In 1960s Minsk, Stanislau Shushkevich worked on product design at the same radio factory as Lee Harvey Oswald and taught him Russian. Shushkevich -- who went on to become the first post-Soviet leader of Belarus -- spoke with RFE/RL correspondent Pavel Butorin.
RFE/RL: How did you meet Lee Harvey Oswald? What was your first impression of him?
You know, contact with foreigners was forbidden back when I was doing scientific research. But I was very curious. And the party organization [at the Minsk radio factory] tasked me, a non-Party member, to work with an American. To be honest, I found it very interesting. So, it was with great pleasure that I agreed. Although, knowing our system, I made it seem like it wasn't the best thing for me to do and I wasn't quite prepared for that. But actually I was curious.
There was one condition: I never met with him one on one. There was always someone else; it was Sasha Rubenchik, who had graduated from the university about four years later than me. He also worked at the radio factory. So it was the two of us who met [with Oswald] -- to keep an eye on each other, so to speak.
[Oswald] made a very good impression on me. First of all, he was dressed in standard Soviet military rags -- a plush hat with flap ears, some camouflaged clothes -- but he wore those clothes splendidly. I had never seen anyone wear that brick-shaped hat more beautifully. He was handsome and he looked very good.
His behavior was decent. He never allowed himself anything out of the ordinary. Generally, he never asked any questions. We weren't allowed to ask any questions either, about who he was or where he came from. Our task was to help him improve his Russian a little bit.
RFE/RL: Did he speak much about his American life?
Absolutely not. Not a single word. I think he had received the same recommendations: we were not allowed to ask who he was, where he came from, how he had gotten here, why he was working here -- nothing. As a measure of control, Liabezin, the Party secretary in [Oswald's] workshop, inquired what subjects we covered in our lessons. I told him we were covering the usual subjects in accordance with the Soviet [English-language] curriculum: work, school, street, theater, cinema, city. Those were the subjects we tried to talk about.
My colloquial English was basically nonexistent. I had been trained to do passive translations. I translated texts from English, and I still do. But I still don't speak English very well.
WATCH an RFE/RL exclusive -- Those Who Knew Lee Harvey Oswald In Minsk Tell Their Stories:
RFE/RL: Did you cover culture or music in your lessons?
No. Any discussion of culture was limited to how to buy a cinema or theater ticket, or to ask where theaters were located in Minsk.
RFE/RL: How about any movie titles?
I don't remember.
RFE/RL: Did you only teach him Russian or was it a mutual learning process?
You see, our studies were pretty basic. He tried to say something in Russian and we corrected his mistakes to make it sound like real Russian.
RFE/RL: How about "My Family"? Was there such a topic?
No. No family. My house, yes.
RFE/RL: Could he say in Russian, "I have so many sisters or brothers"?
Yes, he was able to say that.
RFE/RL: And what would he say?
He didn't say anything about that. And we weren't supposed to ask. You see, you can't even imagine what it was like, following orders from the Party Committee.
[Oswald] never talked about where he had lived or how he had found himself in Europe. That was completely forbidden to talk about.
RFE/RL: How about his military service?
Especially about that. We weren't supposed to know that he had served in the military. Sasha and I talked among ourselves, about him being a deserter and being so clever that he hadn't revealed it.
RFE/RL: So, he seemed clever enough.
Well, you see, he never talked. He carried out his instructions; we carried out our instructions. I wouldn't believe it now either, if it hadn't happened to me personally.
RFE/RL: From the limited contact that you had with Oswald, was it possible for you to make any conclusions about his temperament?
You know, it was possible. I got the impression that he was a very calm person. He produced the impression of a hard-working man.
But he also seemed to have very strong habits that weren't suitable for studying Russian -- especially with the accents in Russian words. I would teach him to say, "Ya DOO-ma-yu" ("I think"), but he insisted on saying, "Doo-MAH-yu." We would be going over the tenses, and he kept saying, "Ya Doo-MAH-yu." You see, I simply could not get him to say, "DOO-ma-yu." Besides that, he never showed any other habits.
He never showed any emotion. His punctuality was spotless. Our lesson was always at 18:05 at the laboratory of the radio factory and he was always there on the dot.
RFE/RL: How would you describe his relationship with other workers?
Now, that was something completely different. Although I liked some things about him, his manner of work was a big risk to me. I always asked his mentor, the qualified worker who worked with him, whose name now escapes me, "Listen, don't let Oswald work on my designs." He simply did the wrong thing, quietly. I usually needed some fairly complex metalwork done while working on the mockup of a new device. And I asked [Oswald's mentor] not to give my orders to him. He had rather low qualifications as a worker. That is just my opinion. But I knew him only at the beginning [of his time at the radio factory]. Maybe he learned later. But for the time I knew him, he was a metalworker of low qualification. I don't know how they calculated his salary.
