Elena Gorokhova grows up in 1960's Leningrad, where she discovers that beauty and passion can be found in unexpected places in Soviet Russia.
A Mountain of Crumbs is the moving story of a young Soviet girl's discovery of the hidden truths of adulthood and her country's profound political deception.
Elena, born with a desire to explore the world beyond her borders, finds her passion in the complexity of the English language but in the Soviet Union of the 1960s, such a passion verges on the subversive. Elena's home is no longer the majestic Russia of literature or the tsars. Instead, it is a nation humiliated by its first faltering steps after World War II, putting up appearances for the sake of its regime and fighting to retain its pride.
In this deeply affecting memoir, Elena re-creates the world that both oppressed and inspired her. She recounts stories passed down to her about the horrors of the Bolshevik Revolution and probes the daily deprivations and small joys of her family's bunkerlike existence. Through Elena's captivating voice, we learn not only the personal story of Russia in the second half of the twentieth century, but also the story of one rebellious citizen whose love of a foreign language finally transports her to a new world.
|Publisher:||Simon & Schuster|
|Product dimensions:||8.40(w) x 5.50(h) x 0.90(d)|
About the Author
Elena Gorokhova grew up in St. Petersburg, Russia, although for most of her life it was known to her as Leningrad. At the age of twenty-four she married an American and came to the United States with only a twenty kilogram suitcase to start a new life. The bestselling author of A Mountain of Crumbs and Russian Tattoo, she has a Doctorate in Language Education and currently lives in New Jersey. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Daily Telegraph, on BBC Radio, and in a number of literary magazines.
Read an Excerpt
I WISH MY MOTHER HAD come from Leningrad, from the world of Pushkin and the tsars, of granite embankments and lace ironwork, of pearly domes buttressing the low sky. Leningrad’s sophistication would have infected her the moment she drew her first breath, and all the curved façades and stately bridges, marinated for more than two centuries in the city’s wet, salty air, would have left a permanent mark of refinement on her soul.
But she didn’t. She came from the provincial town of Ivanovo in central Russia, where chickens lived in the kitchen and a pig squatted under the stairs, where streets were unpaved and houses made from wood. She came from where they lick plates.
Born three years before Russia turned into the Soviet Union, my mother became a mirror image of my motherland: overbearing, protective, difficult to leave. Our house was the seat of the politburo, my mother its permanent chairman. She presided in our kitchen over a pot of borsch, a ladle in her hand, ordering us to eat in the same voice that made her anatomy students quiver. A survivor of the famine, Stalin’s terror, and the Great Patriotic War, she controlled and protected, ferociously. What had happened to her was not going to happen to us. She sheltered us from dangers, experience, and life itself by a tight embrace that left us innocent and gasping for air.
She commandeered trips to our crumbling dacha—under the Baltic clouds, spitting rain—to plant, weed, pick, and preserve for the winter whatever grew under the rare sun that never rose above the neighbor’s pigsty. During brief northern summers we sloshed through a swamp to the shallow waters of the Gulf of Finland, warm and yellow as weak tea; we scooped mushrooms out of the forest moss and hung them on thread over the stove to dry for the winter. My mother planned, directed, and took charge, lugging buckets of water to beds of cucumbers and dill, elbowing in lines for sugar to preserve the fruit we’d need to treat winter colds. When September came, we were back in the city, rooting in the cupboard for gooseberry jam to cure my cough or black currant syrup to lower my father’s blood pressure. We were back to the presidium speeches and winter coats padded with wool and preparations for more April digging.
Maybe if I hadn’t spent every spring Sunday ankle-deep in cold, soggy dirt, I wouldn’t have been so easily seduced by the decadent sound of the English language that poured from the grooves of a record called Audio-Lingual Drills, my tutor’s pride. I might have gone to medical school, like my mother, or engineering school, like everyone else. I might have even married a Russian.
Maybe if I could have attached the word “intelligentsia” to her weighty figure in a polyester dress made by the “Bolshevik Woman” factory, I wouldn’t have had to escape to America on an Aeroflot flight, a startled face gazing from the passport in my hand, a ravaged suitcase on the KGB inspector’s table packed with twenty kilograms of what used to be my life.
