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  • Matt Crumpton

Ep 36: Oswald in Russia (Part 2)

 



 

In the last episode, Lee Harvey Oswald had made his way from Helsinki, Finland to Moscow. When he requested Russian citizenship there, it was denied, which led to Oswald’s attempted suicide by cutting his left wrist. It’s disputed whether Oswald really intended to take his own life. There is a fair amount of evidence that it was a show suicide done to convince the Russians to let him stay. Either way, the attempt was enough to warrant a trip to the hospital and 4 stiches on Oswald’s left wrist.

 

Today, we look at what Oswald did next, including his visit to the American Embassy in Moscow, the CIA’s first documented interest in Oswald, and his relocation to the city of Minsk.

 

Oswald at the American Embassy

 

After Oswald is released from the hospital, he was taken back to the Metropole hotel by his tour guide, Rimma Shirakova. As far as we know, Oswald spent the next few days in the hotel.

 

On October 31, 1959, Oswald visited the US embassy and told them he was a Marxist. Then, he tossed his passport across the consul’s desk and said he intended to give the Soviets all the information he had acquired as a Marine radar operator.[1]

 

Richard Snyder was a consul at the US Embassy when Oswald tried to defect. This is how Snyder described his first interaction with Oswald: QUOTE

 

“His manner was aggressive, arrogant, uncooperative. He appeared to be competent. …He was contemptuous of any efforts by the interviewing officer …, [and] made clear that he wanted no advice from the Embassy…Oswald gave as the principal reason for his defection “I am a Marxist.”[2]

 

Declassified HSCA documents from another consul at the US Embassy in Moscow, John McVickar, tell us more about Oswald’s state of mind. McVickar said QUOTE

 

“It seemed to me to be the possibility that he was following a pattern of behavior in which he had been tutored by person or persons unknown. It seemed to me that there was a possibility that he had been in contact with others before or during his Marine Corps tour who had guided him and encouraged him in his actions.”[3]

 

If McVickar’s hunch is right, then who could possibly have tutored him on what to say? Given that this is during the height of the Cold War, the KGB and the CIA would both be prime suspects if Oswald was being coached. But, McVickar’s statement alone doesn’t prove that.

 

Oswald said he would share information he learned as a marine radar operator with the Soviets. This would have been enough for Oswald to be charged with espionage and arrested on site.[4] But, for whatever reason, that’s not what happened.

 

Not only did the US Embassy not arrest Oswald, they may have gone out of their way to help him not lose his American citizenship.

 

Three days before Oswald visited the US Embassy, on October 28, 1959, Consul Snyder sent a confidential letter to Gene Boster, the officer in charge of Soviet affairs at the State Department.[5] The letter requested advice on how to handle an attempted renunciation of American citizenship. Specifically, it asked if the official protocols should be avoided when there is an American defector in the interest of leaving QUOTE “such avenues of repatriation as possible open to future contingency.”[6]

 

Leaving the door open to future repatriation is exactly what Snyder did for Oswald. But Snyder told the Warren Commission that his letter wasn’t about any particular case and that he had only ever “encountered one case of renunciation of citizenship prior to Oswald’s appearance and that case was already resolved.”[7]

 

The timing of Snyder’s letter is strange because it is basically requesting permission to not follow protocols for American defectors to make it easier for them to change their minds later. And, then, three days later, Oswald shows up at the American Embassy and Snyder makes sure that he does not legally defect so that Oswald can repatriate easily – just like he mentioned in his letter from 3 days before that Snyder says wasn’t about anyone in particular.

 

To further add to the intrigue around the Embassy, there is a cablegram that was sent by the Naval attache in the US Embassy in Moscow to the Navy Department in DC on November 3rd that references another communication about Lee Harvey Oswald on October 26.[8] But, we have no record of this October 26thdispatch, other than it being mentioned in the November 3rd one. What could that other letter about Oswald be since Oswald didn’t go to the embassy until 5 days later?

 

Remember, Oswald was the third American defector in 1959. One thing that he had in common with his two predecessors, Nicholas Petrulli and Robert Webster, is that they all went to the US Embassy to attempt to “defect” on a Saturday, when the US Embassy was officially closed. And all three of these men were ultimately allowed to return to the United States.[9] It turns out that their defections were not legally effective on a Saturday when the Embassy was not officially open for business.[10] This left a path for them to return to the US if they changed their mind, just like Snyder said in his October 28 letter.

 

Why did Snyder care? Was he just looking out for Americans and trying to be nice? Maybe. That is certainly one interpretation. It’s also possible that there was some other reason why Snyder wanted to make it easy for these soon to be expatriates to change their minds.

