Embassy Consul Richard Snyder.[35] Why would the top two executives of an American company with intelligence connections and the head of the US Embassy in Moscow personally help an American to defect to Russia? It looks like either Webster’s two bosses and the American Consul wanted to make sure that Webster was able to live out his dreams of Soviet defection – or they wanted to make sure that he defected for other reasons.

 

But what is especially strange about Robert Webster is that he told author Dick Russell that he met a 17 year old Russian girl at the trade show named Marina Prusakova – the same woman who would go on to marry Lee Harvey Oswald and move to the United States.[36] This is strange because Marina would have no reason to be at the trade show. She was from Leningrad, not Moscow. Webster said that Marina spoke to him in English with a heavy accent.[37] But according to the Warren Report, Marina couldn’t speak English at all when she arrived in the United States.

 

Incidentally, the Soviet government placed Webster in Marina’s hometown of Leningrad when he defected.[38]Webster lived in the Soviet Union for two years, married a Russian woman, and had a child with her. He ended up coming back to America in 1962 and leaving his wife and child behind in Russia.

 

If what Webster said about meeting Marina Oswald is true, it makes it look as though Marina was a KGB asset of some sort, given that she could speak English and she was going out of her way to talk to an American who was defecting. We’ll come back to Webster again later.

 

Oswald in Moscow  

 

Lee Harvey Oswald arrived in Moscow on October 16, 1959. Oswald was taken to his hotel that night by his tour guide, Rimma Shirakova, who was a KGB informant like everyone else who worked for Intourist, the state sponsored bureau that had a monopoly on foreign travel.[39] His visa allowed him to stay for 6 days.

 

On the second day of his tour, Oswald told Shirakova that he wanted to defect to the USSR.[40] On the third day of his tour – October 18, 1959 - Oswald’s 20th birthday, Shirakova told her KGB contact that Oswald wanted to defect. The KGB then requested that Shirakova help Oswald. So she assisted him in writing a letter to the Supreme Soviet formally requesting Soviet Citizenship. Shirakova also gave Oswald a Russian literature classic as a gift - a copy of Dostoyevsky’s, The Idiot.[41]

 

Oswald kept a diary while he was in Russia, which is the source of much of what we know about his time there. This diary was authenticated as being in Oswald’s handwriting by the Warren Commission and the House Select Committee on Assassinations. But, as you will see, some critics of the official story dispute the diary’s accuracy and authenticity.

 

The diary’s entry on October 21st, 1959 is of particular importance. That’s the day Oswald was called to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He was told that his request for Russian citizenship was denied and that he must leave Moscow in the next 2 hours.[42]

 

The Oswald diary says QUOTE “I am stunned. Evening 6pm. Receive word from police official. I must leave country tonight at 8pm as visa expires. I am shocked! My dreams! I retire to my room. I have $100 left. I have waited for 2 year to be accepted. My fondest dreams are shattered because of a petty official; because of bad planning, I planned too much! 7pm I decide to end it. Soak wrist in cold water to numb the pain, Then slash my left wrist. I think when Rimma comes at 8 to find me dead it will be a great shock, somewhere a violin plays as I watch my life whirl away. I think to myself, how easy to die and a sweet death (to violins).”[43]

 

So, according to Oswald’s diary, he found out that his visa was denied around 6pm. He decided to take his own life at 7pm, and planned to be dead by 8pm.

 

Luckily for us, we have more information about this saga in the form of interviews that author Norman Mailer did with Rimma Shirakova. She told Mailer that when she met Oswald, he had just arrived by train in the Deluxe class, which was the most expensive class, usually reserved for only very wealthy people. Oswald’s entire Russian tour with Intourist was booked as Deluxe class.[44] She said that Oswald spoke only English and did not seem to know a word of Russian.[45]

 

But, Shirakova’s statement about the timeline of Oswald’s attempted suicide seems pretty far off from Oswald’s diary. She says that she arrived at his hotel at 2pm, then waited for 30 minutes before she got help to try to open Oswald’s door. When the door was finally forced open by hotel security, the security guards who entered the room found Oswald in the bathroom. She didn’t see if he was on the floor or in the tub, but she did see him come out of the bathroom on a stretcher, unconscious, wearing dry clothes.[46]

