Mikhail Iossel's collection of stories is a portrait of Soviet life

Friday May 27 2022
"Love like water, love like fire" by Mikhail Iossel.

"Love like water, love like fire" by Mikhail Iossel. PHOTO | COURTESY


Mikhail Iossel’s collection Love Like Water, Love Like Fire is described as painting a "tender, dark, poignant and humorous portrait of Soviet life" by the New York Times.

The Night Andropov Died and The Night We Were Told Brezhnev Was Dead are two of the 20 stories in the Concordia University professor’s 2020 collection.

The USSR collapsed in 1989. Writer Iossel had migrated three years before from Russia to the US. Recently, a group of Kenyan writers were fortunate to have the author do a reading for them.

They sat around Iossel, several floors above the streets of Nairobi in the brightly illuminated Chester House.

The writers savoured stories like Sentence, a touching tale dedicated to Arkadii Dragomoschenko, a friend from Iossel’s youth.

That youth was spent in Saint Petersburg, then known as Leningrad, where the author lived until he was 30.


In the heart of that Russian city is the famed four-part Horse Tamers sculpture, where it is said sculptor Pieter Klodt etched the face of the politician his wife was cheating on him with onto a horse’s bronze scrotum.

Klodt’s Horses is one of the three stories in the collection that Iossel read in its entirety. The professor also read Life: How Was It?, which was first published in The New Yorker. The story was inspired by the afternoon he ran into an old high school friend in a bookshop in America — 40 years and 7,000 kilometres after they last saw each other in Russia.


My favourite story in the collection is Some of the World Transactions My Father Has Missed Due to His Deathon September 14, 1999, because of the way the author factually journalised it: "The Election of former KGB operative Vladimir Putin as President of Russia. Second war with Chechnya. George W Bush’s dubious electoral victory over Al Gore. Second war with Iraq ..."

.Author Mikhail Iossel 

Author Mikhail Iossel with Tony Mochama. PHOTO | COURTESY

This was followed by a touch of the personal: "His widow’s wearing all black for more than a year".

The title story Love Like Water, Love Like Fire opens with a photograph of Iossel’s mother, now 92 years old, staring directly into the camera as a nine-year old (in a family group photograph taken outdoors at Gomel, Byelorussia, a month before the outbreak of the Great Patriotic War (as WW2 is known in Russia).

Iossel also wrote Every Hunter Wants to Know, a collection of stories, and is co-editor — with Jeff Parker — of the anthologies Amerika: Russian Writers View the United States, and Rasskazy: New Fiction from a New Russia.

(Tin House, 2010). His stories have been published in literary magazines in the US and abroad, translated in several foreign languages, and anthologised in Best American Short Stories and elsewhere. He is the recipient of the Guggenheim Foundation and NEA fellowship, among other awards.