Thursday, July 4, 2013

Did Oswald Speak Russian while Living in the Soviet Union?

                                             Did Oswald Speak in Russian while Living in the Soviet Union?

                                                               John Delane Williams and Ernst Titovets

Why Oswald, an alleged assassin of JFK, according to the expressed official view, and an innocent man, according to the overwhelming evidence supplied by independent researchers, is still relevant half a century after those tragic events in Dallas? Is it that, in defending Oswald, there is a public outcry against the deeds of those forces in power that stood behind the JFK assassination and picked out Oswald, a convenient scapegoat, to cover up their crime? The protesting voices carry an important message that the human rights of a man in the street should be respected so there could be no persons used, like Oswald was, in the future. The relevance of Oswald is further demonstrated by the hundreds of books that have appeared up to now concerning Oswald. Unfortunately, only a few of these books were written by persons who had firsthand information about Oswald; all too often others distort to various degrees the profile of the man.    

     The common sense answer to the question posed in the title of this article would be, “Of course”. He was known to be a reasonably proficient speaker of Russian. After his return from Russia, Oswald demonstrated his proficiency in Russian in his interactions in Dallas with the Russian community there; also, he must have spoken Russian to his wife Marina, who had only a simple knowledge of English. However, John Armstrong in his tome [1] where he hypothesizes two Oswalds, Lee Oswald and Harvey Oswald, that Lee Oswald never spoke Russian [2], and Harvey Oswald never spoke Russian during his 1959-1962 stay in the Soviet Union.[3] It is difficult to prove a negative, but Armstrong reasons from several known instances of Oswald not speaking Russian that he never spoke Russian in Russia: “Oswald had to be suspicious of everyone around him, including Marina and the Zigers, and would never have dared to speak Russian. In fact no one said he did, except Marina.” [4] The inference that can be drawn from this reasoning is that to speak Russian would have been dangerous for Oswald, perhaps inferring that he might have been sent to spy on Russia by an American intelligence agency; perhaps expulsion from the Soviet Union, or imprisonment might have been outcome from speaking Russian.


                                                                         Meeting Oswald


The publication of the book [5] by one of the author’s of this article would seem to call into question much of the reasoning by Armstrong. Though the book was completed in 2000, delays in publication were due to not finding a publisher; the book was published in 2010. Titovets was a Russian with a strong interest in the English language, and was cultivating his abilities to speak English. There were few native English speakers in Minsk (since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Minsk is in Belarus), where Titovets was a fourth year medical student when he was introduced to Lee Harvey Oswald in September, 1960.  Titovets was invited to the home of Alexander Ziger, an older worker at the radio factory where Oswald was also employed. The Zigers were immigrants from Argentina, who spoke both Spanish and Russian fluently. Among the Zigers, only Alexander spoke English; his English was with a heavy accent.  Titovets noted that (in September, 1960) Oswald’s Russian consisted mostly of a few stereotyped phrases and a very limited vocabulary. Oswald seemed tongue-tied trying to converse in Russian. It was as if he had to think in English, and then translate to Russian. [6]


Oswald was allowed to stay in an apartment near the radio factory where a job was found for him. It turns out that the Russians were trying to accommodate Oswald during his stay in Russia. While Oswald might have information that could be of use to Soviet Intelligence, other bureaucratic entities decided to allow Oswald to stay. Instead of trying to directly get classified information from Oswald, the KGB monitored his activities and bugged his apartment. The Soviets apparently didn’t want to have an international incident while Oswald was in the Soviet Union. Oswald had indicated he wanted to stay in the Soviet Union, and seek Soviet citizenship. [7] A Russian tutor was found for Oswald, given Oswald’s rudimentary skills in the language. Stanislav Shushkevich, a senior engineer at the radio factory, gave him lessons in Russian. The assignment was made by the Communist Party; thus, the assignment was taken seriously by Shushkevich. [8]


