Officially, there had been a city called Minsk since the eleventh century, but the place the Soviets sent Lee Harvey Oswald to was really only fifteen years old. That was because the old Minsk had been flattened by the Germans after they invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. Storming across the Belorussian countryside in their tanks, armored convertibles, motorcycles, and long columns of goose-stepping soldiers, the Germans had blown up, burned down, or otherwise eviscerated thousands of villages, farms, towns, and manufacturing hubs, including Minsk, the capital of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Belorussia. There had been a huge Jewish community in Minsk for centuries; before the war, it had included writers, artists, musicians, university professors and party officials. In the center of the city, the Germans walled off a ghetto for the Jews, built a concentration camp called Masyukovshina, and killed, plundered and destroyed wantonly. On the eve of the war, there were roughly three hundred thousand people in the city. By the end of the war, a little more than 10 percent of the prewar population remained, and only five or six buildings still stood in the whole of Minsk.
In the years immediately after the war, villagers from across the smoldering Belorussian plain streamed into what was left of the Old Minsk. The Stalinist regime bestowed on Minsk the title “hero city”—there is a monument outside the Kremlin that signifies as much—and they rebuilt what had been an old, crammed, medieval Tsarist trading center as a model communist city. It was broad, orderly, and boring, with placid hues and well-swept streets and sidewalks, and bisected by a narrow, slow-moving river that was good to look at but for not much else. The new Minsk was an unequivocal statement of the totalitarian impulse, stripped down and neatly fitted together, and without any history, energy, cultural edifices, or anything else that might feel busy, loud, urbane, or unexpected. The normal layering of the polis—the sediment-like building up of peoples, architectures, styles, and eras that stretched across decades and centuries in most cities–did not obtain. It felt inorganic. This feeling was intensified by its surroundings, which consisted of mostly gay-green countryside. Approaching Minsk from any direction, one did not pass from farmland to town to suburb to city: rather one moved from farmland directly to the city. Even the people, most of whom had never left their villages until the war destroyed them, were like props in a Soviet diorama.
He did not know that he had been sent there because it was far from Moscow.
It was evening when Oswald stepped off the train in Minsk on January 7, 1960. He did not know where he was, except that it was called Minsk. He seems not to have known in which direction he had been traveling (west), or how far he was from Moscow (408 miles), the Polish border (220 miles), or New York City (4,427 miles). He was probably unaware of that he was in the Soviet Socialist Republic of Belorussia and that he was due south of Lithuania and north of the Ukraine. He did not know anything about the geography or sociology of this particular subset of Homo Sovieticus, or about the regional economy, which revolved around a network of kollektivnoye khozayistvo, or collective farms. He did not know that he had been sent there because it was far from Moscow—the better to keep him away from anyone important, including not only Soviet officials but Western reporters—and small self-contained, like a fishbowl. He also didn’t know that he was now in the westernmost flank of the Soviet Union and that there were army bases tucked away in the green-black forests and air force jets constantly flying overhead. For many years, Belorussia had been a place that was between more important places. Now, it was an armed fortress, and it played a critical role in defending the whole country.
Minsk was still hemmed in by a quiet order that was absent in most cities.
Oswald was met at the station by two representatives of the Red Cross. They escorted him to the Hotel Minsk, on Prospekt Stalina. The boulevard was wide, with a handful of recently built low-lying buildings with neoclassical facades. They looked stately. Minsk, like Moscow, was a horizontal city. In recent years it had been infused with a new life, but it was still hemmed in by a quiet order that was absent in most cities, which overflowed with people signs, colors, and movements. In his diary Oswald sounds less excited or curious than overwhelmed. He had never been anywhere like it before. It is a measure of how closely watched Oswald was that the day after he arrived the mayor of Minsk, one Comrade Shrapov, made his introduction. Shrapov, Oswald wrote in his distinctively error-riddled English, “promisis [sic] a rent-free apartment ‘soon’ and warns me about ‘uncultured persons’ who sometimes insult foriengers [sic].” This red-carpet treatment was not unheard of. “Immigrants in the USSR,” Oswald wrote, “are treated with more respect than the Russians treat each other….This is part of the nation wide drive to impress all foriengrers [sic] as to the high level of life in the USSR.”