 

In the mid 1950s while Snyder was studying Russian at Harvard, he worked with the CIA as a spotter to recruit Russian speakers into project Redskin. The primary goal of Project Redskin was to coordinate with travelers who were going into the soviet union for legitimate reasons, like business or tourism, to gather information and then provide it to the CIA.[11] So, we don’t know that Snyder was actively working for the CIA while he was in the Embassy. Though, it wouldn’t be that surprising if he was, given that he did help the agency in the past.

 

Ultimately, Oswald never signed the required renouncement papers to effectuate his formal defection (whether it would have counted on a Saturday or not). Snyder told Oswald to come back the following Monday to sign the papers, but Oswald didn’t do that.[12]

 

While Oswald never legally defected to Russia, it was clear what his stated intentions were. Oswald handed over his passport and a written statement requesting that his citizenship in the United States of America be revoked.[13] Nevertheless, his American citizenship was never formally renounced because the specific required form was not processed on a business day - meaning that Oswald never legally defected to the Soviet Union.[14]

 

Moscow To Minsk

 

Immediately after Oswald left the US Embassy, he started to have reporters contacting him, looking for an interview about why he wanted to defect. After he turned down two male reporters for interviews, he agreed to an interview with Aline Mosby on the same day he visited the Embassy – October 31st. Mosby admitted that she learned about Oswald from a contact at the US Embassy, who mentioned Oswald when she asked them for story ideas.[15]  She wrote a story that included Oswald’s background and his reasons for wanting to live in the Soviet Union.[16] Her story was published via United Press International, which had a very wide publishing reach.

 

About two weeks later, Oswald was interviewed by another female reporter at Hotel Metropole – Priscilla Johnson, who wrote an article similar to the one Mosby had written, but for her employer North American Newspaper Alliance.[17] Incidentally, Priscilla Johnson would later go on to write a biography of Oswald with Marina Oswald. Aline Mosby told the HSCA that Priscilla Johnson worked for the CIA.[18] Before Priscilla Johnson testified to the HSCA in 1978, she was granted immunity from prosecution for unknown reasons.[19]

 

We don’t really know where Oswald was from the time after his interview with Priscilla Johnson  in mid-November until the end of 1959. The Warren Report says QUOTE “for the rest of the year, Oswald seldom left his hotel room.”[20] But, the American Embassy notified the State Department on December 1 that “Oswald had departed from the Hotel Metropole within the last few days” for an unknown destination”.[21]

 

Still, Oswald’s historic diary has one entry that covers this block of time. In that entry, Oswald basically says that he acquired Russian language books and was studying the language full time during that period.[22] Most of the other entries in Oswald’s diary for days when he was just sitting in a hotel room are daily entries that include his meals and feelings. But for some reason, Oswald just wrote one big block of six weeks in one diary entry where he says he is just sitting around the hotel? And, again, the US Embassy says that Oswald checked out of his hotel around the end of November. So, where was Oswald really? It’s possible that we will never know for sure.

 

What we do know is that On January 4, 1960, Oswald was finally given a Soviet identity document for stateless persons and was told by Soviet officials that he was being relocated to Minsk, 450 miles southwest of Moscow.[23]

 

CIA LOOKS AT OSWALD

 

We’ve talked about CIA connections at Albert Schweitzer College, and before that David Bucknell said that he and Oswald were working with the CIA. But, as far as the released document trail goes, this is where the CIA officially enters the chat.

On November 4th, 1959, about four days after Oswald visited the US Embassy in Moscow, the Navy Headquarters in Washington, DC sent a cable to the American Embassy in Moscow with background information about Lee Harvey Oswald, including that he was a Marine who may have had access to confidential information. The end of the cable requested updates on significant developments about Oswald due to QUOTE “continuing interest of HQ, Marine Corps, and US Intelligence agencies.” The last thing the cable says in all caps is “INTELLIGENCE MATTER.”[24]

 

About a week after this cable, the FBI posted a “Wanted Notice Card” for Lee Harvey Oswald.[25] This wanted notice led to Oswald being added to a watch list for the HTLINGUAL program. HTLINGUAL was a joint project between the CIA, the FBI, and the US Postal Service to open and read mail from select people sending mail to and from the Soviet Union and China.[26] The program was headed up by the Special Investigations Group of the CIA, led by its chief of counterintelligence, James Angleton.[27]

 

Oswald was one of 300 American citizens whose letters were opened and read as part of HTLINGUAL.[28]But, if a program exists to read mail coming and going to Russia and China, it’s not surprising that the CIA would want to keep tabs on Oswald, since he did tell the US Embassy in Moscow that he was planning to give military secrets to the Soviets.