                                                                Getting Together


Oswald invited Titovets to his apartment on September 28, 1960. Neither knew very much about the other. Titovets had a strong interest in becoming closer to a native speaker of English; his training and exposure had been to British English both in class and on the BBC. He had only briefly had experience talking to a British student who had a short stay in Russia. Oswald, with his Southern American speech would be his longest exposure to a person who was a native speaker of English. Titovets tape recorded Oswald speaking English so that he could study more closely Oswald’s American English. [9] Oswald’s interest in Titovets was simpler; Titovets was a similar aged Russian who seemed, for whatever reason, to be genuinely interested in Oswald. Titovets began making assumptions about Oswald based on appearances and Oswald’s behavior. Oswald’s apartment was but poorly furnished and seemingly not what would be inhabited by a successful young professional. Oswald invited Titovets to the opera, and Oswald seemed to enjoy it, leading Titovets to presume Oswald was a more refined person. At the medical school, only a few of his classmates would go to the opera and actually enjoy it. It was Titovets observation that, “Lee would be a wary character when speaking his faltering Russian and a relaxed normal person when he spoke his native tongue.” [10]


                                              The Unfolding of Oswald’s Competency in Russian


As indicated, Oswald’s initial communication in Russian after he arrived in Russia was quite limited. This may have been at least slightly surprising to him, to be aware that he had chosen to move to a country that he was not able to communicate very well in their language, though his receptive Russian might have let him understand more than he could make himself understood. When Oswald’s fellow workers would tell a joke during work breaks, Oswald would often miss the punch lines due to his inadequate Russian. [11] On March 17, 1961, Oswald attended a lecture by Professor Lidia Cherkasova about her recent trip to the United States. Cherkasova’s son introduced his mother to Oswald. After the lecture, Oswald met Marina for the first time at a dance held after the lecture.  In Marina’s account of how she met Lee, she stated, “Sasha was with his friends from the Institute. One of the friends introduced me to Lee, calling him Alik…And Lee invited me to dance and we started to talk. I decided he was one from the Baltic countries, since he talked with an accent.” [12]


Oswald, according to Titovets, eventually succeeded in making considerable progress with his Russian. [13] Oswald would eventually write:

           I am totally proficient in speaking conversational Russian. I can read non-technical

           Russian text without difficulty and can to a less extent write in the Russian

           language. [14]

Titovets adds,

           By the time we met, his Russian was just adequate for the task he set before him.

          I would mention that it took him about twelve months in the Soviet Union to

           arrive at that level. It was another academic step that he set for himself to

           achieve and he accomplished it. A far as I’m aware, he did not attend any Russian

           language courses. It was all through self-education and practice combined with

           his natural aptitude for languages. [15]

    I sent an e-mail query to Titovets regarding the degree to which Oswald spoke Russian in the Soviet Union. [16] Titovets replied, “By the time I met Oswald he had stayed in Russia already close to 12 months and he did speak quite adequate Russian with a heavy American accent. He read Russian newspapers and journals. The two of us spoke exclusively in English but when in the company of Russian speakers Oswald made it a point that, as a matter of politeness, we all spoke Russian.” [17] When Titovets learned that Armstrong stated that Oswald spoke no Russian while in the Soviet Union, [18] he was amazed. Titovets stated, “It was a cause of genuine surprise on the part of my old friend Vyacheslav Stelmakh, Ph.D., a senior researcher at the Belorussian State University, who knew Oswald at the Radio Plant and was also friends with Oswald’s first love Ella Germann, when I told him a researcher in the States doubts the fact that Oswald spoke Russian. There are still many Russians here in Minsk who would confirm the fact.” [19]


Armstrong [20] stated “The KGB recorded numerous conversations within Oswald’s apartment from 1960 thru 1962. If any of the conversations had been in Russian the KGB would have noted the extent of his language ability in their reports and would have immediately suspected him of being a spy.” Armstrong is wrong on two counts. Oswald did use Russian while living in the Soviet Union. And, in that the Communist party provided a person to tutor Oswald in Russian, they would have expected him to use Russian in his daily activities. His using Russian would not have seemed to be a cause for alarm for the KGB if Oswald spoke Russian when his apartment was bugged. 