RFE/RL: Oswald wrote in his Minsk diary that his job bored him very much.
I think everything bored him at the factory. I think we spoke about it already. I never saw him get excited about anything or show interest in anything. No, he was pretty calm.
As Belarusians say, he was a "wet herring." In other words, he received all information with calm, without any emotions, as far as I remember.
RFE/RL: Did he have any ambitions at the factory? Did he seek a promotion?
My impression was that his only ambition was to look better than others. Whatever he wore -- I can't even use the word "clothes," it was all just drab rags -- whatever he put on, it looked great on him. He was a good-looking man of particular cleanliness. His clothes were always freshly washed -- I don't remember if they were ironed -- but he was a particularly clean person.
RFE/RL: Did he seem to be an intelligent person?
He was a rather closed person and it was hard to tell how educated he was. But his knowledge of Russian was pretty decent and he could exchange views when Sasha [Rubenchik] and I started teaching him, that's for sure. We never asked him about anything else, it was forbidden.
RFE/RL: So he didn't speak about the Soviet Union?
Never. Not about the Soviet Union, or the city, or the metal shop, or about his metal-shop colleagues. I went to the experimental shop very often because we sent our blueprints there for production, but I never saw him having a friendly chat with workers or with his mentor who was giving him various tasks.
RFE/RL: In an essay titled "The Collective," which he wrote later, Oswald provides a highly detailed account of every aspect of Soviet living and working conditions. It's as if he had been on a research mission here. Did he ever look like a researcher to you?
(Laughs) You know, if I had been asked to take him into my research team, I would have refused immediately, even though I would have been curious to work with an American. I didn't see any inclination of inquiry or creativity in him.
Maybe I'm being unjust. But he showed absolutely no interest in the things that seemed important to me.
RFE/RL: Did it seem to you that at some point he became disappointed in his life in the Soviet Union?
Over the course of our lessons, his attitude to his studies didn't change. He studied diligently. After that, I didn't have any contact with him. His day-to-day life, his marriage plans -- I had absolutely nothing to do with him at that point.
RFE/RL: We have touched on this but let me ask you again. Was he not allowed to talk about his ideology, his world view? Or did he simply not want to? Did he ever discuss his reasons for coming to the Soviet Union?
Never. Not even a hint. You see, we were categorically forbidden to ask him about that. And he never talked about anything.
We each received individual instructions on how to work with [Oswald] and we didn't violate our instructions, assuming that we might rat each other out.... We stuck to those rules.
You see, now as I am recalling that time, I don't understand why we acted like that -- like idiots, if you will excuse me. There was an outright ban. I had Sasha. And Sasha had me. We each received individual instructions on how to work with [Oswald] and we didn't violate our instructions, assuming that we might rat each other out. Although, I don't think Sasha would have ever ratted me out, nor would I ever betray him. He was a good colleague of mine, a young co-worker. But we stuck to those rules. You see, I had come [to the radio factory] from a high-security facility. And in the product-design department at the radio factory we were designing devices of dual use, including military, and we couldn't talk about what we were doing in the lab, so we didn't talk to him and he didn't talk to us.
RFE/RL: But on a basic, day-to-day level, did he ever say he didn't like any particular food, for example?
RFE/RL: Nothing at all?
Nothing at all. He never complained about food. He never made any remarks. You know, as I'm telling you about it right now, I don't quite understand why we acted like that. We had been brought up this way.
RFE/RL: Did you shake hands when you greeted each other?
We shook hands, yes, quite normally. He would say, "Hi," in Russian. We would say, "Hi, come in. Take your jacket off." When we studied formal and informal personal pronouns, "ty" and "vy" -- well, we were saying "ty" to each other. In other words, we were on informal terms.
RFE/RL: Did he drink vodka with other workers?
I don't know. Come on, at the factory, you could drink vodka only on the sly. At the factory, everyone drank factory alcohol. But in the product-design department, you would be fired if you were caught drinking, because we were supposed to be an example to the working class. The working class drank on the sly. Manganese solution was added to the alcohol, to add color. The workers used paper filters with coal to make the alcohol transparent, and they showed it to us, too.
RFE/RL: Did Oswald take part in such activities?
Oswald? I don't know. But I don't think he did. But I will tell you that at the same factory, when I was still in training, you couldn't refuse to drink alcohol. But that was in a different lab, it was a measuring-instruments lab -- your coworkers would say, "What's wrong with you? What kind of worker or what kind of engineer are you? Come on!" The first time I drank that purified alcohol was to show [I was a proper specialist], and I was taking a big risk.
RFE/RL: Did he attend labor union meetings or any other meetings?
