Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Book Review: The Interloper: Lee Harvey Oswald Inside the Soviet Union by Peter Savodnik

An over-hyped book of little substance...

As soon as I discovered that a book was being published on Lee Oswald’s Russian period I started to speculate how the author might handle the notion of Oswald defecting to be operative there.  The book blurbs on Amazon showed it was going to be yet another, lone nut book.  True enough, author Peter Savodnik states in the introduction says that Oswald acted alone and we can see how he did so by studying his life in Soviet Russia.  As he stated on page xi:

“It is the facts of his life (Oswald’s), and especially his life in the Soviet Union, that tell us what we need to know to conclude that he alone was responsible for killing President Kennedy.”

Good!  No need for an investigation then.  Towards the end of the page he follows up with this whopper:

The Interloper is an attempt, at long last, to make sense of this person we have we have never known.”

At long last?  As if nobody else ever tried?  As if Peter Savodnik knows him by interviewing his friends.  At this point I’m wondering if Savodnik is having an attack of advanced hubris to spit this line out or the marketing department jammed it in.  Of course, there are plenty of researchers have delved into Lee Oswald, his character, and exploits before the guns went off.  Authors such as Norman Mailer, Oswald’s Tale (1995); John Armstrong, Harvey and Lee (2003); John Newman, Oswald and the CIA (2008), and space does not permit a listing of many others. 

The course is set from here and what evaluation we will find of Oswald’s character and actions could just as well come out of the well-worn pages of the Warren Report.  

Time Spent in Russia
Peter Savodnik credentials including writing for the New York Times, Harper’s, Time, Atlantic Monthly and other northeastern liberal yankee publications.  He was based in Moscow for a number of years and wrote extensively about Russian issues.  Since Savodnik spent a lot time living and working in Russia he at some point–never explained–developed an interest in Lee Oswald’s life and was able to interview a lot of people that knew Lee Oswald during his time there. The picture Savodnik paints of Oswald is a one of a sad, pathetic, and often angry figure; an out of place young man that isn't very bright, struggles with the native tongue of his newfound homeland, and is ignorant of the culture he has just landed in.

Probably most surprising, is Savodnik's assertion that Oswald was a poor Russian speaker.  In fact, I know of no other book written on Oswald that ever doubted his ability to speak, read, and write the Russian language competently.  Even the Warren Report with its faults admits to his Russian speaking abilities which he supposedly learned from a Marine officer.  According to Savodnik, Oswald needs tips and lessons from co-workers and an interpreter at some phases of his work at the Minsk TV factory.  This fits in with Savodnik's angle of Oswald being a guy that isn't very clever, troubled in mind and intellect–only it’s not true.  The author is not being honest with his readers at this point.

Why? Because there is a lot of evidence that Oswald was a very good Russia speaker, good enough for his future wife Marina to comment that upon their first meeting she thought he was a local because he spoke with a Baltic accent.  While it is true that Oswald rarely spoke in Russian while there, the idea that this could have been a cover for his true identity is contrary to Savodnik's narrative.  Arriving back in America in 1962, Lee and Marina were befriended by the White Russian community there, and George De Mohrenschildt in particular.  De Mohrenschildt testified to Lee speaking Russian competently and reading Russian literature written in Russian.  Another Russian speaker who know Oswald said that his language skills were good enough to be a translator.  But Savodnik never tells his readers this.

Mistakes in the Narrative
For a writer good enough to be published in noted literary journals and travels the world doing research, Peter Savodnik can sure makes some goofs.  

One of the biggest involves the early days of Oswald’s life and the constant moving around he and his siblings endured.  Savodnik states that the shortest time the Oswald’s spent at a residence was six weeks in Manhattan.  Well, they never lived in Manhattan!  They lived in the Bronx.  Even the address Savodnik lists, E. 179th St., implying Manhattan, is a Bronx location (Google maps).  In actually, after getting kicked out of older brother John Pic’s apartment after Lee threatened Mrs. Pic with a penknife, they moved to 1455 Sheridan, Apt F.  They later moved to their final residence in New York at 325 E. 179th St.  Both residences are in the Bronx.  John Pic and family lived in the Bronx as well.  Marguerite Oswald did work odd jobs in Manhattan and Lee briefly attended PS117 in Manhattan, but they never lived there.  

Do publishing houses hire fact checkers anymore?

The length of time in New York is wrong too.  Lee and his mother arrived there in August of 1952 and Savodnik contradicts his tale by having them returning to New Orleans in January of 1954.  Obviously a lot more than six weeks passed here.

Of course herein lies one of the problems with the narrative.  Under the official account Lee is supposed to be attending PS44 in the Bronx in fall of 1953.  However, there is another set of educational records showing Lee attending part-time at Beauregard Junior High School in the fall of 1953 as well!  Researcher John Armstrong (see links) found this oddity in volume 22 of the collected Warren Commission hearings.  And there are more than just documents, there are a host of important events going on as well in 1953.  For example, Lee going truant, being evaluated by two psychologists, being sent to a youth home for a while, and his mother being interviewed by probation officer John Carro.  By the fall of 1953 things heat up with Carro attempting to get Marguerite and Lee in family court for counseling services and other issues, but he is checkmated every step of the way.  All of these events are happening in New York while another Lee Oswald is in school in another state in New Orleans.  Strange, huh?

As you can see, by taking the conservative approach with a simple narrative from the Warren Report, and staying out of those pesky 26 volumes of collected hearings and evidence, one can eliminate great difficulties in exploring the case.  One can direct the flow away from conspiracy very easily.  Especially if somebody doesn’t want that reported.  Logically, Savodnik can’t discuss it anyway because it disrupts his “Lee is a nobody” story.

