By Mikhail Iossel | April 26, 2023

 I was sitting in an open-concept cafe of sorts in a downtown shopping mall the other day, drinking my unpretentious regular black tea, eating my delicious, refreshingly fresh almond croissant, scrolling through what felt like a needlessly extended and still seemingly self-burgeoning array of Russian-language Telegram channels on my phone, a bottomless mixed bag of horror and silliness, pretentiousness and sadness, heartbreak, cruelty and disbelief, thoughtfulness and denial, relentless virtue-signaling and searing honesty, downright stupidity and reluctant objectivity, self-righteousness, brutal honesty and triumphant poshlost (that sheer spiritual tackiness whose elusive nature of a randomly semi-invisible and unpredictably shape-shifting Russian butterfly the matchless classifier Vladimir Nabokov, whose birthday happens to be today, along with that of his extreme antipode and altogether an uncommonly evil man Vladimir Lenin, had attempted repeatedly and largely unsuccessfully, alas, to pin down, referring to it by turns as “corny trash, vulgar clichés, Philistinism in all its phases, imitations of imitations, bogus profundities,” and, of course, famously, as “posh-lust” — indeed, that sublimated overpowering noxious, sickeningly narcissistic and self-destructive, ugly lust for the vapid poshness of unbridled mass attention and adoration, or even mass hatred, for that matter, it doesn’t matter, so long as one remains firmly lodged in the roiling center of popular attention and keeps being talked about, talked about, at any cost, regardless of what it takes,  how many people may get hurt in the process) — in other words, I was minding my solitary little business of pure idleness, while waiting for my prescription to be filled at the pharmacy to the right and a bit down from my perch (nothing serious, dear highly hypothetical reader), perusing those Telegram channels and kind of musing in the dusky back of my glimmering mind about all the stories I had promised myself, in a manner of speaking, I would have freaking written by now (I’ll try to be brief here, in this passage, because if there is anything less interesting and more annoying for the reader to encounter in a text than writers sharing with the world their writerly miseries and despairs and preoccupations, then… well, then nothing, then I don’t know what it would be; just a figure of speech), such as the one about Richard Nixon intervening (in a bad way… well, obviously) with my prospective and by then nonexistent love life of a chaste (strike that: virginal) sixteen, almost-seventeen year-old back in Leningrad, or how at one keen point on one night in early September of  the same year 1972 in a tiny dirt-spattered log cabin with sloping earthen floor in a remote (some two hundred-plus kilometers from the city) village in the North-East of the vast Leningrad region much to my instant piercing horror I unwittingly discovered my deep-seated anti-Soviet essence, or the one about… but oh, so many, so, so heartbreakingly and infinitely many, a veritable limitless multitude of stories, yes, so damn many, oh stop moaning, yes, and now I’m in the goddamn twilight of my life (oh shut up, you loser, for f-word’s sake), and now Russia is the epicenter of evil on the planet, a full-fledged fascist state (and no, I’m not interested in arguing about the definitions of fascism, I’m not a political historian, I say what I feel and feel what I say, and that’s plenty for me), so I may not even want to write about any good or bad memories I have (I do, and how) with regards to it, a veritable freaking sea of them, quit mixing metaphors, so what in the world have I been thinking, and… OK, enough, don’t be a poshlyak, posh lyak, yes, what in hell is a lyak, am I a lyak or what… yes, well, when a possibly inebriated or else harmlessly mad but generally decent-looking man, fellow, probably in his fifties, sixties, well turned-out, whatever that means, well-dressed, like, in double-breasted camel wool coat and sporting a red cashmere scarf and, umm, Borsalino fedora, like the one from that eponymous old Alain Delon movie, lowered himself down heavily on a chair directly across from me at the empty and pretty darn long table (what the hell, dude?), fixed me with a benevolent gaze of his pale-blue (strike that: no recollection) eyes and said, smiling beatifically and in a pleasantly melodious, warbling voice, something entirely nonsensical that, to the best of my ability to separate a stream of sounds into its phonetic components, sounded like “Ich habe nicht ein doodley doodley dan” — to which, upon an understandable split-second pause (somewhere in back of me, a phone rang, and someone sang out in a soulful falsetto, “Ooh baby baby, ooh baby baby”), I reciprocated accordingly, at an equivalent level of meaningfulness and articulateness, by proceeding to relate to him, over the next five minutes or so and to his unflagging attention, the full, unabridged story of my life, followed by a detailed overview of, you guessed it, Russian history. 





  • 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