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Inna Markava: Oswald 'Enjoyed Being At The Center Of Attention'

A friend of Oswald during his time in Minsk, Inna Markava, shown here in this screen grab on October 29, 2013.
A friend of Oswald during his time in Minsk, Inna Markava, shown here in this screen grab on October 29, 2013.
Inna Markava was a student at the Minsk Institute of Foreign Languages in 1960 when she met Lee Harvey Oswald. Oswald had recently defected to the Soviet Union and was living in Minsk. She met Oswald at a performance of Mendelssohn's violin concerto at the philharmonic concert hall. She later visited Oswald at his small apartment located in an exclusive section of Minsk. Markava returned to the apartment to share her impressions of him with RFE/RL correspondent Pavel Butorin.

RFE/RL: Inna Andreyevna, can you tell us about your first visit to this apartment?

Inna Markava: I came here with Galya, who was a close friend of mine at the university. [Oswald] opened the door and said "Hello" in Russian, but then we all switched to English because that was that we were here for, to visit the house of an English speaker who had promised that he had many books in English that he was going to show us.

RFE/RL: How did you get invited here?

Markava: Well, it was a return visit. Oswald and [his closest friend in Minsk, Ernst Titovets, whom we knew as] Erik had been to my house before.

We met at the philharmonic, and Erik and Lee walked me home after the concert. I lived close to the Institute of Foreign Languages at the time. I asked them if they would like to come to my place someday, because at that time it was so interesting to have a friend who spoke English. I didn't think about it at the time, but now I realize how dangerous it was to meet a foreigner, let alone invite him to my apartment. But we can talk about that later. They said, "Fine," and Erik wrote down my phone number.

They called me the following day and then both came to my place. My mom was at home too, and I had not warned her that a foreigner was coming -- although my father was deputy chief of the political department of the Belarusian Air Force. And that probably means something to you.

Oswald walked in and greeted my mom with the informal "Zdravstvui." My mom took me to the kitchen and said, "Who did you bring to our house? Doesn't he know he has to say, 'Zdravstvuite' to me? That's not the way to address your mother." I said, "Mom, make no fuss about it, he's a foreigner." My mom nearly fainted. She didn't leave the kitchen for half an hour. She was a very understanding and agreeable woman. After that visit he invited [me and my friend Galya] to his house.

Of course, I didn't tell my parents about that. Only now am I beginning to understand the possible implications of that visit to my family because my dad was deputy chief of the political department of the Belarusian Air Force, which was a very significant position at that time. And my mom was a typical officer's wife who deferred to my father in everything.

Galya and I came here anxious to see an American-style apartment. I remember my expectations very well. I expected to find myself in a different world, with English books on the shelves, some kind of white couches. But I saw something completely different.

So, we came here, he opened the door, we saw a very dark corridor, and we went into the kitchen. There was nothing in the kitchen. There was a double-burner stove, absolutely horrendous and black. There was a table and one chair, I remember it clearly. Then he led us to this room. Closer to the balcony, there was a bed covered with a blanket with two white stripes, just like in [the book "Twelve Chairs" by Soviet satirists Ilya] Ilf and [Yevgeny] Petrov, except without "Feet" written on it. But it was a soldier's blanket, and there was a pillow, right here. It was an iron bed. In that corner, there was an open bookcase. It was very primitive, probably not homemade, but of a very strange design.

On the top shelf was a volume of Lenin in English, and a book by Marx, in English. There was also a book of stories by Jack London, in English. He said he could lend us the Jack London book. I said I already had a more interesting edition of Jack London's stories at home.

He didn't even offer us tea. We were so bewildered by what we saw there. We talked and he told us he worked at a factory, that it was very interesting, that the people were very good, and that he would soon learn to speak Russian well. Then he asked why he never saw us at the dormitories [of the Institute of Foreign Languages] that he often went to. In fact he went to the institute dorms very often. It was close to here, on Omsky Lane [which is now Rumyantsava Street].

The girls who lived in the dorm knew about the regular "event" that he organized. He organized evening meetings with girls. He was very interested in being around girls and he enjoyed being at the center of attention, because boys rarely came there. Generally, there weren't so many boys among us, maybe two boys out of 60 students in our year. So he set up these evening quizzes, where he would pick a random word in a dictionary, say it in English, and someone would have to say it in Russian. He even had someone who registered the right and wrong answers, and then they announced the winners loudly. So, that was his highly intellectual game. That's what I remember really well. I went to his quiz a couple of times, but I was really bored because I could check my own dictionary at home. I didn't find it interesting at all.