 

Oswald was taken to the Botkinskaya Hospital at 4pm according to the Russian doctor who worked on him. The cut on Oswald’s left wrist was three to five centimeters long and took four stitches to repair. Dr. Lydia Mikhailina, a psychiatrist at Botkinskaya Hospital, described Oswald’s injury as QUOTE “a show suicide since he was refused political asylum, which he had been demanding.”[47]  

 

So, it looks like Oswald’s attempt at suicide shows that he was just desperate to stay in the Soviet Union – not that he actually intended to end his life. On the other hand, Gerald Posner presents a different picture. He relies on statements from the former KGB agent we mentioned earlier, Yuri Nosenko, who began providing secrets to the CIA in Geneva, Switzerland in 1961.

 

Nosenko claimed that he was the KGB agent responsible for overseeing Oswald in Russia. The CIA had mixed feelings on whether Nosenko could be trusted and worried that he was a Russian disinformation agent. Nosenko told the CIA that Oswald was not a KGB agent. But, the CIA put him in solitary confinement for 1,277 days, until he was eventually released and given a false identity - and a job with the CIA.[48]

 

When it comes to the suicide attempt, Nosenko says that Oswald’s injury was serious enough to require blood transfusions. He also says that the KGB decided to not pursue Oswald as an agent because they thought he was mentally unstable. The reason they didn’t immediately send him home is because they wanted to avoid the optics of a student being manhandled by Soviet Security forces. So, instead, they decided to keep an eye on him to make sure that he “didn’t cause trouble and was not an American sleeper agent.”[49]

 

So, once again, we have conflicting evidence. To me, it looks like the suicide attempt was a cry for help to allow him to stay in Moscow. If you believe Nosenko and ignore Shirakova, the Botkinskaya doctor, and Dr. Mikhailaina, you could disagree and say that it was a bona fide suicide attempt. The reason it matters is that it speaks to whether Oswald was mentally stable. If he really attempted suicide, then he was not. But, if it was a fake attempt, then it means that he desperately wanted to stay in Russia. The question is, why exactly did he want to stay there so bad?

 

Next time on Solving JFK: We continue examining Oswald’s time in Russia, including his US Embassy Visit in Moscow and his experience working at a factory in Minsk.

 


[1] James DiEugenio, Destiny Betrayed, Second Edition, at 137.

[2] Id.

[3] CE 2673, FBI interview of Lewis Hopkins, 12/3/63.

[4] Gerald Posner, Case Closed, at 33.

[5] Id.

[6] Commission Document 5, at 298, FBI Interview of Dr. Milton Goldberg by SA Jack French, 11/22/63

[7] Commission Document 69, at 7.  

[8] John Armstrong, Harvey & Lee, at 254.

[9] CE 946, at 7.

[10] CE 2677.

[11] Supo declassifies 60 year old file on JFK killer, Lee Harvey Oswald - https://yle.fi/a/74-20064205.

[12] Id.

[13] DiEugenio at 138.

[14] Warren Report at 256-57.

[15] CE 1150.

[16] Armstrong at 253. (But, then again, he told the same official that he would be traveling in England as a tourist for a week before heading to College in Switzerland.)

[17] Id. at 254.  

[19] Armstrong at 254.

[20] Id. at 255.

[21] Posner at 47.

[22] CIA classified message from (BLANK) to Director, 7/21/64; file 201-0289248.

[26] Id.

[27] Armstrong at 255.

[29] Id.

[30] Armstrong at 266.

[34] DiEugenio, at 139-140

[36] Dick Russell, Interview of Robert Webster, 1996; Armstrong at 256-57.

[37] Id.

[38] Id.

[39] Posner at 47.

[40] Id.

[41] Id. at 48.

[42] Id. at 50.

[44] Norman Mailer, Oswald’s Tale, at 43.

[45] Id.

[46] Mailer at 50.

[47] Frontline interview of Dr. Lydia Mikhailina, January 1993, see also Gus Russo, Live by the Sword, p 103; see also Armstrong at 264

[49] Posner at 52.

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