By Mikhail Iossel | April 12, 2023

Many — many — years ago, in the godawful 1983, if memory serves me (it may not), back in Leningrad, in another lifetime, at an unofficial art exhibit one afternoon in a popular and also semi-clandestine basement cultural club in the heart of the heart of the city, I had a random encounter with a rather elderly and visibly inebriated man from the GDR (some may still remember that unlovely acronym), a fellow underground writer’s acquaintance, I believe, who walked with a limp (due, as he would later cheerily volunteer, to one of his legs being shorter than the other by a few centimeters since birth) and spoke fairly good (if slightly halting and understandably slurred) Russian (having started studying it right after the fall of Berlin in 1945 — first on his own and then at state-run language courses — in order, presumably, to… oh, I didn’t care enough to ask; to, like, maybe read Dostoyevsky in the original?); and he told me, in an entirely unbidden and inappropriately unironic revelation (but then, again, he was drunk), that although he had lived in Germany under Hitler and was keenly and constantly aware of the ineradicable dark stain of (granted, an absolutely ineluctable one, because what could one realistically do and not be disappeared on the spot, that wasn’t even a question, we don’t choose the times or some essential circumstances of our lives and all that; but still) mute subservience to the ugliest evil in documented human history which lay forever as a result on him and millions of the still-living Germans like him (the dead, the lucky bastards, were blessedly guilt-free), he wanted and needed me to know, for some inexplicable reason, that every single day during those terrible interminable twelve years of Nazi rule, usually in the dead of night, without fail, his hand to god, in a strictly ritualistic fashion, he would write, in a feverishly hurried blind scrawl, by candlelight or in pitch-darkness (was he married? did he have children? what did he do for a living? was he perhaps an accountant? an engineer? why hadn’t he been conscripted by the Wehrmacht?.. ah, yes: his short leg), with his heart pounding away in the hollow of his ribcage, an impromptu prose poem (yes, really… if that’s what it was supposed to be called) about Hitler’s imminent and extremely painful death, prophesying and visualizing and describing the infernal creature’s final agony in the soul-wrenching minutiae of gory details, and concluding each of those cathartic cursive eruptions with the same desperate invocation: “Die, you beastly animal, die!” — and then, immediately thereafter, dizzy with momentary light-headedness, striking a match (over an ashtray, presumably, or else perhaps in the toilet?) to set that little piece of notebook paper trembling in his hand on fire, liberating it from itself and himself from that tortured text, to put it literarily, every single night for all those years, yes, imagine, dear comrade — and I… suddenly and unaccountably feeling queasy with an onset of burning shame (for him? for myself? for all of us?.. I couldn’t tell), filled with unfocussed disgust, I only nodded silently, curtly (strike that: sympathetically), avoiding his pitiful swimming eyes, and hastened to remove myself from his presence.


  • Mikhail Iossel

    Mikhail Iossel was born in Leningrad, USSR (now St. Petersburg, Russia), where he worked as an electromagnetic engineer and a security guard at the Leningrad Central Park of Culture and Leisure, and belonged to an organization of "samizdat" writers before emigrating to the U.S. in 1986. He is the author of, most recently, of "Love Like Water, Love Like Fire," a collection of stories, " "Notes from Cyberground: Trumpland and My Old Soviet Feeling," and one previous collection of fiction: "Every Hunter Wants to Know." He is a frequent contributor to, and his stories and essays have also appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Foreign Policy, Best American Short Stories, and elsewhere. Iossel, a Guggenheim, National Endowment for the Arts, and Stegner Fellow, has taught in universities throughout the U.S. and is an associate professor of English at Concordia University in Montreal.

Dooney’s is serializing Mikhail Iossel's SENTENCE.

You can find the full list of posted essays here