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RFE/RL: What kind of first impression did he produce? Was he a fun person to be with?

Markava: You know, he wasn't like our boys. Erik [Titovets] was his direct opposite. He was thoughtful, reserved, and very reasonable compared to [Oswald]. And [Oswald] wasn't exactly a fun person, but he was a little strange in his reactions. Again, maybe it was because he was the product of a different culture that we didn't understand -- now we understand Americans and generally the world around us a lot more -- but at that time we didn't understand it. I didn't really interpret it in any way, but I understood that he was different from us, different from everybody else.

RFE/RL: You were the same age, but did he seem younger or older, perhaps more mature, than you?

Markava: He seemed older to me. Sometimes he would tell us about something and then all of a sudden he would stop, become very serious, and withdraw into himself. That's what I noticed about him. I wondered why he had gone silent so suddenly.

Once he was talking about his family and then he just went quiet, became withdrawn. I remember that very well. He had such moments.

RFE/RL: Did he ever speak about his mother?

Markava: No, he spoke generally about his parents. He never spoke about his mother.

READ ALSO: Oswald's Minsk Friend Inessa Yakhliel Tells Her Story

RFE/RL: How about his brother?

Markava: He talked about his family in general. He didn't speak about anybody in particular. Generally, he spoke very little about that life.

RFE/RL: Why do you think he never did? Did he try to cut all his ties?

Markava: You know, now I am beginning to understand, with age, that he wanted to cut it off completely. He thought, perhaps due to his naiveté, that he would be able to start a new life here, from zero, having cut everything off. That was perhaps what he was doing -- starting a new life here, from zero.

RFE/RL: Was he successful?

Markava: Well, in Minsk, he found friends, he found those girls, the foreign-language students. We were all his friends.

RFE/RL: Were you ever approached by the KGB, during your acquaintance with Oswald or after, especially after you learned that he was accused of assassinating John F. Kennedy?

Markava: You know, I was aware of my dad's political position at the time, I knew how my dad was thinking, what direction he was giving me in life. But I thought I was doing everything right. I didn't think I was making a blunder or a mistake associating with a foreigner. Luckily, no one [from the security services] approached me at that time. Now, I'm even surprised that they didn't. My father didn't know about it and my mom swore that she would never tell him. And I believed her. She would never have done anything that would have caused me trouble. Nobody approached me, no.

I remember very well being afraid that I would be approached [by the KGB] after the assassination had taken place. The whole institute was entangled in this, in knowing Oswald. I remember very well that we were all afraid to even talk about it. All of us who played his bad games were afraid.

What I remember really well is that Erik [Titovets] disappeared. He just disappeared. What did he do? Where was he? But that was none of our business.

INTERACTIVE MAP: Lee Harvey Oswald's Travels

RFE/RL: Since then, have you been in touch?

Markava: I saw him a couple of times when Norman Mailer [the American writer who wrote "Oswald's Tale: An American Mystery"] came here and I translated some interviews for him. It was very interesting for me as I translated an interview with the wife of the uncle of [Oswald's wife] Marina. And after that it occurred to me that Marina was the only person from those who were close [to Oswald] who realized what he was useful for. He was useful for one purpose only -- and she was very well informed, through her uncle, about how one could leave the country. Essentially, it was her uncle who allowed her [to leave the Soviet Union]. Thanks to her nonprofessional or professional activities, she knew very well whom to communicate with, how to communicate. There was nothing else that was attractive about [Oswald].

He definitely wasn't smart. He was nondescript. He wasn't a particularly attractive man. He was a very ordinary male. He slouched, as I remember, and walked in a very nonathletic manner. I remember that very well because I was very athletic and I was paying attention to these things.

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RFE/RL: Did he do any sports here? In his diaries, he wrote he was annoyed by mass gymnastics at the factory.

Markava: I think he hated that. He never mentioned sports.

RFE/RL: Did he ever talk about his military service?

Markava: Yes, he did. He said military service was horrible, he despised it, and he wasn't a military person by nature. When I told him my father was in the military, he said, "I would never want to be a military man."

RFE/RL: He never brought up any weapons or radar?

Markava: No, no. He only said his job had to do with technology at the factory where he worked [in Minsk].

RFE/RL: Once again, did he ever talk about his American family?

