In his new book, “Notes From Cyberground: Trumpland and My Old Soviet Feeling,” Mikhail Iossel recounts that when he was a boy growing up in the Soviet Union, he and his friends would boil a can of condensed milk in a large pan of hot water to make a toffee-like treat.
The can needed to boil for at least two hours, and the trick was to keep going back to the kitchen to check that the can was still totally under the surface of the boiling water. If it wasn’t, it would explode. But there was no guarantee.
“Still, sometimes, entirely at random and with no visible warning signs, the can would explode even when being completely submerged in boiling water… The terrible, booming sound of the can’s detonation would shake the floor and rattle the windowpanes in the apartment, filling our fluttering hearts with horrified ardor,” Iossel wrote.
The boys would then cautiously enter the kitchen to find “the quivering stalagmites of pale-brown goo hanging from the ceiling, angry live splatters of the same protoplasmic substance everywhere on the walls, diarrhetic sprays of it across the window… Nothing for the parents, upon their return from work, to rejoice over.”
The vivid recollection is an unmistakable metaphor for the way Iossel viewed America’s “increasingly dangerous condition” on November 21, 2017, the day he originally posted the memory on his Facebook page.
“When it does explode you don’t want to be in the kitchen,” Iossel said of the metaphorical can in a recent interview with The Times of Israel.
“Notes from Cyberground” is a nearly 400-page chronological compilation of Iossel’s copious Facebook posts from November 8, 2016 — the day Donald Trump was elected president of the United States — through October 11, 2018, less than a month before the recent US midterm elections. The insights and warnings from the former refusenik and samizdat writer are passionate and pointed. Iossel’s writing is full of rage, enlightening observations, and oft witty humor. They express the author’s pain and frustration as he watches his beloved America — a beacon of hope during his Soviet youth — coming undone by Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s influence over him.
For someone who grew up under an authoritarian regime, it’s all a maddening and heartbreaking case of déjà vu.
Iossel, 63, immigrated to the US from Leningrad — now Saint Petersburg — in 1986 and became an American citizen in 1996. A professor of English and creative writing at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada since 2004, Iossel is still deeply attached to the US, where he built his career in academia.
Shortly after arriving in the States, Iossel was accepted to an MA program at the University of New Hampshire upon submitting some of his short stories that a friend had translated from Russian to English for him. After teaching himself English and succeeding in the program, he went on to write and edit several books and win prestigious awards, including the Guggenheim, National Endowment for the Arts, and Stegner fellowships. He held positions at a number of American universities before moving north of the border.
Despite having lived half of his life in North America, Iossel’s experiences as a Soviet citizen (some described in poignant vignettes in the book) most strongly inform the perspective of “Notes From Cyberground.”
Iossels paternal grandfather became an ardent Bolsehvik at the time of the Russian Revolution, and remained one until he died, despite fearing for his life during the Stalinist purges.
“For years, every night [my grandparents] lived in fear of hearing the engine of a car pulling into their courtyard, and three [NKVD secret police] men emerging from the car and going into their doorway and climbing up the stairs,” Iossel said.
Iossel himself grew up with his mother, father and younger brother in communal housing in a micro-district on the outskirts of Leningrad. His parents were not Party members, but his father was a prominent scientist and a leading expert on the corrosion of metals and the electromagnetic defense of Soviet submarines, a highly secretive field. His mother was an engineer.
Although Iossel was literarily inclined and won writing contests all through his childhood, his parents prevailed upon him to follow in their footsteps when it came time for higher education. Iossel enrolled at the Leningrad Shipbuilding Institute, one of the colleges that would accept Jewish students. However, engineering wasn’t for him, and he admitted to spending most of his time writing for the student theater.
Following graduation and three months of compulsory Naval training, Iossel worked at a secret research facility for three years. After that, he applied to emigrate, but was promptly refused.
“There were complicating factors; my father was a leading constructor of Soviet submarine defenses, with a degree of clearance that radiated to anyone within his immediate surrounding. Therefore, I was turned down. Also, by the time I decided to apply in December 1979, the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan. In response, [American president Jimmy] Carter shut off trade and cultural exchange with the Soviet Union, and in retaliation, the Soviet government turned off the spigot in terms of emigration,” Iossel explained.
For the next five years, Iossel was a refusenik and a member of Club-81, the first underground literary organization “to be recognized by the authorities and KGB,” as Iossel put it.
“It was a precarious position to be in. You had to know how not to overstep your boundaries. It was no longer the Stalinist time, when just for saying something untoward you could get jailed or executed. My generation no longer had fear bred in our bones, but we had no idea what would happen to us afterward. We were a generation of security guards and boiler room attendants, so we could sit around a lot. We didn’t make much money but we didn’t need any,” said Iossel, who worked as the roller coaster attendant at the Central Park of Culture and Leisure in Leningrad.
The KGB tried to recruit Iossel, but he managed to diplomatically turn them down. Unfortunately, he let it slip to his friends while drunk about being approached by the KGB. The secret police soon returned and made it clear they were not happy about it.
“The next night I was coming home from the literary club. A couple of KGB guys were waiting for me and beat me up. They left no outward signs, but everything hurt like hell. One turned as he left and said, ‘Next time we’ll fucking kill you,'” Iossel said.
After Mikhail Gorbachev came to power as Secretary General of the Community Party in 1985, the emigration spigot started to flow again. Iossel was informed that his request was now granted, and that he had three weeks to leave the country.
