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Soviet Law and the Assassination of JFK

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The following is a guest post by Peter Roudik, Director of the Global Legal Research Center at the Law Library of Congress and a foreign law specialist covering Russia and former Soviet Union jurisdictions.

Minsk, 4 Kommunisticheskaya Str. - the apartment building where Lee Harvey Oswald lived from 1959-1961. (Source: Flickr user Alexander Kuznetsov)
Minsk, 4 Kommunisticheskaya Str.: The apartment building in Minsk, Belarus, where Lee Harvey Oswald lived. (Source: Flickr user Alexander Kuznetsov.)

In a recent interview with NPR, the Librarian of Congress Dr. James H. Billington said that “the assassination of President Kennedy affected all of us as a terrible, shared human tragedy.”  This tragedy had an impact on many people around the globe, but the Dallas shooting particularly resonated in Belarus.  This former constituent Soviet republic has a long history of political assassinations and suspicious fatal car accidents involving its popular leaders.  In addition, from January 1960 until May 1962, President Kennedy’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, lived and worked in the Belarus capital city of Minsk.  He got married there and unsuccessfully applied for citizenship.

While Oswald’s communications with the United States Embassy to the USSR regarding his passport problems were thoroughly documented by the Warren Commission, his petitions to Soviet authorities are less well-known.  In 2010, the National Security Archive published a copy of his Soviet citizenship application which was found in his KGB file.  According to the petition, he applied for Soviet citizenship as soon as he arrived in the Soviet Union in October 1959.  At that time, cases of foreigners asking to be allowed to stay in the Soviet Union were extremely rare, and there was no real legal mechanism to deal with such situations.

The main statute that applied in these cases was the 1938 Soviet Citizenship Law.  This 24-line document included only one sentence related to foreigners, and this stated that foreign individuals could petition the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR  (then the nation’s highest legislative body) requesting admission to Soviet citizenship.  Simultaneously, the Law allowed people to request citizenship from the legislature of one of the constituent republics where an individual was located.  The Law did not say whether both institutions need to be petitioned or whether it could be either one of them, and what to do in case of a conflict.  I have not seen any information that suggests that, after receiving the initial rejection from the federal Soviet authorities, Oswald applied for citizenship in the republic where he lived.  Probably he correctly understood that such a petition would be useless because the activities of Soviet government institutions were well coordinated and, regardless of what the law said, decisions were made by the Communist party apparatchiks and secret police (KGB) officials.

A recently declassified document that had been issued by the Communist Party leadership in 1947 ordered the establishment of a seven person Bureau on Exit and Entry under the federal executive government.  This bureau, which included heads of major intelligence agencies, was supposed to make all decisions regarding the admission of foreign nationals to the Soviet Union.  Even though the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was officially the main government agency tasked with dealing with foreigners and their problems, this secret document defined the role of the Foreign Affairs Ministry as an information provider for the decision-making bureau.  It appears that Oswald was not of any interest or use to Soviet intelligence agencies and that was the reason for his citizenship request being denied.  This version of the events was mentioned in the 1993 book Passport to Assassination, written by a Soviet intelligence officer who had met with Oswald.

The absence of clear legal rules for the acquisition of Soviet citizenship did not allow Oswald to be naturalized in Belarus, leading to a suicide attempt and his eventual return to the United States.  He was only allowed to stay in the Soviet Union as a stateless individual under Red Cross protection.  If he had become a naturalized Soviet citizen, he would have been obligated to renounce his American citizenship and almost certainly wouldn’t have been able to leave the Soviet Union after that.  His lack of Soviet citizenship later prevented him from returning to the USSR in 1963, when he went to the Soviet Embassy in Mexico two months before the assassination and requested entry visas to the USSR.  This request was denied because, shortly before this time, the USSR government had issued a formal regulation on the procedure for the admission of foreigners to the country.  The regulation introduced a three to four months waiting period in order to receive entry visas and ordered that visas be issued at the place of an applicant’s permanent residency only.  Numerous supporting documents were also required.  The regulation allowed for some exemptions under “unique circumstances” but probably the consular officer who met with Oswald in Mexico did not consider his case unique and recommended that he return to the United States.

Were the Soviet laws easier to deal with, perhaps Lee Harvey Oswald would have gone to Minsk, not Dallas, in October of 1963.

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