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Inessa Yakhliel: Oswald 'Spoke About Kennedy Very Sympathetically'

A friend of Lee Harvey Oswald from his days in Minsk, Inessa Yakhliel, is shown here in a screen grab on October 29, 2013.
A friend of Lee Harvey Oswald from his days in Minsk, Inessa Yakhliel, is shown here in a screen grab on October 29, 2013.
Inessa Yakhliel met Lee Harvey Oswald in Minsk in 1961, when he was living there (after having defected to the Soviet Union) and married to Marina Prusakova. Yakhliel recalled her friendship with the young couple in an interview with RFE/RL correspondent Pavel Butorin.

RFE/RL: How did you first meet Marina Prusakova?

Inessa Yakhliel: I don't remember exactly who brought her into our circle. We were all part of the same group of intellectuals, one could say. So someone brought her in.

She was like a child, very touching. She was very thin, very sincere. And she took to me, and I liked her. At our house she was received like a daughter. We became friends. Then she disappeared for about three months and then reappeared, already married to "Alek."

RFE/RL: Alek? Was that how you called Lee Harvey Oswald?

Yakhliel: Yes. Alek. Everyone who knew him at the time called him Alek.

RFE/RL: What did Marina tell you about him?

Yakhliel: Marina -- you know, first of all, I want to say that whatever they write about him now – that he was a psychopath, a hot-tempered or threatening person – absolutely none of that is true. I knew him as an absolutely different person, a family person. I liked him. I don't agree with anything that has been written about him.

RFE/RL: Was he a kind man? Was he friendly?

Yakhliel: I think he was. Although, you know, I don't think he let people he didn't know well too close to himself, but there was a certain circle of people: the so-called Erik [or Ernst] Titovets -- not the best specimen -- myself, some other people, I won't try to remember them all now. [The Oswalds] were very hospitable.

As for his habits, when he came from work, he did what men usually do around the house: he would take the garbage out, do some other work, then wash himself, sit down at the table, and [Marina] had to serve him [food]. That's how he liked it.

He liked very much to make things with his own hands. They had some lamps and shelves that he made, all in good taste. He liked reading comic books very much. He would sit down, cross his legs, read, and laugh out loud. That's what he was like.

RFE/RL: What language did he speak to you?

Yakhliel: Russian.

RFE/RL: How was his Russian?

Yakhliel: He spoke Russian with an accent, of course, but we understood him and he understood everything. He came to our house many times. One interesting episode was -- when they say he killed Kennedy -- one day he was at our house and the television was showing a meeting between Khrushchev and Kennedy. You may remember that meeting; I don't remember what year it was exactly. And he spoke about Kennedy very sympathetically. He said he was the only sensible president. Those were his words.

READ ALSO: Oswald's Minsk Friend Inna Markava Speaks

RFE/RL: Besides Kennedy, did he tell you anything about his American life?

Yakhliel: You know, somehow, we didn't speak about that. Outside of what I already knew about him, I didn't ask him about anything else. I wasn't very interested in that. But, when they decided to leave, I think I was one of the first people they told about it.

RFE/RL: How did they explain their decision to leave?

Yakhliel: Well, first of all, [Oswald] was under very close surveillance and he was getting sick of it. Once we were talking on their balcony and we saw a woman eavesdropping from across the partition [on the balcony]. She saw us and hid right away. So, that was beginning to annoy him.

Also, financially, it was pretty tough for them, to be honest. And he was feeling that he hadn't adjusted well and that he wouldn't fit in. [Marina] didn't want to leave, at first. But he persuaded her.

RFE/RL: Did Marina not want to leave?

Yakhliel: No. At first, she was simply afraid to go there.

RFE/RL: And how would you describe their relationship as a family?

Yakhliel: You know, again, from what I know, from what I saw personally, they had a very good, warm relationship.

I can't even imagine why people have called him a psychopath. He was very kind, he smiled a lot. The only thing from what's been written about him that was true is that he had books by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. I saw them with my own eyes on his shelves.

RFE/RL: Speaking of Karl Marx, did he ever speak about his ideology, his world view, socialism, or capitalism?

Yakhliel: You know, we had a different kind of relationship, so we didn't speak about that, because I wasn't interested in Karl Marx. I didn't ask him and he didn't tell me anything about that. We had a friendly, warm, day-to-day relationship.

WATCH those who knew Lee Harvey Oswald in Minsk tell their stories to RFE/RL:
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RFE/RL: What did an evening at the Oswalds look like? What did you eat, drink? What did you talk about?

