Lee Harvey Oswald in Russia
DAY 6: Wednesday, October 21 THE "SUICIDE ATTEMPT"
On October 21, the Presidium Secretary confirmed the
KGB's recommendation that Oswald be ordered to leave the USSR. It is
interesting to note that the matter is brought to the personal attention of
Marshal Kliment Ye. Voroshilov,
Stalin's confidant and former Minister of Defense. Voroshilov
survived to become Chairman of the Presidium under Khrushchev until he was
succeeded by Leonid Brezhnev in 1960.
The letter from the Presidium to the Communist Party Central Committee was released by the Soviets in 1999 and the US State Department translation is reproduced below:
21 is a highly controversial day in Lee Harvey Oswald's
history. In his
Historic Diary [CE 24]Oswald is very specific
in describing the hours of
the day and the chain-of-events. Yet at the same time, he is entirely
inaccurate! Why? It is hard to believe that Oswald's inaccuracies
are simple mistakes. For example, in his diary Oswald writes that
he slashed his wrist in his Moscow hotel room sometime around 7:00 p.m.
But official Soviet medical records released to the Warren Commission back in 1964 indicated that
he was hospitalized as early as 4:00 p.m.
As there were no witnesses, the contradictions between Oswald's diary entry and the Soviet documents, understandably spun-off a variety of conspiratorial theories all centered on the notion that Oswald was either dispatched somewhere other than a hospital or that something was done to him in the hospital. These theories were not without some merit. The discrepancy in the times provided by the Soviets could have been attributed to their ignorance of the existence of Oswald's journal. Furthermore, the Soviet history of using hospitals and psychiatric facilities for intelligence and repressive security purposes is well documented. But in 1991, I located the first of many witnesses who would come to confirm the Soviet timetable--Oswald was indeed taken to the Botkinskaya Hospital at the time which the Soviets indicated. While this vacated one mystery, it opened another: why did Oswald alter his timetable by some five hours? Surely he would remember accurately a momentous event as having to self-inflict a wound and remember the difference between the dark of 7:00 p.m. and the daylight at 3:00 p.m..?
It is worth analyzing almost line by line what Lee Harvey Oswald wrote in his Historic Diary for this day:
1. Oct. 21. (am) Meeting with single official. Balding ,stout, black suit, fairly good English, asks what do I want? I say Soviet citizenship; he asks why, I give vague answers about "Great Soviet Union." He tells me "USSR only great in Literature." Wants me to go back home." I am stunned. I reiterate, he says he shall check and let me know whether my visa will be extended (it expires today).
2. Eve. 6.00-Receive word from police official. I must leave country tonight at 8.00 P.M. as visa expires. I am shocked!! My dreams! I retire to my room. I have $100 left. I have waited for 2 years to be accepted. My fondest dreams are shattered because of a petty official; because of bad planning - I planned too much!
3. 7.00 P.M. I decide to end it. Soak wrist in cold water to numb the pain. Then slash my left wrist. Then plunge wrist into bathtub of hot water. I think "when Rima comes at 8 to find me dead it will be a great shock. Somewhere a violin plays as I watch my life whirl away. I think to myself, "how easy to die" and "a sweet death," (to violins)
4. About 8.00 Rima finds me unconscious (bathtub water a rich red color) she screams (I remember that) and runs for help. Ambulance comes, I am taken to hospital where five stitches are put in my wrist. Poor Rima stays by my side as my interpreter (my Russian is still very bad) far into the night, I tell her "go home" (my mood is bad) but she stays; she is "my friend". She has a strong will; only at this moment I notice she is pretty.
The "balding stout" black suited English-speaking official to
whom Oswald refers was probably the KGB officer Abram Shaknazarov,
as an OVIR functionary during his interview of Oswald. But the meeting
took place the day before, on October 20, according to KGB Colonel Oleg
Nechiperenko's book, Passport to Assassination. If, as Nechiperenko claims, Skaknazarov was
a veteran of the security forces since the 1920's, he must have
been a remarkable personality. He not only witnessed and participated in
the Stalin purges of the 1930's, the Second World War, and the execution of
his boss Beria following Stalin's death--but also survived these events! How did
as experienced a KGB officer as Shaknazarov miss the hints that Oswald was
dropping in the previous days that he had something of value to offer the
Soviets? Or did Oswald backtrack on his offer during the interview?
As Shaknazarov is no doubt as dead as Oswald is today, we will probably
never know until the KGB opens their file on the specifics of that
What did Oswald do that morning of October 21? According to Rimma Shirakova's testimony in Norman Mailer's Oswald's Tale, she on her own initiative revealed to Oswald in the morning what she had learned the previous evening: that Oswald was going to be ordered to leave the Soviet Union by the end of the day. She remained with Oswald who was very upset until lunchtime, she told Mailer.