 

On the other hand, what is more surprising is that, even though the CIA added Oswald to the HTLINGUAL program, it didn’t create a person of interest file for Oswald, known as a 201 file, until December 8, 1960 – 13 months after Oswald defected to the Soviet Union and more than a year after the CIA started reading Oswald’s mail.[29] According to the 1960 CIA Clandestine Services Handbook, 201 files were supposed to be opened on persons of active operational interest at any given point in time.”[30]

 

The House Select Committee on Assassinations asked retired CIA director, Richard Helms, about why the 201 file was not opened on Oswald at the time he defected or later when the CIA became aware of him and started opening his mail. Helms said QUOTE “I’m amazed. Are you sure there wasn’t? I can’t explain that.”[31] So, it was surprising to the former director of the CIA that Oswald didn’t have a 201 file opened as soon as he showed up on the CIA’s radar.

 

The HSCA followed up on this issue of the late-opened 201 file by asking that the CIA indicate QUOTE “where documents pertaining to Oswald had been disseminated internally and stored prior to the opening of his 201 file.”[32] In other words, the HSCA wanted to know if there was no 201 file open when Oswald defected, did the CIA have some other documents on Oswald that it was tracking? The CIA responded that there were documents, but because none of them was classified higher than confidential and they were all of low national security interest were only retained for 5 years and then destroyed or thrown away. The documents no longer existed![33]

 

Professor John Newman asked CIA officer Robert Bannerman how the CIA’s office of security responded to Oswald’s defection. He would know since Bannerman was the Deputy Director of the CIA’s Department of Security at the time.[34] He told him QUOTE “The 201 opening was something where we worked very closely with Angleton and his staff.”[35]  

 

When the HSCA asked Angleton’s deputy at the CIA, Ray Rocca, what caused the Special Investigations Group to open a file on Oswald. Rocca implied that Richard Bissel of the CIA may have been in contact with Oswald. The exchange went like this:

 

Rocca: “It would be with respect to where and what happened to Deputy Director of Plans, Richard Bissell’s materials with respect to a defection in any of those places.”

 

HSCA:  “Again, though, Oswald had nothing to do with Richard Bissell at this time, at least apparently.”

 

Rocca: “I’m not saying that. You said that.”[36]

 

So, the CIA started tracking Oswald in the form of reading his mail in the HTLINGUAL program, but the CIA, for whatever reason, did not open a standard 201 file on Oswald until a year later, apparently because counterintelligence chief James Angleton decided not to open the 201, according to Bannerman.

 

Rocca’s exchange with the HSCA about Richard Bissel is by no means a smoking gun, but Rocca, Jim Angleton’s deputy, is not willing to confirm that Richard Bissel, a higher up in the CIA, was not linked to Oswald. That’s not the same as him admitting it. Maybe Rocca was just being extra cautious. But it sounds like he is saying that Oswald may have had involvement with the Deputy Director of Plans of the CIA. That’s a big deal if true.

 

MINSK BEFORE MARINA

 

On January 7, Oswald traveled to Minsk via train, which was paid for by the Soviets.[37] Once he made it there, the mayor of Minsk gave Oswald a rent-free apartment on the 4th floor of a building overlooking the Svisloch River.[38] Most Soviets had to wait years for their own apartment, but Oswald got one right away.[39]He was a minor celebrity being the only American in Minsk.[40] The next week, Oswald started his job as a metalworker at the Belorussian Radio and Television Factory, which had over 5,000 workers.[41]

 

Alejandro Ziger was Oswald’s boss at the factory. Ziger had two teenage daughters whom Oswald would often socialize with. Oswald also had long conversations with his boss, Mr. Ziger. Lee worked six days a week at the factory and would spend 3 or 4 nights a week hanging out at the Ziger home.[42]

 

Ernst Titovets met Oswald in the Fall of 1960 at a party at the Ziger home. Titovets was Oswald’s closest friend while he was in the Soviet Union. While they were in Minsk, Titovets had access to a tape recorder and he made recordings of Oswald’s southern accent as a way for Titovets to better learn the language. We still have the recordings today.

 

Oswald and Titovets take turns role playing at one point. There’s a really interesting clip of Oswald pretending to be a fictional murderer named Jack Marr. He says some pretty awful stuff. Let’s take a listen:

 

            And now I give the word to Mr. Jack Marr….you want to tell us about your last killing?

 

It was a young girl under a bridge. She came in carrying a loaf of bread and I just cut her throat from ear to ear. What for? Well, I wanted the loaf of bread of course.

 

The most famous killing was the time I killed 8 men on the bowery sidewalk. I didn’t like their faces, so I shot them all with a machine gun. It was very famous. All the newspapers carried the story.