Yakhliel: Eat and drink? I don't really remember. He didn't really show any particular preference, at least not in my presence.

RFE/RL: Did he drink alcohol?

Yakhliel: In my presence, never. In my presence, never.

RFE/RL: Did he ever speak about his army service?

Yakhliel: No, never. Again, we had a day-to-day, warm, friendly relationship. I understood perhaps that we shouldn't get into his private life, and I didn't. And he didn't talk about it either.

RFE/RL: What did he tell you about his American family?

Yakhliel: He spoke about his mother. She supported him financially. They sent him, every now and then, a small amount of cash. And his brother -- I think when they went back [to the United States], they stayed with his brother for some time.

RFE/RL: Did he speak about his American family with love or was there a sense of him trying to cut all ties with them?

Yakhliel: I think there was a little bit of discontent in relation to his brother. But I am afraid I'd be telling a lie [if I claimed that as a fact].

RFE/RL: Did you know them when their daughter was born? What kind of a father was he?

Yakhliel: [June Oswald] was born in February [1962] and they left [later that summer], so she must have been about three months old.

He treated Marina very affectionately when she was [expecting June]. I witnessed that personally. By the way, they walked on foot to Hospital No. 3. She gave birth very quickly. I was at home, and he came running, I heard a knock on the door. I opened the door and he shouted, "I have a daughter! I have a daughter!" He was very happy. By the way, I was the one who gave the girl her first bath. They named her "June Marina" -- they don't have patronymics, like we do, they give newborns their own names and the mother's name.

He took good care of [Marina and June], helped [Marina] a lot. In that regard, she never complained, never said a bad word. The only thing that surprised him was the way we swaddled the baby -- like a hot dog, he would say. Over there [in America] they put clothes on them right away. He was very surprised [by the swaddling].

RFE/RL: When you visited them, did they ever play any music? Did he like Soviet pop music, for example?

Yakhliel: Yes, they played music, but I don't remember what it was. It was 50 years ago, or more. There was music, but I don't remember what it was.

RFE/RL: What was your reaction when the news came from America that Lee Harvey Oswald was accused of killing John F. Kennedy?

Yakhliel: I was on a business trip, I think in Homel, if I'm not mistaken, and there was a news flash about it. They hadn't mentioned his last name yet, but for some reason it occurred to me that it had to do with him. But when they said it was Lee Harvey Oswald, I fainted. I recovered soon, but from the very start I did not believe it. Why? Because they were planning to come back here. In late August [1963], there was a letter from them. [Marina] wanted to come back and I think he also came to that [conclusion]. I think [Oswald] himself wrote that letter saying, "We're going to celebrate New Year's Eve together." After that there were no letters. Then in November it happened. And the last communication -- wait, there was something about Mexico. I don't remember anymore. He went to the embassy or something like that. No, I'm not going to talk about that because I don't know for sure.

After it all happened, we sent a telegram of condolence to Marina. And, interestingly, it actually reached her. She replied, by telegram too, as far as I remember, saying, "Don't think evil of Alek." And that was all. After that, all communication [with Marina] stopped.

The only other time was when Norman Mailer [the American novelist and author of "Oswald's Tale: An American Mystery"] interviewed me -- I met with him three times – and he told me about [Marina] and I asked him to pass a letter to her. I wrote a letter to her without expecting anything in return. When he came back later, he said she read my letter and cried, but she didn't write back to me. Since then we have had no contact. I have only received information [about her] through people who could find something out.

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RFE/RL: Did you ever have the impression that Marina used Oswald in any way in order to go to America?

Yakhliel: Absolutely not. Absolutely not. Well, maybe she wanted to get married. She had lived a fairly hard life in Leningrad, almost tragic, you could say, and she came here to live with her aunt. Her aunt invited her. By the way, I knew her too. I think she simply wanted to get married. She was very attractive, with full lips, slender. She was good-looking. So, maybe just to get married. But she didn't want to leave the country.

RFE/RL: What do you think she found attractive about Oswald? Was he an attractive man? Was he popular with women?

Yakhliel: All of that was before I met him. I don't know. I can't really make any judgments about him as a man. You have seen his pictures. I think he looked rather ordinary. I don’t know. I liked him simply as a person.

RFE/RL: Was he a happy guy? Let's say you walk into their house...

Yakhliel: Yes. We were making jokes, talking. It was all right. I felt comfortable in their house.

RFE/RL: Can you talk a little more about your communication with Marina after she left Minsk?