The False Defector Program
A major omission by the author is the False Defector Program being run out of Nag’s Head, North Carolina with the sole purpose of placing operatives behind the Iron Curtain.  It’s too hot to handle because Peter Savodnik makes no mention of it.  One would think this issue should be properly explored if one were doing an honest investigation into Oswald’s Russian period.  But if you are a hack, then by all means, ignore it and type away!

Senator Richard Schweiker who had seen the classified files said,  “We don’t know what happened (in Dallas), but we do know Oswald had intelligence connections. Everywhere you look with him, there are the fingerprints of intelligence.” He further stated to author David Talbot that Oswald–“...was the product of a fake defector program run by the CIA.”  Former CIA officer Victor Marchetti stated this as well (Peter Janney, Mary’s Mosaic). 

Otto Otepka, Deputy Director of the United States State Department's Office of Security, uncovered the false defector program soon after JFK’s election. A security file listed Lee Oswald as a “tourist.” to the Soviet Union.  And while in the Soviet Union Oswald came into contact with Michael Jelisavcic, a known CIA operative at American Express.  A declassified document lists Jelisavcic as a CIA asset. 

Notwithstanding, if Oswald were a false defector this would greatly add to what his real motivations were during his Russian phase.  There is a great deal of bias for the official story that blinds the author to any other alternatives.  Oswald as false defector is an important part of the story if true, and the author finds it not worth mentioning or looking into.  He has to avoid the subject or else it messes up a nice tale.  

And it should be noted that Oswald was not the only defector.  Robert Webster (a dead ringer for Oswald in looks) was another who left the same year, 1962, that Oswald did (Lee knew him and Webster knew Marina, facts the reader isn’t told either).  There were in fact, a whole host of American defectors, many leaving that year as well.  

Another Important Point Omitted
However, what is commonly left out of the story is who exactly decided to allow Oswald to stay after his suicide attempt.  According to Joseph J. Trento in his book, The Secret History of the CIA, it was the most powerful woman in the Soviet Union, Yekaterina Furtseva.  The first female member of the Politburo, who took a personal interest in this hapless American defector and gave the order to let him stay.  According to Soviet defector Yuri Nosenko, it was Furtseva that ordered the KGB not to recruit Oswald as a possible KGB mole.

One would think this a very important point.  But Savodnik totally ignores Furtseva’s control of this issue.  It shows that Oswald’s entry as a defector into the Soviet Union was closely watched and made the hierarchy of Soviet government very suspicious.  The Russians have a long history of espionage and are very successful at it.  They probably spotted Oswald early on as an operative and someone not to be trusted.  

The idea that Savodnik would ignore this crucial fact is a serious lapse of judgement and good research.  He has to have an Oswald that is so unimportant, and such a failure in life, that nobody would have an interest in him.  But people of great import did.

The Real Interloper
The Interloper is the standard tale of the disgruntled loser with delusions of grandeur arriving at the Socialist Worker’s Paradise only to grow disillusioned there too.  Then later, the bad thing happens.  Hey, hasn’t Norman Mailer already written that book?  At last he gets a few mentions but Savodnik treats Mailer like a grumpy old uncle, capable of committing embarrassing disruptions, and whose insights are best ignored.  Might as well be, since Mailer wrote the better book on the subject of Lee Oswald and his time in Russia.  Mailer’s research includes KGB transcripts from the Oswald’s bugged apartment in Minsk, and while basically being the bickering of a young couple, it at least offers insights into their relationship.  The Interloper adds nothing to the mix.  Even the word “interloper,” used as a mantra in this book, is just a literary device Savodnik uses to propel along a well-trodden story.  

In the end, the real interloper in this book is the author himself.  His stuffy dismissal of conspiracy or its believers shows that his search for the truth is one reined in by the Gatekeepers that praise his book on the back cover blurbs.  Peter Savodnik’s portrayal of Lee Oswald as being out of place unstable misfit, unable to find a niche in wherever he travels, has been made so many times before it’s a yawn.  Some men seek the truth and other men just go along to get along.

Savodnik, like his subject, he has no sense of place either. He acts as if the Warren Report was the only investigation and nothing has happened since.  The House Select Committee on Assassinations concluded in their final report that there was a possibility of a conspiracy but they had not the time or finances to pursue any leads.  You will not see that mentioned in this book.  He considers Oswald's lack of motive as unimportant, dismisses conspiracy all too easily with a wave of a hand, travels the world for research only to restate old details, gets simple facts wrong or important ones omitted, he interviews only the people that will tell him what he wants to hear, and the author depends on the incomplete research and record of the Warren Report for his bedrock truth.

So what new revelations is the reader going to find?  Not much.  If you have an interest in biographies of Oswald’s friends and acquaintances in Minsk, or how long it took him to walk from his apartment to his job at the TV factory, then this book is for you.  
Otherwise, this tome features nothing new, much of which is rushed and summarized to begin with.

The Interloper serves as yet another vehicle for the Establishment to maintain their stranglehold on the mainstream media’s unyielding devotion to the long gunman myth.  Conspiracy...such a naughty word these days for this bunch of true-believing herd thinkers.

Hardcover: 288 pages
Publisher: Basic Books (October 8, 2013)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0465021816
ISBN-13: 978-0465021819
Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 9.2 inches

Addendum #1 
Although I didn’t give Norman Mailer’s Oswald’s Tale high marks, it is in retrospective a far better account of Lee Oswald’s life and search to find out the inner man, than The Interloper is.

Addendum #2 
Easy made it to my list of worst JFK Books.  LINK

Available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kindle, iBooks/iTunes