                                          Deciding to Come Back to the United States


Though we can’t know for sure when Oswald began thinking about coming back to the United States, we can pinpoint two incidents that more or less heralded his return. He had fallen in love with Ella Germann, a co-worker at the radio factory in Minsk. He proposed to her on January 2, 1961. She turned him down. [21] The decisive incident occurred just two days later. He routinely went to the Passport Office shortly before his residence permit was about to expire. He was given the option of applying for Soviet citizenship or getting another term for his residence permit. Oswald chose to simply extend his residence permit for another year, signaling that his intent to become a Soviet citizen may have ended. [22] Titovets noted there were several hints in Oswald’s behavior that showed an interest in returning to the United States. When at Titovets apartment, Oswald would listen intently to Voice of America; Oswald seemed starved for news from his homeland. [23] Titovets came up with idea that they should play army games, specifically to yell out the drill orders to the other person. It became clear that Oswald was proud of his service in the Marines, and he thought America’s armies were better. [24] The University of Michigan Band gave a concert in Minsk on March 12, 1961. After the concert, Oswald went to the stage to engage the Americans in conversation. It was clear that Oswald strongly wished to be among his countrymen. [25] Five days later, after Professor Lidia Cherkasova’s lecture about her trip to the United States, Oswald, along with several others, was invited to her apartment for a reception. Oswald wanted to find the news from home. [26] 


 Then too, there was Oswald’s disillusionment with the Soviet system. He would ask about the ridiculousness of the quota system, wherein each sector was encouraged to overproduce their commodities. How would the Soviets be able to utilize the surplus? Also by this time, Oswald was aware that his apartment had been bugged. [27]  


                                           Titovets’ Retrospective View of Oswald


After Oswald returned to the United States, he and Titovets wrote letters to one another. Oswald mentioned that he and Marina might be coming back to the Soviet Union. His last letter (August 30, 1963) mentioned that a second child was to be born in October. [28] As time went on after the assassinations of President Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald, Titovets tried to understand what Oswald was doing when he came to the Soviet Union. Titovets used the Warren Commission exhibits in his own search for Lee Harvey Oswald-Who was this interesting American English speaker who was my close friend while he was here in the Soviet Union? Why did he come? Why did he leave? Why was he planning to come back? Titovets wrestled with these and other thoughts regarding Oswald both before and during the writing of Oswald: Russian Episode. What Titovets came to understand was that Oswald was a self educated person who was interested in political sociology. Perhaps he came to Russia to live permanently, or perhaps he was tentative in this decision, or perhaps his decisions were framed through his learning process. He was definitely a student of the Soviet system, as he was a student of the American system. Oswald began to look at the two systems and try to take the better things from both systems, while discarding some aspects of both systems. These ideas were brought to fruition in Oswald’s writing The Athenian System. [29]       


Titovets stated, “Summing up my research into Oswald’s life in Russia, it seems to me I was more privileged to learn his true state of mind than any other person he knew.” [30] Titovets posited that Oswald was trying to integrate the better features of the Soviet system into an American democracy to help bring forth a fairer, better society in America.  Oswald foresaw, much as Marx did, that the American capitalistic system would eventuate in a crisis (perhaps a nuclear war) that would bring itself to an end. At that point, the Athenian system could be the logical step for the survivors of the crisis. [31]


 Titovets saw Oswald as a non-violent person, and incapable of committing the acts toward President Kennedy that were the conclusions of the efforts of the Warren Commission. [32] It appeared that Oswald was a convenient pawn for the Warren Commission to place the blame upon for President Kennedy’s assassination. In Titovets view, Oswald was pursuing his dream, to look at the systems of the two superpowers and amalgamate a new system that combined the best features of both of their systems. [33] Thus, Oswald, in chasing his dream, was a happy man. [34]


                                          Titovets’ Reading of Harvey and Lee


Ernst Titovets apparently decided to read Harvey and Lee for himself, partially to answer the question, how did Armstrong conclude that Oswald spoke no Russian in Russia? Titovets then sent me an e-mail [35] addressing only those portions of Armstrong’s book that pertained to Oswald’s being in Russia and only those portions which were familiar to Titovets.