Markava: He did tell us that he had family back in America but said he didn't maintain any relations with them. It was obvious he didn't want to talk about it. That was absolutely clear. There was no affection felt in his words about his family in America.

Again, I look at it now from the height of my age and experience, but I think he wanted so much -- like all people with psychological deviations, who want to become famous or exceptional at some point in their lives, unable to do anything else but do something crazy [like defecting] -- so he did it. And then he saw that there was no way back and he kept going down that road. Perhaps it was determined psychologically in his head.

RFE/RL: So, psychologically, he seemed…

Markava: To me, he seemed like someone – first of all, as I said -- not like anyone else. [He was] definitely the product of a different culture. But it was clear he was different from everybody else, that's for sure.

I also remember now that once I saw him angry. Someone said something he didn't like and he became so angry that his face even contorted.

RFE/RL: Did he usually not let his emotions out?

Markava: He probably tried to conceal [his emotions], but they jumped out. He controlled them to some degree -- but every now and then, they jumped out.

I remember very well when he [started dating] Marina. The rumor spread immediately that Lee was going to the movies with a girl.

The girls and I once went to the Mir movie theater knowing that he was bringing Marina with him. He walked in, looking at everyone's reaction. There was that theatricality about him, which was something completely alien to us. We never exhibited ourselves like that; we were all like gray mice. And there was Marina. She was wearing a light-colored coat, with a large belt. They sat down in a central row. She took off her coat, threw it over to him, he caught it and folded it neatly, let her sit down, then sat down too. And he did all that very demonstrably, making sure everyone saw it.

RFE/RL: He liked to show her off?

Markava: Yes, yes, he wanted to show what he had achieved. Marina was very attractive and she dressed in a very interesting way, as far as I remember.

RFE/RL: And how did he dress when he was with her?

Markava: He always wore a sports jacket. I remember it clearly. It was a tweed jacket, a checkered deep red, green, and gray jacket. He wore a shirt with a tie or a turtleneck sweater, I remember that very well.

RFE/RL: He stood out, in other words.

Markava: Yes, yes, yes. He dressed differently, without a doubt.

RFE/RL: Did you know Ella German? Oswald wrote in his diary that he married Marina "to hurt Ella."

Markava: Ella? I only heard her last name. I only heard about her but didn't know her personally.

RFE/RL: Was it showing in his relationship with Marina? He later wrote that he had eventually fallen in love with her. What did his relationship with Marina look like from the outside?

Markava: From the outside, my perception of his relationship with Marina -- and I didn't see them very often -- was that he constantly showed how much he appreciated her, that she was so special compared to others. His goal was to distinguish himself, through Marina.

RFE/RL: Did it ever seem to you that at some point he became disillusioned with life in the Soviet Union?

Markava: I didn't communicate with him that far.

According to Marina's aunt, [Marina and Oswald's] relationship was becoming very complicated and it was becoming more and more difficult to resolve that here. So Marina insisted that their relationship could be fixed only if they left [the Soviet Union] -- because of all the pressure that they felt. He was beginning to understand that he had made a mistake having cut all his ties.

RFE/RL: Did Marina play a role in their decision to leave, in your opinion?

Markava: Most definitely. That is my belief. I arrived at that conclusion as I was translating an interview with her aunt.

It was a KGB family. And what is a KGB family? It is not a military family. It's a completely different kind of family. Even in those interviews, she gave the same answers to all questions, just different phrasing.

RFE/RL: In an interview with the BBC, Marina was asked point blank if she had been with the KGB. She said, "Heavens, no."

Markava: Marina? Marina most definitely was [with the KGB], albeit indirectly. There is no way she was "Heavens, no." Definitely, she was [involved with the KGB], at least indirectly. Otherwise, who would have let her out of the country?

RFE/RL: Do you think Oswald was essentially a ticket to Marina?

Markava: Absolutely. For Marina, it was simply a radical change in her life. It was insanely difficult to leave the country.

RFE/RL: Getting back to Oswald -- you have touched upon his intelligence. Simply put, was he a smart person?

Markava: Mediocre. You know, he was an ordinary man who found himself in an extraordinary situation, and who had neither the psychological nor intellectual capacity to handle it in a good way, or in an excellent way, I should say. Perhaps he could have handled it if he had been a different person. He was a man who didn't have enough basic education for what he did [defecting to the Soviet Union].

RFE/RL: Are you familiar with this essay, "The Collective," which he wrote upon return to the United States. He gives a very detailed account of every aspect of Soviet life in it, with statistics, etc.