MY GRANDFATHER, KONSTANTIN IVANOVICH Kuzminov, was a peasant. The countess who owned his village on the steep bank of the Volga five hundred versts from Moscow, feeling guilty for the centuries of serfdom, provided him with a scholarship to attend engineering school. My grandmother was the daughter of a factory owner in the textile town of Ivanovo, who employed most of the men in the village. They married two years before World War I broke out and five years before the Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace and the country exploded into civil war.
By 1918, when the altruistic countess, among throngs of panicked nobility, sailed from the Crimea toward Turkey, my grandparents already had three children, my mother and her two younger brothers. The revolution, with its promise of liberation from the yoke of absolutism and paradise for all working people, seemed to offer the hope that Russia was on the mend, that centuries of inequality and slave labor were finally over and peace and prosperity almost within reach. But in 1920 food rations shrank yet again and the pall of famine settled over the country, a dawn to the six decades of terror already bleeding on the horizon.
That was when my grandmother invented the crumb game. At six and five years of age, my mother and her brother Sima were old enough to ignore their growling stomachs and make do with nothing but a piece of black bread and a cube of sugar, but three-year-old Yuva, my uncle who would die during the first minutes of the blitzkrieg in 1941, clenched his fists and bawled from hunger.
“Look at how much you’ve got,” my grandmother would say as she broke a piece of bread and a square of sugar into crumbs with her fingers. “A whole mountain of crumbs.” My mother and Sima, older and wiser, would exchange a secret look of pity for their baby brother, who allowed himself to be so easily fooled. “Two mountains,” my grandmother would say. Yuva would stop wailing and rub the snot over his cheeks, pacified by this semblance of abundance, two whole mountains, more bread and sugar than the one sad little square on everyone else’s plate, enough crumbs to pick at for a whole hour, to stick into his mouth one by one, plentiful and sweet.
By 1928 they lived in a two-story wooden house—my grandparents, their one daughter and now three sons, and Baba Manya, my grandmother’s spinster sister, resourceful, doughy, and kind. She resewed old clothes for the children who grew too fast, kept three chicks in the kitchen until they were eaten by a cat, and later, during another famine, after World War II, bought the last rickety piglet off a horse-drawn cart that had stopped for a few minutes on their street. The pig lived under the stairs and saved them all from starvation the following year.
In 1929 my mother’s younger sister, Muza, was born, the fifth and last child. “God gave us another girl,” announced Baba Manya from the porch where she stood in the breath of Indian summer, wiping her hands on an apron. “Praise the Trinity in Heaven, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” She didn’t know that a decree had come down from Moscow declaring religion dead—a sickly, fainthearted enemy kicked and stabbed and finally stuffed into the attic of the tsarist past.
“Not God,” protested my fifteen-year-old mother, flanked by her three younger brothers, standing knee-deep in clumps of dandelions, watching as my grandmother swaddled a flailing Muza, who was rapidly disappearing under layers of old sheets. “Our mama gave us another girl.”
“May your tongues fall off, all of you, godless fooligans!” yelled Baba Manya, hurriedly crossing herself. She meant to say “hooligans”—hooligani—but she either couldn’t pronounce the h sound or didn’t know the right word. That’s what they all became, my mother and her three brothers—fooligans, ardent and naïve, resolute and reckless, inspired by a new god, a crossbreed of hooligans and fools.
IN 1931 MY SEVENTEEN-YEAR-OLD mother, who had inherited my grandfather’s obstinacy and revolutionary fervor, pinned up her dark braids in hope of looking older and went to her first lecture at the Ivanovo medical school. Universities were now free, but candidates were accepted on the basis of their social class and not their merit: children of workers and peasants first, children of professionals last. Because my grandfather was no longer a peasant, my mother had to wait two months until a milkmaid’s daughter dropped out, creating an opening. In November, when rain washed over the dust covering Ivanovo’s roads and turned the town into lanes of mud, she became part of the first motley class of Soviet doctors, trained in the laboratory of the new state to be flung from their classrooms into the caldron of war.