Armstrong [36]:”I wanted to be sure I understood her answer and said, “Ana you knew Oswald from the time he arrived in Minsk until the day he and Marina left for the United States. You and your parents accompanied them to the train station and took photographs (published in the Warren Volumes). During that time he never spoke any Russian, even up to the day he left Minsk?” Ana, once again replied, “No,-not a word. My father always interpreted for him-he was the only person in the family who spoke English…” (p. 288)…“An English-speaking medical student, Erich (Ernst) Titovets, first met Oswald at the Hotel Minsk and later was a regular visitor to his apartment.” (p. 289).

Titovets: Actually, I met Oswald not at the Hotel Minsk, but at the Zigers apartment. It was in the presence of the whole family: Alexander Zigers, his wife Signora Anna and his two daughters, Anita, [37] and Eleanora. Oswald spoke Russian and there was no need to interpret for him.


Armstrong [38]: “At the factory Oswald met another person who spoke English. Pavel Golovachev, the son of a famous Soviet Air Force General…After Pavel and Oswald began spending a lot of time together the KGB asked him to report on Oswald’s activities. He dutifully informed of his contacts with Oswald and kept them apprised of his movements.” (p. 289).

Titovets: Pavel Golovachev did not speak English at all. Once he confided in me that he wished he did and he was sorry he did not speak the language.


 Armstrong [39] “On October 18 [1960] Lee Harvey Oswald celebrated his 21st birthday. Ella Germann, a girl from the Horizon factory who Oswald had been dating the past two months, and spoke very good English, attended a small birthday party at his apartment.”(p. 311).

Titovets: Ella Germann did not speak English at all.  


Armstrong [40]:”It is clear that Marina associated with Americans, spoke English with Webster and almost certainly spoke English with Oswald… Marina’s ability to read, write, and speak English fluently before she left Russia is indisputable.” (p. 340).


Titovets: Marina did not speak English at all. It would be really surprising if she would have spoken English with Oswald and completely ignored me even when the three of us were together. 


Armstrong [41]: “When Oswald and Marina met, danced, and agreed to a date the following Friday they spoke a common language. Was it Russian or English? The HSCA asked Marina, ‘At the time were you speaking Russian together?’ She answered, ‘Yes. He spoke with an accent so I assumed he was from another state.’ Oswald came in contact with hundreds of people in Russia, but Marina is the only person-THE ONLY PERSON who said that he spoke Russian while in Russia.” (p. 334).


Titovets: Armstrong is right about there were so many people who met Oswald in Minsk. There are still many living who would have testified to the fact that Oswald spoke Russian to them. Had John Armstrong followed Norman Mailer’s [42] example, he would have come to Minsk and interviewed them.


In the book Oswald: Russian Episode [43] one can find an illustration with Oswald’s longhand in Russian on the inside cover of a book where Oswald contemplates the names for his future child. Incidentally, Oswald signed his writings.          


When a date-line does not fit Armstrong’s he dismisses it as an error and suggests his “correct” one. To give an example:

Armstrong [44]: “NOTE: We will soon see the date of March 17 is in error.” (p. 333).

Titovets: It is the night at the Trade Union Palace when Oswald first met Marina Prussokova. The date of March 17, 1961 is correct.


                               Recent Interviews of Persons Who Knew Oswald in Minsk



Two recent interviews were conducted by Ernst Titovets with persons who had known Oswald in Minsk

The first interview was with Vladimir Zhidovich, a leading engineer at the Radio and Cosmic Technologies Department of the Bylorussian State University in Minsk. This interview took place on March 19, 2013. Zhidovich worked together with Oswald at the same shop in the Radio Plant in Minsk.


Titovets: Vladimir, do you know English?


Zhidovich: No, I do not. Why ask? You know that I don’t speak the language!


 Titovets: Never mind. I’ll tell you later. Just answer my questions! Did Oswald speak Russian?


Zhidovitch: Russian was the only language we could communicate with him. He was not a talkative person and his Russian needed much brushing up. But he understood most [of] what he was told to and reacted accordingly.


Titovets: Did anyone at the Radio Plant speak English to him?


Zhidovitch: No way! Nobody knew English around [there] and I never heard anybody speaking English to Oswald at work. Even Stanislav Shushkevich, when he happened to drop over on business to the shop, spoke Russian to him. Now, tell me what’s this all about?


