MINSK, BELARUS — MINSK, Belarus -- A handful of people here have suddenly become minor celebrities, all because they befriended a lonely American named Lee Harvey Oswald more than 30 years ago.
Oswald lived in Minsk for more than two years. He worked in a sprawling radio factory and married a local woman before returning to the United States in 1962, 18 months before the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Oswald was arrested in the shooting; two days later he was shot and killed by a bystander at the Dallas city jail.
Until recently, the Minsk phase of Oswald's life has been largely off-limits to foreign researchers. But the barriers fell with the collapse of the communist system, and Oswald's former friends are being besieged for new details of his time in this drab city.
Norman Mailer, the U.S. author, is the most prominent of those digging into Oswald's past. For the last few months, Mr. Mailer has been living on and off in Minsk. He confirms in a telephone conversation that he is working on a book about Oswald but declines to be more specific.
"I never discuss a book I'm working on, because I might jinx myself," Mr. Mailer says.
Mr. Mailer even tried to move into the one-room apartment with a view of the Svisloch River where Oswald, then in his early 20s, lived under constant secret police surveillance.
Pavel Golovachev, 51, who worked with Oswald at what is now the Gorizont TV and radio complex, says Mr. Mailer paid him $50 for an interview. And requests to photograph former Oswald acquaintances are often countered with demands for payment.
"As the old saying goes, 'Thank you' is fine, but it doesn't put vodka in the glass or butter on the bread," Mr. Golovachev says.
Those who knew Oswald best generally speak highly of him.
Ella German, who says she was briefly engaged to him, describes him as "a pleasant-looking guy with a good sense of humor. He was not as rough and rude as the men here were back then.
"We went to the movies, the theater, symphonies. He was easy to be with. He didn't demand anything of me. We kissed, but we did not sleep together. We never became lovers because, in the end, I decided I did not love him."
Ms. German says she broke off the engagement shortly after New Year's, 1961. A few months later, Oswald and his wife, Marina, were wed.
More casual acquaintances, however, remember Oswald less fondly.
To Leonid Tsagoikov, another former co-worker, Oswald was "a lazybones . . . ."
But regardless of their personal opinions of Oswald, almost all of those who knew him do not believe he killed Kennedy.
"Oswald shoot Kennedy? Come on!" Mr. Tsagoikov exclaims. "Oswald could not shoot at all. I went hunting with him once, and when he saw a rabbit, he got so flustered he shot up in the air . . . ."