2. Nichiperenko quotes a KGB document which states that "at twelve o'clock noon the hotel informed Oswald, in the presence of his translator, that he must be at OVIR at three o'clock and that train tickets to Helsinki had been ordered for him." Thus Oswald was officially informed of the decision by 12:00 noon and not at 6:00 p.m. as he writes.
3. According to Shirakova, she goes to take her lunch around noon, agreeing with Oswald to meet in the lobby some time after 2:00 p.m. so that they can depart by automobile for a 3:00 p.m.appointment at OVIR. Therefore, sometime between 2:00 and 3:00, Oswald slashed his wrist.
This time period was confirmed
for me by Rosa Agafonova, the Chief Interpretor at the Hotel Berlin. She
told me that she remembers very specifically ordering a car for
Lee Harvey Oswald for 2:40 p.m. so that they could arrive at OVIR for 3:00.
She also told me that everybody knew by then that Oswald's request to
remain in the USSR had been turned down and that Oswald knew as
When I was interviewing Agafonova in 1991 and 1992, we had not yet learned that Shirakova revealed to Oswald that morning the official decision or that he was informed by telephone at noon that he must depart by the end of the day. Yet it was obvious that Oswald somehow knew of the decision. My assumption back then was that Oswald had a clandestine contact who revealed the decision to him and that Oswald altered the times of the events afterwards to protect the identity of that contact. I wrote so in the Third Decade article. Now we know more. Although it is not clear whether Shirakova violated any regulations by telling Oswald in the morning the bad news, by noon he was informed by somebody from OVIR--thus there was no motive to cover his sources. Why Oswald alters the times of the events, remains a mystery.
Rosa Agafonova recalled that shortly before 3:00, Rimma Shirakova became
concerned when Oswald did not come down from his room because he was always
punctual. She telephoned his room but received no answer. Agafonova
says she instructed Rimma to go to Oswald's room with the
dyzhurnaya and a pass key. (In Soviet hotels, each floor
has a "key lady" known as the dyzhurnaya ("duty
person") who sits in front of the elevators and with whom the room key is
left. This ensures that nobody visits the guest without the duty
person checking their identity.) Rimma recalled that she and
dyshurnaya found the door bolted from inside. Security was called and the
door was broken down. Rimma told Mailer she never entered the room but
was told by security that Oswald was in the bathroom and had cut his
Agafonova said that Rimma came running down to the lobby and told her what had happened. "I called an ambulance," Agafonova stated. "They asked what year he was born in. I said, 'He's bleeding to death, there is no time to look up his date of birth."
Agafonova says they took him away at about 3:30 p.m. She could not see whether Oswald was conscious. According to the KGB report, Oswald was found on the floor with his arm in a bathtub filled with warm water. Shirakova told Mailer that Oswald's clothes appeared dry when he was taken out of the hotel. She accompanied Oswald to the hospital and remained with him late into the night.
[above] Views of the Botkin Hospital Gates - Moscow 1992
Found in Oswald's room was a note which states, "I have made such a long journey to find death, but I love life." But from the medical reports, it appears that Oswald's wound was superficial--approximately two inches in length. It did not appear to be very deep either. Oswald's brief psychiatric evaluation (the second in his life -- the first being the 1953 New York City Youth House evaluation) found no psychotic symptoms and concludes that he was of no danger to other people. It is abundantely clear that Oswald's "suicide attempt" was not a genuine attempt to kill himself. Its purpose was to stall his departure from the USSR. In that Oswald was successful.
[CE 895] includes official medical records released by the USSR to the Warren Commission. Unfortunately, only US State Department traslantions are published in the Warren Hearings volumes. I have never seen the Russian language originals.
As Oswald was a foreigner, he was
kept hospitalized much longer than might have been necessary: better safe
than sorry, was the Soviet attitude.
The KGB in the meantime, searched his room and found nothing of interest to report other than a letter written in English, addressed to nobody in particular, requesting political asylum as a "Communist and Marxist" while Soviet authorities consider his request for citizenship.
Accompanied by Rimma Shirakova, Rosa Agafonova visited Oswald at the hospital. She was ordered to do so by the Berlin Hotel management and she brought some fresh fruit from the hotel for him. She recalled in 1991 that he appeared pale but was sitting up on the edge of his bed. His arm was bandaged and in a sling. They joked lightly but never spoke of his "suicide attempt" then or later. His hotel room, she told me, was vacated of his things and assigned to somebody else.
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Lee Harvey Oswald in Russia