Titovets: A John Armstrong in his book Harvey and Lee insists that Oswald did not speak Russian while those around him spoke mainly English. We both know perfectly well that Oswald did speak Russian and I just wanted to hear it from you to oblige an American friend and researcher who wants to check the fact.


Zhidovitch: First I thought it was some kind of trick question. Of course Oswald did speak Russian!



The second interview was with a neurologist, Dr. Alexander Mastykin, MD., Ph.D. on March 20, 2013. Mastykin was a medical student at the time he met Oswald. Mastykin was learning Spanish and practiced the language at the Spanish-speaking Zigers family’s apartment. He knew Anita Zigers very well.


Titovets: Did Anita Zigers speak English at the time she knew Oswald?


Mastykin: I never heard a single English word ever drop from her lips!


Titovets: John Armstrong wrote a book Harvey and Lee and there, according to John Armstrong, Anita would say to him in an interview that Oswald did not speak Russian at all while he was in Minsk.


Mastykin: It would be Anita all over! I wouldn’t put it past her that she might well invent things and say anything on the spur of the moment, unnecessary true, just for kicks. It might well depend on her mood, how she was approached and if the question was a suggestive one.


Titovets: Did Oswald speak Russian?


Mastykin: To say the truth there was not much love lost between the two of us; I mostly tried to steer away from him. I did not speak English while Oswald did not speak Spanish so it was Russians on those rare occasions when we happened to meet.         




Armstrong’s Contribution to the Critical Literature regarding the Kennedy Assassination


In any research investigation, the theorist may either start with assertions, or with hypotheses they arrive at in some manner. In Armstrong’s case, though he does not refer to his assertion as a hypothesis (one might infer that Armstrong felt that he sufficiently proved his assertion to being true) his assertion/hypothesis can be addressed logically by others. To be sure, Armstrong had a tough hypothesis to prove. No matter how convincing his reasoning, one counterexample would prove his hypothesis false.  Repeating Armstrong’s assertion, “Oswald had to be suspicious of everyone around him, including Marina and the Zigers, and would never have dared to speak Russian. In fact no one said he did, except Marina. [45] 


Allowing the exception of Marina, any other person who heard him speak Russian while in Russia would prove this assertion/hypothesis false. Titovets’ [46] book stands as evidence that Oswald did on many occasions speak Russian in Russia. Further, the interviews herein with Vladimir Zhidovitch and Alexander Mastykin concur that Oswald spoke Russian in Minsk.  But we would even question Armstrong’s making the assertion in the first place. If the Communist party were to provide him with a Russian tutor, then would not they logically expect him to speak Russian? The KGB was bugging his apartment and had at least one person (Pavel Golovachev) reporting to the KGB on Oswald. If Oswald seemed to learn Russian too fast, they would have figured that out. In monitoring his apartment, they would seem likely to have ferreted out any bogus behavior. Stanislav Shushkevich, the person chosen to tutor Oswald by the communist party, was a poor choice to attempt to teach Oswald. Shushkevich, a post-graduate science student at the university in Minsk, had learned to read English for his scientific studies, but had little experience in conversing in English.  Because Russian is a language that uses Cyrillic symbols, it is initially more difficult for persons whose reading has been mostly using European alphabetical symbols. On the other hand, using an approach that emphasizes first learning the spoken language would likely be more successful, particularly for someone with Oswald’s educational background. Stellina Ivanova, the Intourist Director at Minsk would become a teacher of Russian to Oswald. This proved more helpful to Oswald, though as Mailer pointed out, Oswald did not pay her a kopeck for her efforts. [47] Oswald’s learning of Russian, as described earlier, was an arduous task-and apparently within the expectancies of the KGB as they listened to his progress with the hidden microphones. Titovets [48] has shown that Oswald began to speak Russian with limited fluency with increasing success over time while in Russia.


In Armstrong’s concluding that Oswald spoke no Russian to anyone in Russia (perhaps excepting Marina), given the rather strong case that Oswald did in fact talk in Russian as he became somewhat more proficient in the language, the statement that Oswald  did not speak Russian in Minsk is clearly false. Curiously Armstrong admits that Oswald must have spoken some Russian to Stellina Ivanova, since, upon hearing of his marriage to Marina she quipped, ”How can that be? You don’t know Russian well enough.” [49] From this comment one could infer that he must have spoken Russian to her- it just wasn’t adequate enough for fluency.