In her first year of medical school she was taught by the novel “brigade” method: one student, the brigadier, took exams for the entire group of twenty. My mother pitied gangly Igor, who stood sweating in front of her class, craning his skinny neck over a textbook to read page after page in his monotonous voice, something about molecules and cells, a biology chapter he would be tested on at the end of the week. The test would either give credit to everyone in the group, now busy talking, daydreaming, and dozing off, or doom the whole lot to failure. Diligent and boring, Igor always passed.
By the second year, the brigade method was replaced with individual learning. A professor of anatomy arrived all the way from Moscow and promptly issued a failing grade to a former tractor driver. The days of dozing and daydreaming were over.
For the first time at the Medical Institute, my mother opened a textbook and by sheer force of will memorized the name of every bone, vein, muscle, tissue, tendon, and joint. She passed the anatomy final. She passed the surgery internship and the most serious exam of all, in scientific communism, a course hastily spun from quotes of Marx, Engels, and Lenin, a requirement for graduation in every university of the Soviet Union, across all its eleven time zones.
Three months after graduation, my mother was the chief and only physician of a fifteen-bed rural hospital thirty kilometers from Ivanovo, near a factory that produced bricks of peat mined from the nearby underground swamps. Brimming with energy and the enthusiasm of the first socialist generation, she was eager to make things better. It was 1937, the twentieth year of Soviet power, the busiest year of the Gulag camps. It was the twenty-third year of my mother’s life—when, for the first time, she left her parents’ home, when her future rose on the horizon like the huge crimson sun over the swamp outside her new apartment window.
She set up a trauma point where she bandaged victims of accidents, mostly work-related: severed fingers, broken arms, bruised backs and shoulders. But she knew she could do more. Although most of the factory workers were women, there was no maternity ward in the hospital. To give birth, women had to take a horse-drawn carriage to a district hospital eight kilometers away, a long ride on a road often buried under snow or washed out by rain. There had already been two babies born en route, one of whom did not survive the trip. She made a call to the local health department and was told that maternity wards were not a top priority at a time when epidemics of typhus and tuberculosis were mowing down entire towns.
Indignant at such a lack of insight on the part of the local authorities, my mother sat down and wrote a letter to the real leader. General Secretary, Moscow, the Kremlin. “Dear Comrade Stalin,” she began. “The patients at my hospital have no place to give birth to our new citizens. The Soviet women, who toil in peat swamps for our common bright future, deserve better.” She stopped to consider how to word her request so that in one simple, effective sentence she would cut through the necessary layers of steel to what she knew was the leader’s compassionate heart. “My apartment can easily be turned into a maternity ward with the help of a few necessary pieces of equipment (list attached). Please help.”
She thought of the best way to sign the letter, vacillating from “comrade” to “citizen” to “physician.” Comrade seemed too self-promoting: how could she be a comrade to the legend? Citizen was too impersonal. She finally chose her professional title, which still sounded strange, Dr. Galina Kuzminova.
The letter, she knew, was a gamble. Only months earlier, when she was living in the Ivanovo apartment with her parents, her siblings, and her uncle, there had been a knock on the door in the middle of the night. It was a loud, demanding knock, the kind that came only at two or three in the morning, the kind that everyone recognized even if they’d never heard it before. Two men in black coats marched straight to the room where her uncle Volya lived with his wife and fifteen-year-old daughter, turned the mattresses and all the drawers upside down, and announced that Uncle Volya was under arrest.
“For what?” asked Aunt Lilya in a ragged voice.
“You’ll find out,” muttered one of the men.
Uncle Volya stood in the middle of the room, in silly flannel pajamas, trying to quell an asthma attack. His round shoulders were slouched forward, and his mouth gasped for breath as he mopped his forehead with a handkerchief. “It’s all a mistake, a misunderstanding,” he whispered as soon as he could muster enough air, the handkerchief in his hand quivering. The men ordered him to put on a coat and escorted him to a van known as a voronok, or black raven, parked in front of their house. Weeks later Aunt Lilya learned that as part of his job in a propaganda agency, he’d taken a stranger from Moscow to a restaurant. There, sitting next to a good citizen dispatched by the NKVD—the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs—to listen to conversations with strangers, Uncle Volya told a joke.