He worked in a different department. I worked in the product-design department and he was at the experimental shop. Those were two different institutions. We didn't actually have any union meetings. They collected money every now and then, we paid our membership fees. I don't really remember. I worked at the factory a little more than a year and I don't remember any meetings -- except when we were falling behind on our production plan. We had just launched the first transistor radio receiver, the Minsk-T, and it wasn't doing well on the conveyor belt. And then there was a demand for overnight work, and there was some decent money in it. I remember that on the first night I made one receiver work, but after that I got eight receivers to work, and they stopped the [overtime] payments. I think that policy affected [Oswald] as well.
RFE/RL: You mentioned money. Do you know how he spent his money?
I don't know. But he never complained that he had no money or that he denied himself anything.
RFE/RL: Oswald wrote in his diaries that, with his Red Cross checks, he was making as much as the factory director. Was it noticeable that he was living comfortably?
Perhaps I was wrong about the quality of his clothes. Maybe he was wearing simple clothes in an elegant way. Or maybe his clothes were more expensive than ours, I don't rule that out.
RFE/RL: Did he speak about his favorite places in Minsk?
That was covered by the ban. I repeat, I can't believe I followed the Party Committee's instruction so closely.
RFE/RL: How did he address you?
He addressed us very simply. He said "Sasha" to Rubenchik and "Stanislau" to me.
RFE/RL: What was your reaction when you learned that Lee Harvey Oswald was accused of assassinating U.S. President John F. Kennedy?
I remember that day very well. I was already working at a university at that time. As a faculty member I worked with Factory No. 32, a restricted-access radio-electronic factory, where we had our metalwork done.
It was during lunch break that the announcement was made on factory radio. It was 1963.... They said 'Lee Harvey Oswald.' At first I thought it was someone else. Then they said it again. I listened more closely and I thought, 'Well, I'm in a pickle now. Who knows what I could be accused of?'
It was during lunch break that the announcement was made on factory radio. It was 1963. I couldn't believe it. It seemed like I had just had contact with [Oswald], in 1961. It was unbelievable. They said nothing about Minsk. They said "Lee Harvey Oswald." At first I thought it was someone else. I knew a few people named Lee, by the way. Then they said it again. I listened more closely and I thought, "Well, I'm in a pickle now. Who knows what I could be accused of?"
I walk out to the street. I should say that we had many Jewish people at the design bureau and they were all good jokers. Many of them had just been thrown out of the Molotov factory.
And so this guy came up to me and said, "Why are you still walking on the street? Liabezin has been arrested, that other guy has been arrested. And you're still walking. Good for you," he said.
"I don't get you, are you with the KGB or are you a physicist?" -- such jokes came from everyone you knew. Everyone at the factory knew that we had taught [Oswald]. The product-design department was a three-story building and everyone knew that we taught [Oswald]. And everyone had to make fun of me. At the [May Day] demonstration I couldn't make a move without being told, "How did they let you come here?" But there were never any questions from the official structures.
RFE/RL: Did you have any contact with the security services during your time with Oswald or after?
No. At the factory, it was [Party Secretary] Liabezin who served as the instrument of security services. He was the only person I talked to about this subject.
RFE/RL: So nobody ever spoke to you about Oswald?
Nobody. Never. Neither before nor after.
However, later, when I became chairman of the Belarusian Supreme Soviet, [U.S. novelist and author of "Oswald's Tale: An American Mystery"] Norman Mailer came and asked if he could look at [Oswald's] personal file. I said, "Before the end of the day tomorrow, I will answer your question."
After he left, I called [Eduard] Shirkovsky, chairman of the KGB. I asked if it could hurt our interests. He said, "Of course not. Let him look at it, right now." That was his answer. Mailer had a big team. They wrote their book collectively. His representative, accompanied by a very nice lady, came back to me, and I said they could familiarize themselves [with Oswald's file].
RFE/RL: A lot has been written and filmed over the past 50 years about Lee Harvey Oswald. As someone who was in direct contact with him, do you ever feel that you know something that has been untold to the world about him?
You know, a lot more has been said about him than I could even imagine. To speak more about him, well, first of all, I don't even want to.
In fact, I don't think it was his work.
I went to Dallas exactly for that, on my own initiative. It was when I went to the Center for Belarusian Studies in Winfield, 40 miles [65 kilometers] from Wichita,...Kansas. The college director lent us his car, and my wife and I drove down to Dallas. We drove around the whole city, and we looked at the street where it happened.
And the only thought I had there was that the chiefs of the U.S. president's security services were simply idiots or that it was a plot directed at Kennedy, a plot in line with the traditions of Dallas itself. We went to some museums in Dallas and looked what the [Ku Klux Klan] had done there, how they killed blacks and Catholics. It was a gangster center, in our terms, to my understanding. I hope the people of Dallas and Texas will forgive me. I had no other feeling.
Therefore, it is my absolute conviction that they found a passive, calm, compliant boy, and used him as the guilty one. As for the conclusions of the Warren Commission, I don't believe them one bit. I have studied them and I don't think [the assassination] was the work of my student.
Interview and translation by Pavel Butorin