Markava: No, all of that was out of reach for us. I had different interests too, I was writing my dissertation.

RFE/RL: Well, in that essay, he comes across as a real researcher.

Markava: You don't say?

RFE/RL: Yes, he provides statistics, talks about waiting lists for apartments, etc. When he was here, did it look like he was researching something?

Markava: You know, all I remember is when he came to our three-room apartment, here on Pervomaiskaya Street, he said, "That's a nice and big apartment." He asked me how we had gotten it. Well, there were two children in our family and my dad's brother had been wounded in the war. We had an apartment that was appropriate for our situation, not smaller, not bigger. That's what I remember.

RFE/RL: Was he asking questions about day-to-day Soviet life? Did he ask where certain things came from, for instance?

Markava: Yes, for instance, when he came to our house, he saw a Bukhara carpet on our wall. My dad had served as a military attaché in Iran and he brought back a Bukhara carpet, which we took with us to Central Asia when we went there [during the wartime evacuation]. He said, "Oh, this is a Bukhara carpet. Where did you get it?" I told him my father had brought that carpet. I didn't really care much about it. I didn't even know it was a valuable thing. But he knew. I found that very interesting.

RFE/RL: Did he participate in demonstrations?

Markava: That, I don't know. He probably did.

RFE/RL: Did he ever talk about his ideological views?

Markava: No, he only said everything was very good here and he liked everything. That, I remember for sure. Or maybe he was so well prepared for his transformation into a new person. As we're trying to analyze him now, it is hard to understand what was true or false.

RFE/RL: Did he ever talk about Marxism-Leninism?

Markava: He had books by Marx and Engels in English here. When he started showing his English books to us, he pointed to some awful edition of Jack London's stories, a collection of articles by Lenin, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Engels, standing in an open bookcase right here. There was nothing else there.

RFE/RL: Did he pull them out, show you his favorite pages?

Markava: No, no, he just said those were his English books. I felt terrible. I thought, "My God, what is this?"

RFE/RL: Did you know that he had tried to kill himself? Did he ever speak about that?

Markava: You mean in Moscow?

RFE/RL: Yes.

Markava: No, he never talked about that. I didn't know about it. I found out about that only when I met Norman Mailer.

RFE/RL: You said you met Oswald at the philharmonic.

Markava: Yes.

RFE/RL: What were they playing that night?

Markava: Mendelssohn's violin concerto.

RFE/RL: Did he like classical music?

Markava: I think he had trouble sitting through a long concert. But Erik [Titovets] said, "I want to teach him. They don't have it America, so I want to teach him. He is not familiar with European values or Russian values, so he should go to the philharmonic with me."

RFE/RL: How about opera?

Markava: I didn't go to the opera with him. But I think Erik received very specific instructions on where to take him.

In fact, Erik was a very smart man. You could certainly see that he was very smart.

RFE/RL: So, it was Ernst Titovets who spent most of the time with him.

Markava: Yes, he was his friend.

RFE/RL: Do you think he was his friend or he was assigned to be his friend?

Markava: Perhaps at first he was assigned to him, but eventually he became his friend, maybe because he probably saw something in him that needed human attention. Maybe.

RFE/RL: How about Oswald himself, was he easy to communicate with?

Markava: I can’t say he was easy to communicate with. He didn’t evoke any feelings that would leave an impression. Sometimes you meet someone and think, "Goodness, what a pleasure." I don’t remember having that feeling with him. [For me, he was only] a native [English speaker].

RFE/RL: What was a party with Oswald like? Some wine?

Markava: No. I don't remember wine being ever mentioned.

RFE/RL: So he didn't drink at all?

Markava: I didn't see him [drink]. Me neither, how could I drink at that time? No, I don't remember that.

RFE/RL: Did he go dancing?

Markava: He told us he went dancing. He also asked us when there were parties in the dorms and he went dancing there too. But that was all before Marina. Before Marina, he lived an intensive cultural life, together with Erik. Erik was accompanying him, as a mentor, a teacher, who advised him what to do.

RFE/RL: What did he tell you about those dances?

Markava: He said the girls were nice. He was teaching them how to dance. By the way, he said some of the dance moves they made were wrong. So he taught them how to make the right moves. I don't remember exactly what he taught them.

RFE/RL: What kind of dances did he teach?

Markava: The Twist, or whatever was popular at that time.

RFE/RL: In other words, he was acquainted with popular music.