It wasn’t even a political joke. Two militiamen are invited to Comrade Kozlov’s birthday party. What should we give him? asks one. The best gift is a book, says the other. No, says the first militiaman. Comrade Kozlov already has a book.
They had all heard this joke before, but now it sounded unfunny and flat. Why did Uncle Volya even bother telling such a bad joke? My mother knew he should have been more careful around strangers. Pasted all over town were posters of a woman in a red head kerchief with a finger across her lips and a caption ne boltai in big red letters: do not babble. Babbling was only one step away from treason. Still, she believed that the NKVD had made a mistake. How could Comrade Stalin possibly have arrested an innocent man, her meek and soft-jowled Uncle Volya? Everyone knew that Comrade Stalin wanted everyone to have a good life, whether they were peasants or professors.
Yet there it was still fresh in her memory, the image of her uncle’s trembling handkerchief and his arm missing the sleeve of his coat as the two men yanked all ten volumes of his collected works of Chekhov off the shelf, shaking them open, tossing them on the floor, angry that they could find nothing inside.
My mother also thought of my grandfather, who, in 1921, according to family lore, had telegraphed Lenin when a train full of wheat brought for the starving people of Ivanovo had been detained by a squadron of Red Army soldiers with shotguns. A few hours later, as the story went, the train was allowed to pass, thanks to her father’s telegram.
In her mind, the scene of Uncle Volya being led away into the black voronok for telling a joke wrestled for a few minutes with the happy image of the Ivanovo citizens saved from starvation by a telegram. She stubbornly decided to believe that Stalin did not know of this obvious injustice, that it all happened as the result of an un-Soviet struggle for power among his crooked underlings.
But now she was writing directly to Stalin, the country’s conscience and revolutionary glory. My mother signed the letter, folded it in quarters, and gave the envelope to Fyodor, who tended to the hospital horse Verochka and every other day drove the buggy eight kilometers to the nearest town.
A few weeks later, when routine traumas and illnesses had focused her attention away from the letter addressed to the Kremlin, she was called to the office of the head of the district health department. Comrade Palkin sat behind a desk, decked out in a military uniform like Stalin and thin-framed round glasses like the head of the NKVD, Beria. His head was small and bald, with wisps of down over the ears, and his thick forearms, which looked like they belonged to a bigger man, lay on the desk like logs. Leaning over the papers before him as if they were his prisoners, he failed to get up when my mother walked in, despite my grandmother’s assertion that a man had no choice but to stand when a woman entered a room.
“Whom did you write to?” Palkin asked gravely, barely waiting for her to sit down.
“I wrote to Secretary Stalin,” said my mother.
Palkin stared stonily from behind his glasses, and she thought of Uncle Volya. They still hadn’t heard anything about him, despite the fact that Aunt Lilya took a week off to travel to Moscow, where she spent four days and nights standing in front of the Lubyanka NKVD prison, waiting to speak to someone, never allowed inside.
But my mother wasn’t about to show that she was frightened, that her heart, contrary to all she knew about anatomy, was thumping somewhere in her throat. Showing what you felt was as dangerous as babbling. Lock up what you think, my grandmother had always said. What’s inside you no one can touch.
“I’ve just received this order from Moscow,” growled Palkin, baring bad teeth, stabbing a piece of paper with his finger while my mother imagined black voronoks and firing squads. “According to this order, Moscow is releasing fifteen thousand rubles to turn your apartment into a delivery room.”
He might as well have said fifteen million rubles. My mother made three hundred rubles a month, a salary her former classmates envied, and since her largest purchase ever had been a woolen winter coat, she’d never seen a ruble note with more than one zero.
Back at the hospital, she went to the peat factory director’s office and asked him to give her a room in the workers’ dormitory. Only days after her meeting with Comrade Palkin, the needed equipment arrived and was installed in her former apartment with an efficiency she’d never seen before. By the spring a four-bed maternity ward was opened, where my mother delivered fifteen babies. During deliveries, she learned how to use forceps, turn a fetus, and manually separate the placenta. The women at the peat factory expressed their gratitude with string bags of cucumbers from their gardens and an occasional tin of lard.