 

It’s all the same to me. Their going to execute me tomorrow anyway. So long![43]

 

It’s crazy to hear a recording of Oswald basically doing Improv to try to impress his Russian friend. The part about being executed was a few years early, but eerily prescient nonetheless.

 

The local KGB in Minsk kept Oswald under constant surveillance. KGB put people in front of him who said they had secret info to see how he reacted. His apartment was bugged.[44] And one of Oswald’s friends in Minsk who would sometimes help interpret for him - Roza Kuznetsova - was a KGB informant.[45]

 

Oswald had several different girlfriends in Russia. He wrote in his diary that he slept with a Russian girl named Inna 4 or 5 times in the Fall of 1960 until she moved away from Minsk.[46]

 

A few months later, Oswald spent New Year’s Eve 1961 at the home of fellow factory worker, Ella Germann. According to Oswald’s diary, Germann QUOTE “turned down his more dishonorable advances” on New Year’s Eve. Nevertheless, he proposed to her the next day and was turned down because of QUOTE “lack of love and because [he] was an American and someday might be arrested.”[47] 

 

Then, Oswald quickly moved on to a girl named Nellya for the rest of January and February. This is how he described her: QUOTE

 

“Nellya, at first, does not seem to warrant attention since she is rather plain looking and frighteningly large, but I felt at once that she was kind and her passions were proportional to her size, a fact to be found out only after a great deal of research.”[48]

 

On February 13, 1961, the US Embassy received an undated letter from Oswald, where he said he had become disillusioned in the Soviet Union and wanted to return to the United States, so long as he would not be prosecuted.[49] The Soviets intercepted and read Oswald’s letter to the US Embassy. After that, they promptly cut off his monthly subsidies.[50]

 

There was no US Embassy in Minsk. So, Oswald had to correspond with letters to Moscow. He asked if he could obtain his passport through the mail, but the Embassy required him to personally appear in Moscow to confirm he had not renounced his citizenship.[51]

 

A March 31, 1961 interoffice memo at the Passport Office sheds light on why Oswald was required to come to the Embassy in person to get his passport. The memo says QUOTE “It has been stated that there is an imposter using Oswald’s identification data and that no doubt the Soviets would love to get ahold of his valid passport, it is my opinion that the passport should be delivered only on a personal basis.”[52]

 

This idea of an imposter using Oswald’s identification data, especially in the context of passports, was later apparently confirmed. After President Kennedy was assassinated, Senator Richard Russell asked his friend, former army intelligence colonel Phillip Corso to look into the matter. Corso contacted the head of the US Passport office, Francis Knight, who told him that there were two passports issued to Lee Harvey Oswald and they had been used by two different people.[53]

 

NEXT TIME ON SOLVING JFK: We look at the beginning of Oswald’s relationship with Marina Prusakova and the couple’s efforts to make it out of the Soviet Union and across the ocean to America.

 

 


[1] Warren Report at 747-48.

[2] Foreign Service Dispatch – Moscow to Department of State, 11/2/59.

[4] John Armstrong, Harvey & Lee, at 266.

[5] CE 914.

[6] Id.

[7] Warren Commission Testimony of Richard Snyder, https://www.history-matters.com/archive/jfk/wc/wcvols/wh5/pdf/WH5_Snyder.pdf, 271.

[8] CE 917.

[10] Id.

[12] Gerald Posner, Case Closed, at 53.

[13] Warren Report at 693.

[14] Id.  

[15] Armstrong at 268.

[16] CE 1385.

[17] Armstrong at 280.

[18] Id. at 282.

[19] Id.

[20] Warren Report at 696.

[21] CE 921.

[23] Posner at 54.

[25] FBI Wanted Notice Card, Jacket No. 327 925 D; see also Armstrong at 276.

[27] Armstrong at 276.

[29] HSCA Report, p 201, Lopez Report, p 142-143.

[30] John Newman, Oswald and the CIA, at 47.

[31] Richard Helms HSCA Testimony, September 25, 1978  

[32] Newman at 51.

[33] Id.

[34] Id. at 171.

[35] Id.

[36] HSCA Interview of Ray Rocca, at 218.

[37] Posner at 57.

[38] Armstrong at 286.

[39] Id.

[40] Posner at 57.

[41] Id.

[42] Armstrong at 287.

[44] Posner at 59

[45] Id. at 58.

[46] Armstrong at 312

[48] Id.

[49] Sylvia Meagher, Accessories After the Fact, at 327.

[50] Posner at 62.

[51] Id.

[52] Memo from Edward T. Hickey to John T. White, 3/31/61.

[53] Anthony Summers, Official and Confidential, the Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover, at 322; Author’s interview with Phillip Corso, 1996.

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