Markava: Yes, yes. Perhaps it was the only area of culture he felt comfortable with.

RFE/RL: Did he ever say he missed U.S. pop music?

Markava: No, I don't remember talking about that. But I was a music school graduate and I remember playing the beginning of "The Moonlight Sonata" to him, when he was at my house, and he said he didn't know what it was exactly. He didn't say he knew classical music.

RFE/RL: What was your reaction when you learned that Lee Harvey Oswald was accused of assassinating the U.S. president?

It was terrible. I remember that day very well. There was a big piece of white paper hanging on the second floor of the language institute, in the old building, with newspaper clippings that had photos of Oswald. Everyone walked up to that piece of paper, looked at the pictures, and walked away without saying a word about it. The only comment we allowed ourselves was how fat he had become compared to his skinny look in Minsk. We remembered him as a skinny guy, with hollow cheeks. But in those pictures, he looked big, bloated. I remember very well a picture of him being held, with arms behind his back, by two men in fedoras. He was looking straight into the camera, his face was swollen. He had probably been hit in the face. That was our comment.

And then we all got afraid that we would be picked up by the KGB. We were telling each other, "Get ready, they're going to pick you all one by one." I remember that very well. After a while people stopped talking about it. Or maybe they weren't talking about it because they were afraid. Maybe some of them were actually questioned. The only thing we had the courage to ask each other was, "Where is Erik [Titovets]?" He simply disappeared.

RFE/RL: And when Oswald himself was killed, did you feel sorry for him?

Markava: I felt sorry for him. I felt sorry. [I thought] what a fool. Everyone said, "What a fool, what did he get himself into? What for?"

RFE/RL: Did you believe he did it?

Markava: No.

RFE/RL: On a personal level...

Markava: On a personal level, I didn't believe he could have done it. It seemed to me that he was framed, using the whole situation with the Soviet Union. I didn't think he could have done it. Or he would have been completely insane to do it.

RFE/RL: When he lived here, did he give you the impression of a simpleton who could be used as a scapegoat?

Markava: Yes, there was a little bit of that. Few people understood why someone would leave America and abandon everything.

The girls and I often wondered why he had left America. He could have studied there, worked there. But he cut all his ties. Everybody thought he was odd, like he had crossed some line.

RFE/RL: Over the past 50 years, many books have been written and films made about Lee Harvey Oswald, about the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Do you have a feeling that you personally have a very different impression of Oswald?

Markava: I remember the movie [that was probably "JFK," the 1991 U.S. film directed by Oliver Stone] which I watched with great interest because it was a part of my life, a small part but nonetheless something that I felt was very personal to me -- and I thought he could not have done it. Or, I should say, he should not have done it. Why kill a president? Why would you get into that? What would you get from that?

It just didn't add up -- knowing him personally and him becoming a killer, someone who would potentially get involved in such an affair.

RFE/RL: Did it seem to you that he had any kind of ambition, perhaps to become someone?

Markava: Yes, certainly, and I've spoken about that already. [Ambition] was his only motivation when he came here, when he had left America, and the fact that he had broken all ties with his country.

It takes a lot of effort and willpower to leave one's country and abandon everything. It was the other way around: people always left their own countries to go to America. But to give up America and come here, without knowing anything about this country -- it borders on a psychological breakdown.

RFE/RL: When you walked into this apartment, did you think, "Wow, he lucked out. What a view"?

Markava: Yes. Or maybe not that he lucked out, but I asked myself, "How did he get this location? It is so prestigious, it's impossible to get, even for a very good worker." And he had this. How? I did have that feeling.

RFE/RL: What is so special about this place?

Markava: First of all, the location itself. This was our "Broadway" in Minsk, where people took strolls. The river is right here and you could jog in the park. But he didn't use that opportunity, unfortunately.

RFE/RL: Did he appreciate his luck?

Markava: Actually, he thought this apartment was too small for him. He said it wasn't what he wanted.

RFE/RL: What kind of apartment did he want?

Markava: I didn't even ask him.

RFE/RL: Did it ever seem to you that he was bored?

Markava: Was he bored? Perhaps he himself was a very boring person. Even at his daily quiz at the dorm, he was just boring. He didn't exactly shine. Maybe he did have some aspirations inside, but at that time he probably hadn't been able to put them to use. If later he actually wrote what he wrote, I guess he did have some potential, but it was probably hidden deeply inside him at the time I knew him.

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