My mother felt euphoric and important: what she’d done had upheld poryadok, order. The order that the country needed, that she needed. She described all this in her letter home, which, when she reread it, sounded as lofty and stiff as the front page of Pravda. Yet what she wanted to say was simple and short.
© 2009 Elena Gorokhova
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for A Mountain of Crumbs includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Elena Gorokhova. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Soviet Russia of the 1960s and 1970s, where Elena Gorokhova grows up, is a bleak, disillusioned world, a land that promises everything but delivers little. How do you preserve the spark of enchantment amid the mandatory courses in scientific communism and banners proclaiming “We thank the party for the people’s welfare” above lines for toilet paper? Elena searches for the magic missing in her life and finds it in the English language— a passion that in the Soviet Union verges on the subversive.
Controlled by the state the same way she is controlled by her mother, Elena learns early to play the national game of pretending. “They pretend to pay us,” says her older sister, summing up Soviet life, “and we pretend to work.” Her mother, born eight years before Russia turned into the Soviet Union, is a mirror image of her Motherland: overbearing, protective, and difficult to leave. Their suffocating nurture exacts a price, and when Elena upsets the expected order, she becomes an outcast. Moving to the U.S. gives Elena her only chance for personal happiness. Yet to her mother it feels like a betrayal, perhaps the most terrible of all, in a lifetime of Soviet deception.
In this powerful and affecting memoir, Elena Gorokhova recreates the world that both oppressed and inspired her. Revealing the human scale of the crumbled Soviet dream, A Mountain of Crumbs is an elegy to the lost country of childhood and youth, where those who left can never return.
QUESTIONS AND TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION
- Explain the significance of the book title. Where did it originate? How does it keep recurring throughout the course of the book? In what way is a “mountain of crumbs” a metaphor for the failing Soviet Union?
- Discuss the notion of vranyo. How does Elena first learn about vranyo? How do Russians play the game of vranyo in their daily lives? How is this game played in Elena’s family?
- Elena believes her mother was once “cheerful and ironic, before she turned into a law-abiding citizen so much in need of order.” (p.99) Why do you think she changed? How did Elena avoid falling into the same trap?
- Elena and her tutor cannot find the Russian equivalent of the English word “privacy.” What do you think this says about Russia?
- How do Elena’s parents and grandparents represent the “old” Russia? What ideologies does Elena have trouble accepting? In what way does she voice her opposition to her mother and her beliefs in the old ways? Does she voice her opposition to anyone else?
- What is the “secret” that Elena struggles to learn about during her teenage years? Why does she feel she cannot turn to her mother? How is her statement “There is a door between us, as always, and that’s where all important things are kept, behind closed doors” (p. 124) a metaphor for the current state of Russia and her desire to go to America?
- After learning about what intelligentny means, who do you think best embodies it? Elena? Her sister? Her mother? Do you need to be intelligentny to decide if others are?
- Recount the encounter between Elena and Kevin in the marketplace. How is it indicative of the differences between the East and the West?
- Were you surprised when Elena accepted Robert’s offer of marriage? What does this say about Elena? Did your opinion of her change after learning this? If so, in what way?
- Elena chooses to end her story with her departure to America, followed by a short epilogue about the present day. Why do you think she chose to end the story there? How would reading the story of her first few years in America impact the tone of the book for you?
A CONVERSATION WITH ELENA GOROKHOVA
Your book spans the first twenty-four years of your life. Was it a challenge to find the right “voice” for your memoir?
It was a challenge. For many years the book was an amorphous compilation of reminiscences about growing up in a Leningrad courtyard with summer stays at a dilapidated dacha. One editor who read an early submission referred to it as “monochromatic,” which clearly meant “boring.” It was just like the old movies, where a camera pans over bleak landscapes and actors do nothing but pontificate about their black-and-white lives.
It all changed in the summer of 2004, when fate (undoubtedly) brought me to Frank McCourt’s memoir workshop at the Southampton Writers Conference. He was as brilliant a teacher as he was a storyteller, and my black-and-white writing began to bloom with color. Among the many things I learned from Frank McCourt was irony. The voice of the memoir changed, and it all congealed into A Mountain of Crumbs.