 Armstrong has compiled the many circumstances that multiple “Oswalds” appears to be doing things at the same time that cannot be attributed to a single individual. [50] Some of these multiple Oswalds can be attributed to misidentifications, to doppelgangers, or to persons who have deliberately impersonated Oswald, either for their own reasons or for hire. That compilation is a useful contribution. But the multiple Oswalds appear to have ended on November 22, 1963.


Finally, the question posed in the title to this article, “Did Oswald speak Russian while in the Soviet Union?” and the answer is simple. Of course he did.



1.       Armstrong, J. (2006). Harvey & Lee: How the CIA framed Oswald. Arlington, TX: Quasar, LTD.

2.       Ibid, p. 187.

3.       Ibid, pp. 339-340.

4.       Ibid, p. 340.

5.       Titovets, E. (2010). Oswald: Russian Episode. Minsk, Belarus: Mon Litera Publishing House.

6.       Ibid, pp. 94-95.

7.       Ibid, p. 18-31.

8.       Ibid, p. 49, p. 229.

9.       Ibid, pp. 146-155.

10.   Ibid, p. 111.

11.   Ibid, p.62.

12.   WCE, Vol. XVIII, pp. 597-602.

13.   Titovets, p. 377.

14.   WCE, Vol. XVI, pp. 337-346.

15.   Titovets, p. 377.

16.   Williams, J.D. e-mail sent to Ernst Titovets, March 13, 2012.

17.   Titovets, E. e-mail sent to John Williams, March 14, 2012.

18.   Williams, J.D. e-mail sent to Ernst Titovets, March 16, 2012.

19.   Titovets, E. e-mail sent to John Williams, March 19, 2012.

20.   Armstrong, p. 339.

21.   Titovets, pp. 156-163.

22.   Ibid, p. 173.

23.   Ibid, p. 147.               

24.   Ibid, pp. 182-190.

25.   Ibid, pp. 210-216.

26.   Ibid, p. 241         .

27.   Ibid, pp. 191-193.

28.   Ibid, pp. 329-345.

29.   Ibid, p. 384; Lee Oswald, The Athenian System, WCE 98, pp. 431-434.

30.   Titovets, p. 384.

31.   Ibid, p.384.

32.   Ibid, pp.389-390.

33.   Ibid, pp. 384-394.

34.   Ibid, p. 423.

35.   Titovets, E. e-mail to John Williams, 1/29/2013.

36.   Armstrong, p. 288, 289.

37.   Some confusion might arise between “Ana” and “Anita”. Anita’s actual name was Ana, the same name as her mother. Thus as long as she lived in the family unit, the younger Ana went by Anita to avoid confusion. Thus, the Russian youths who knew her at the time Oswald was in Russia referred to her as Anita. By the time John Armstrong interviewed her in 1998, she now went by Ana.

38.   Ibid, p.289.

39.   Ibid, p. 311.

40.   Ibid, p. 340.

41.    Ibid, p. 334.

42.   Mailer, N. (1995). Oswald’s Tale: An American Mystery. New York: Random House.

43.   Titovets, E. (2010).

44.   Armstrong, p. 333. Incidentally, Titovets gives in his Oswald: Russian Episode a different account of Marina meeting Lee.

45.   Ibid, p. 340.

46.   Titovets, E. (2010).

47.   Mailer, N. (1995). p. 82.

48.   Titovets, E. (2010).

49.   Armstrong, p. 339.

50.   In reading Janney, P. (2012) Mary’s Mosaic. New York: Skyhorse Publishing., I came across a reference to John Armstrong’s article in Probe: Armstrong, J. (1998). Harvey, Lee and Tippet: A New Look at the Tippit shooting. Probe: January-February, Vol. 5, No. 2, ( ) which in turn was identical to an article of the same name published in 2012 in The Dealey Plaza Echo (17: No. 2, pp. 9-22). There should minimally have been a note of attribution to the earlier publication so that readers would not mistake it for new original research. 



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