In the following interview, Iossel, speaks about why he started writing political posts after Trump’s election, what he thinks Americans need to understand about Russia and Putin, and why he believes — despite his angst — that America’s democratic system will survive the Trump era.
Did you envision a book when you started posting after Trump became president?
There was no thought of a book. It was just me venting. I couldn’t hold it inside. It was therapeutic. I was blowing off steam. Since 2016 my posts have become much more political and pointed. I wanted to contribute my voice somehow, even though it doesn’t change anything. It gives you a sense that you are doing something. What else can I do?
You express a lot of emotion in your posts. How traumatic has living through this time been for you?
It’s very personal. When we lived in the Soviet Union, America was the bright side, the sunny side of the world, so we idealized America. And then we came to America and realized it is not perfect, but it is the yardstick that we use to gauge the distance we have had covered in life. It is extremely frustrating to see America so flawed and imperfect to the point of allowing a man like [Trump], who is essentially authoritarian and so Soviet in character to get to the top of the power pyramid.
Of course there was [Ronald] Reagan, Sarah Palin, George Wallace, and others. That populist, xenophobic, nativist, racist and anti-intellectual streak was always very strong in American society. It’s just that it never really reached the Oval Office. And now it has happened.
It was also extremely upsetting to me that it was absolutely clear that Putin and the Russians participated actively in getting Trump elected, and that Trump was grateful to [Putin] and enthralled with him and other dictators.
Many of your posts seem to indicate that you are very concerned that Americans don’t understand Putin or how things work in Russia.
Ever since I came to the US, it was interesting to observe that the people who already knew a lot about the world, and Russia for instance, were the ones who were always very interested and asked questions. People who knew nothing didn’t want to know anything.
What was really upsetting to me was this prevalent notion, especially in left-wing circles, that Putin represents the only bulwark against American dominance. [I refer to] this distinct streak that America is the source of all evil in the world. Having lived in the Soviet Union, I knew that was not the case. The source of anti-democratic disturbance in the world was the Soviet Union. Putin is former KGB, and there can be no good people who worked in the KGB, just as there were no good people who were in the Gestapo. I knew people like Putin because I grew up around them. It is amazing that these stupid, nonentity people — just by being absolutely ruthless and cunning — have managed to not only rule Russia, but also wreak havoc in the world and ultimately install their man in the White House, which is the greatest intelligence triumph in human history, I think, and by far the greatest scandal in American politics.
Conversely, there were things that Putin did not understand about America.
When Putin decided to support Trump, he wanted three things: the lifting of the Magnitsky Act sanctions, recognition of Russia’s claim to Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea, and the withdrawal of US troops from Syria. He also wanted to sow discord in the Western alliance. Trump tried to do all these, but failed. Putin assumed that Trump could lift sanctions unilaterally by his own fiat. Putin never read the US Constitution. Trump never read it either, but Putin is smarter than Trump. Putin assumed the US president can do whatever he wants, just like he can in Russia. Trump came with the same mindset, and he was quickly brought to his senses. That surprised Putin, who should have known better.
Given the latest reports about the various investigations into Trump’s possible collusion with the Russians, do you think the end of his presidency is near?
I think the inflection point is here and that he will not get from under this revelation that he was wittingly or unwittingly a pawn of Russia… My prediction, for what its worth, is that not only will he not run in 2020, but he will be forced to step down before that — probably in exchange for not being charged for himself and his children, pretty much like what [Boris] Yeltsin did when he installed Putin.
So you are optimistic that America will make it through this trying period in one piece?
Trump is the last vestige of the American past, of the Civil War that was never finished, and the reaction to the fact that there was a black president for the last eight years. The demographic reality is not on the side of that America. Also, the system works. The midterm elections show the limitations on Trump’s popularity and his ability to win.
The system almost collapsed because one of the major parties was in cahoots with a president who is illegitimate or who should be impeached. But that moment has passed and now the Democrats are in charge of the House. The press worked and held Trump to account and unearthed a lot of stories. The judicial system works, as well.
But what about Trump’s core base?
Trump will still have his hardcore support, because essentially it is a cult. He told people that there is nothing they should be ashamed of and can’t say out loud. He came and legitimized the darkness in their hearts, so of course they will never abandon him no matter what he does. That’s a small number, around 30 percent of the population.
That doesn’t seem like a small number to me.
Well, one third of Americans may be racist, anti-Semitic, horrible people. That is a normal ratio for any country, I think.
In the book, you use the term “detrumpification” for what will have to happen after Trump leaves office. What do you mean by that?
It will be a major trauma to the national psyche because of the realization that this actually happened, that a man like this was in the White House and humiliated the country down to its core foundations.
Detrumpification means a national conversation about what happened and how it was possible to happen. How did people allow for this to happen? Why do we still have the Electoral College? Why does the president have such broad powers — even a president who is clearly unfit to lead, especially in international affairs?
One of the stories you tell is about a game you played at a party as a teenager. You went into a dark bedroom alone holding a candle and looked into a mirror. What you saw was the thing that scared you the most. Who or what is the bogeyman in the mirror in today’s America?
I think the bogeyman is the fact that there are tens of millions of people who may seem like kind and decent people, but who have room in their hearts for racism, anti-Semitism and all kinds of ugliness. It should be scary to lots of Americans to realize that Trump has managed to tap into something very ugly. People don’t know it’s there until someone comes along and says, “I’ll be the receptacle for your darkness.” That darkness is always there, and then a time comes when it bursts open. That’s the bogeyman.