How were you able to remember everything so vividly? Did you need to go back and do any research for your book? Did you rely on friends and family to recount certain details?
My mother has always loved telling stories about her life. My aunt, who still lives in a small town in Russia, even wrote a book about their family and had it typed and bound for her children and grandchildren. Interestingly, she remembered only good things, but from her reminiscences, my mother’s stories, and from what my sister told me, I was able to glimpse, I think, what really happened.
Your mother “is the only one who has had three marriages, three hasty unions, of which none seemed perfect or even good.” (p. 233) Yet you entered into a hasty union with Robert, which allowed you to leave Russia for the United States. Did you ever consider that you might have been going down the same path as your mother? Or did the ends justify the means in your marriage with Robert?
It didn’t occur to me, at the time, that my hasty marriage to Robert might resemble my mother’s – simply because I didn’t know then those details about my mother’s life. It was only later, when she moved to the U.S. to live with me (and when she, possibly, considered me to be fully grown-up), that she revealed how many husbands she had and how long (or, rather, how short) it took her to marry them. In hindsight, I certainly seem to have followed in her footsteps, which is a rather unsettling thought.
Before you left Russia, you made the observation that you had been “so diligent in slicing my soul in two and keeping the real half to myself, away from the outside, away from my mother, who wants me to be safe.” (p. 250) If you remained in Russia, do you think your mother would ever have known the “real” you?
Had I remained in Russia, I probably would have withdrawn further from my mother in an effort to isolate and protect the part of me that I felt needed to be protected. In the United States, our roles were reversed. I was fluent in English and worked to provide for our safety. In essence, I no longer had to hide from my mother. Living in the U.S. gave me a distance she could not invade. It was now up to me to determine if I wanted my mother to know the real me. If I had remained in Russia, I don’t know if I could have allowed my mother to get that close.
There were many assumptions about the West that were made before you left Russia. How many of them were true? What were some of the bigger misconceptions? What advice would you give to someone who wants to make the move from Russia to the United States today?
We knew very little about the West. A lot of assumptions (and accusations) were made by the Soviet media, as part of their national vranyo campaign, but my friends and most of my fellow university students took them for what they were, lies. However, there was no truth to replace those lies, so my move to the U.S. in 1980 was a plunge into the unknown. I knew I probably wouldn’t have to beg or live under a bridge, as my mother feared, but I didn’t know if Americans shared the same human values we grew up with. It sounds foolish, but I wasn’t sure they were the same people we were. I didn’t know if the familiar rules of interpersonal interaction applied in the U.S. just as I didn’t know if I would ever see my family and friends again.
Today, with the iron curtain relegated to history, a move from Russia to the U.S. is no longer a blind leap. But it is not an easy move, by any means. Anyone who considers emigration must remember that they’re giving up the life they know and the places they are familiar with, becoming unmoored and thrown to the will of new, foreign waves.
Did you become vrag naroda like you feared? How often have you returned to Russia since immigrating to the United States? Do you feel as though you left a part of yourself there, or are you more whole now than when you left?
I have been back many times: every few years before 1991, when communism collapsed, and almost every year since then. On my first visit in 1982 I learned that my friend Nina was fired from her university teaching position because she hadn’t informed the administration about my impending capitalist marriage. Each time I went back there were scores of changes. People on the streets wore leather shoes; crowds on the metro washed their hair more than once a week. My courtyard was paved and gated; there is now a brightly-painted playground, a dozen parked cars, and modern double windows that announce a new middle-class. And although I am more whole now because I no longer need to pretend, there will always be a part of me left on that courtyard bench of childhood.
When you met with Dean Maslov, you confided to the reader that the “…real reason for leaving has nothing to do with the cause of political freedom. It has to do with my mother.” (p. 291) Twenty years later, do you still hold this statement to be true? Or have you realized there were other motivating factors besides your mother?
Looking back, I understand that leaving the Soviet Union had as much to do with the Soviet Union as it did with my mother. The national game of vranyo, or pretending, made us cynical and disillusioned; Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika was still almost a decade away; the Soviet state machine seemed mighty and indestructible. Even if I couldn’t consciously admit the need for escape, it smoldered beneath the surface in my mind and in the minds of most people who surrounded me.