Yakhliel: There was a hint of regret, fairly early, in her writing. It wasn't easy for them over there. I think [Oswald's] brother gave them a place to stay. He had trouble finding a job. He changed several jobs. It was very hard for them to settle in. I think they found themselves in a difficult situation, financially but also emotionally. I think it started fairly quickly. They left here in May [in the summer of 1962] and already in January there was a sense of regret, doubt, and homesickness. She wrote in her letter that she had baptized June and put me down as her godmother, although back then I hadn't been baptized yet myself. It was very touching, because I had held that child in my hands.

RFE/RL: Did you ever feel sorry for them, for Marina, for Lee? What kind of emotions did you feel?

Yakhliel: Of course, I felt very sorry, because she did not deserve this fate. Likewise, I feel sincerely sorry for Alek. As far as I knew him, I feel very sorry for him. I liked him. I don't know, I can't say anything bad about him. He was a rather ordinary man, like everyone else. I don't know, we had a very good relationship. I don't know about other people. Some people have written that he was explosive, hot-tempered -- I don't know, I didn't see that, ever.

RFE/RL: Do you have a feeling that the person you knew was very different from what you later read about him?

Yakhliel: I don't know. Maybe he had a different life before Marina, but as far as I knew him, I feel what I have told you.

RFE/RL: And how long did you know them?

Yakhliel: About two years. I don't want to be inaccurate. Well, I knew [Marina] for a longer time, but I met [Oswald] after they got married. So many years have passed; I can't give you precise dates. What I can tell you is that my family -- my dad and my mom -- liked him very much.

RFE/RL: During or after your acquaintance with the Oswalds, were you ever approached by state security services?

Yakhliel: As I said, I think I was on business in Homel when it was reported -- without [Oswald's] name at first -- but for some reason I thought immediately it had to do with him. And when they said his name, I fainted. While I was on the business trip, [state security officers] came to my office, to the department of human resources, and inquired about me. And that was it. Nobody called me in for questioning, nobody made any inquiries.

RFE/RL: What did they want to know from human resources?

Yakhliel: I don't remember any details. I guess they asked them how good a worker I was. I was a Komsomol activist. [Our human resources specialists] probably said good things about me. After that nobody ever bothered me.

RFE/RL: But when you were in contact with the Oswald family, did you have any fears? What was the kind of ideological climate you lived in? Was it allowed to associate with an American?

Yakhliel: At that time it was probably allowed, in one way or another. Not to throw oneself on them, of course, but I think it was allowed. It was the time of Khrushchev's thaw. I communicated with them without any fear. It never occurred to me that I should be afraid of anything.

RFE/RL: Did he like any special places around Minsk? Did you take walks together?

Yakhliel: We never talked about that. If we ever walked together, it was near their house or near our house. Actually, once we walked to [Marina's] Aunt Valya's house, all together. By the way, Aunt Valya liked him very much too. But there was Uncle Ilya, Aunt Valya's husband, and he gave me the chills.

RFE/RL: Did this Uncle Ilya work for the KGB?

Yakhliel: I think so. He's not around anymore so I'm afraid to tell a lie about him. He was a likable man, a little dry, all buttoned up. I can't say he treated me badly, but in his presence I shrunk a little. But Aunt Valya was a wonderful woman.

RFE/RL: You know, because of her uncle, it has been alleged that Marina worked for Soviet security services. Did you have that impression?

Yakhliel: No, I didn't have that impression. You know, you just had to know her. I knew her before [she married Oswald]. I simply don't want to talk about her life in Leningrad, about her hardships, about the fact that she was an orphan, about all the terrible things in her life. When Aunt Valya invited her here, Marina simply found a family here, she found some kind of warmth.

As for Alek, I don't even know, nor did I ever ask, how they met. And then she started a new life [with Oswald]. She worked at a pharmacy, at Hospital No. 3. And she started living a normal life.

RFE/RL: One last question. Let me ask you, simply, do you or do you not believe that Lee Harvey Oswald killed John F. Kennedy?

Yakhliel: As I already said, I did not believe it from the very first moment. Having known him, I don't think he was a man of that scale. Having known him on a daily basis and also you will remember his remarks about Kennedy -- how could one be so deceitful and hypocritical for so long?

I don't believe it. And then, why did he want to come back here? Riddles, riddles that I will not live to know the answers to. But none of us, none of his friends here, believed it. Some knew him a lot less than I did – actually, they knew Marina better than Alek. But I came to know him well. I don't believe it.

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