In his essay “The Collective,” Oswald provided a lengthy description of the foreigner’s first encounter with the city. This section is noteworthy because it includes some illuminating details about Oswald’s writings that concerns itself largely with the concrete and the mundane—as opposed to the more abstract, ideological questions he preferred to write about. “The arkatecual [sic] planning may be any thing but modern but it is the manner of almost all Russian citys [sic] with the airport serving as its…eastern boundry [sic] we find a large spread out township in appearance, city. Only the skyline [illegible] with factory looms and chimmies [sic] betrays its industrial background.” As one entered the center of the city, Oswald noted, one encountered the Hotel Minsk and the post office, which was built in 1955 “in the Greek style.” “Next down the prospect are a clothing store, children’s store, the central movie house, the best one in mink [sic] seating 400 people in a small unventilated hall. Next to it stands a shoe store across from it the central barber shop. the main Drug Store and a [illegible].” A little farther down the prospekt or boulevard, past the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the local KGB headquarters, was an unnamed restaurant—one of just five in the whole city. For two rubles one could have chicken, potatoes, and fried cabbage. Other dishes included beefsteak, potatoes and cabbage with macaroni, sweet rolls with coffee, and, in the summer, various fruits and salads with tomatoes.
When Oswald woke up at the Hotel Minsk on the morning of January 8, it would have been helpful had the Red Cross, Comrade Shrapov, or Oswald’s new interpreter, Roman Detkov, given him a glossary of all the character types whom he was likely to encounter in a provincial Soviet city: workers, pensioners, students, musicians, apparatchiks, senior officials (or nomenklatura), and a small number of intelligentsia. Most of these people were quintessential Menchani, or “residents of Minsk.” Menchani, like most people in the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic, were above all Soviet. They may also have been Belorussian, Polish, or Russian, but their primary identity was their ideology (unlike, say, the Baltic peoples to the north or the Ukrainians to the southwest, who had retained a national heritage and were in a permanent state of semiwar with the Soviet regime).
There were no real citizens of Minsk left after the war.
There were two overarching reasons for this. First, there had never really been a strong Belorussian national identity with which Sovietism had to compete. And second, the violent upheaval of the past quarter century, which included not only the German invasion but the collectivization, mass deportations, and purges of the 1930s, had destroyed most everyone who might have helped cultivate a national identity separate from the Soviet superstate. “There were no real citizens of Minsk left after the war,” said Igor Kuznetsov, a historian at Belarus State University who had studied the impact of the gulag and the war on Belorussian identity. There were only the peasants, who had just arrived, had no serious connections to any liberal tradition, and were inclined to be led by a strongman or “strong hand”—the silniy ruyka. In the 1950s and 1960s, more than half the people living in Minsk had been born in a village.
The peasant-workers, many of whom spoke one or another rural dialect, were like their environment–flat. They wanted small things: a slab of meat, a few hundred grams of vodka, a pig, a goat, a few chickens, a body to lie next to at night—stabilinost. They embraced the Soviet Union and all of its symbols and mythologies because there was little else to embrace and because it had delivered them from the fascist invaders. “Most workers in Minsk,” Oswald wrote, “come from peasent [sic] stock while repopulated the city at the end of the 2nd War.’ like most Russinas [sic] they are warm hearted and simple but often stubborn and untrustworthy.”
Minsk was not the only flat place in the Soviet Union. Everywhere in the country there was a peasant-worker culture—a tasteless food filled with grease and mayonnaise; a colorless, overbearing architecture; a truncated alphabet and vocabulary made simple for the toiling masses—but in almost every place there was also a subculture, a something genuine and rich that predated the communist ironing out of ancient civilizations. This underlying culture lent depth and a sense of humor and irony to peoples across the Soviet Union; it created a space between that which was real and organic and that which had been imposed.
But in Belorussia, and especially in Minsk, there was no subculture. There was no deep tradition with its own artistic and intellectual inheritance, its own commercial practices, its own mores and rituals. There was nothing that connected present-day Menchani with previous generations. It was as if they had been severed from the past. It was as if the color, the blood, the idea of the city had been drained out of it. It was what might be called a fake city filled with fake city dwellers. People existed incongruously—far away from the villages and towns they had known and unable to return to them. They were a people, for the most part, who lived in a city without knowing how to live there. Hence, if you dug beneath the surface of the peasant-worker culture, you found very little else.
Adapted from The Interloper: Lee Harvey Oswald Inside the Soviet Union by Peter Savodnik. Available from Basic Books, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2013.
Top image adapted from Redline