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Lee Harvey Oswald biographer Peter Savodnik discusses the troubled assassin

In 'The Interloper,' Savodnik examines Oswald's time living in the Soviet Union and how that affected his later life.

By Randy Dotinga / November 20, 2013

Lee Harvey Oswald biographer Peter Savodnik says that Oswald was 'tragically mistaken' in his search for acceptance in the Soviet Union.


A slight man who craved attention – and occasionally got it – Lee Harvey Oswald cast a small shadow before that late November day a half-century ago. Then a barrage of three rifle shots brought him a kind of eternal infamy as a man who brought darkness to a nation.

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Family members, co-workers, and friends have given historians insight into the assassin's troubled life. (Yes, some people tolerated Oswald, and a few were even fond of him despite his difficult personality.) But Oswald's brief trip to Russia, where he lived as a defector before returning to the US, isn't fully understood.

Journalist Peter Savodnik aims to uncover fresh ground in his new book "The Interloper: Lee Harvey Oswald Inside the Soviet Union." He digs into Oswald's obsession with Marxism, his revealing diaries, and his never-ending disappointments and humiliations.

In an interview, Savodnik talked about Oswald's sense of entitlement, his detachment from those around him, and the elusive motives behind his actions on that long-ago Nov. 22.
Q: One of the common words used to describe Oswald in documentaries is "nut." Is that a fair or accurate description of the man?
A: It doesn't do much do much to elucidate or enrich the conversation. The whole point of "The Interloper" is to try to do more than attach some colloquialism or label to Oswald and look at him as a three-dimensional character, not a cog in someone else's detective story.

It's also to peer through the mystery. Once you look at him as a full-fledged character in a Shakespearean tragedy, you start to see the assassination for what it was – a tragedy.
Q: Did anyone wonder why you chose to focus on a universally reviled murderer like Lee Harvey Oswald?
A: No one questioned my decision to write about Oswald until I'd been enveloped by a lot of very shadowy characters and very dark stuff – history, archival materials, interviews. It's all very compelling and riveting, but can weigh on you.

At some point I had a conversation with my wife or parents, and the question came up why I had to write about someone who murdered the president.

When it comes to history, it's much more interesting to write about the villains and about the questions that are still unanswered.

Why did this happen? How is it possible that this happened? It remains at the core of our political identity. Wanting those answers courses through the American psyche from the moment of the assassination to the present. I found something about that unavoidably fascinating.
Q: How did your picture of Oswald change as you worked on the book?
A: I had approached this thinking about it the way that many people do: Oswald is someone who's singularly determined to murder the president and seems to wield control over his life. In fact, he had very little insight into himself and into the ways he thought and acted. He seemed to fail to understand why he behaved the way he did.
Q: What else makes him stand apart?
A: For a guy with his level of education – which is to say, none – and his background and lack of resources, he managed to get to places to see people and to involve himself in matters way beyond what one might expect. He went to the Soviet Union, traveling across Europe to get there and getting to Minsk. He managed to see a lot thanks to his single-mindedness and perseverance born of his fury to escape his mother and his life.


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