How have your feelings for Russia changed since your time in America? Before you departed you commented that Russia was like “the inside of a bus at a rush hour in July: you can’t breathe, you can’t move, and you can’t squeeze your way to the door to get out.” (p. 263). Do these feelings still hold true? How has Russia changed over the years?
Russia will always remain the place where I was born and raised. There will always be nostalgia for my childhood, which has been filtered through memory, for the roots that stubbornly clutch to the Russian soil no matter how violently I try to yank them out. But I would not want to move back. My country is no longer locked behind the iron curtain: people can travel abroad and read anything they like. Yet, in a way, it is the same country. The communist apathy has been replaced by the general apathy, allowing the Kremlin to consolidate their influence over the national media and discourse. The government controls all television and all but one radio stations. The country’s governors are not elected but appointed by the president. The new generation of Russians is too busy traveling and making money to pay attention to the freedoms being stealthily pulled away from them.
What’s next for you? Could there be a possible sequel to A Mountain of Crumbs chronicling your first years in America?
There could be a sequel, a memoir about my first years in the United States. Or I may decide to concentrate on my current project: a fictionalized account of my mother’s and sister’s life during the post-war time of reconstruction and then the “thaw” under Nikita Khrushchev in the 1960s. Whatever it turns out to be, it will be driven by Russian themes, the currents that always help me stay afloat.
In your epilogue you note that your inspiration for writing A Mountain of Crumbs came from Frank McCourt’s seminar at the South Hampton Writers Conference. What advice would you give to someone who is thinking of writing a memoir?
I owe the voice of this memoir to Frank McCourt, who taught me to look for the “hot spots,” those defining moments in life when something significant happens, and to dig deeply into the past. He compared memoir writing to walking on the beach: you can look at the surface of things, or you can take a metal detector, wait for it to beep, and go for the gold that’s deep inside. If you are thinking of writing a memoir, think of the hot spots in your life, arm yourself with a metal detector, and dig for the gold.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is a memoir that reads like a novel. From what I know know of life in the Soviet Union during the cold war it rings true, even though only a small amount of the horrors of life there are touched upon. I only wonder on the motives of the American man who returns to marry and take the Russian woman to the US. That is the only part of the book in which Gorokhova does not reveal herself.
This book is delightful and enlightening at the same time in how it depicts cold war USSR. Anyone who grew up in the USA during the time period described will enjoy a view from the other side of the Iron Curtain as told by someone whose personality and demeanor were as soft and as human as any of our own friends and countrymen. It is a story of loving, but at times emotionally limited. familial relationships contrasted against the disillusionment of a society that sacrificed blood for ideals that cruelly evaporated like a dream. In the waking hours of a society facing bitter disappointments, Gorokhova goes to work becoming a whole person. The story is not highly active or particularly provocative, there are very few monumental events. Yet, Gorokhova shares the same tremendous losses we all face as we come of age. This could be any woman's story of a mother-daughter relationship, but the landscape of Leningrad and the juxtaposition of women's roles in the USSR as professionals at at time when women in the US were burning their bras is intriguing and unique. Truly it's Gorokhova's love of language and attention to detail in her story and her skilled use of metaphor and well placed Socratic irony that make this book masterful and beautiful. I've been reading a lot of memoirs lately, and few received the love and attention in writing that this one has. It's not high on action, but if you love language it has moments that are utterly breathtaking. The subtlety and texture of this book and its view into another world by someone who can speak to our hearts so effectively is its greatest offerings. As a native English speaker I could only wish to capture the power of my own native tongue as masterfully and lovingly as Gorokhova has. This memoir is an act of true literature and should not be missed.
Mountain of Crumbs By Elena Gorokhova. Interesting memoir of a woman that grew up in the Soviet Union during the 1970's. The author describes what everyday life is like in a cold cold Leningrad. Elena had an affinity with the English language from a young age and was determined to learn English and teach others. It seems the more english she learns, the more westernized her mind becomes and she gradually cannot find happiness in the limiting, restrictive world in which she lives. The basic elements of communism that she was taught from a young age start to seem less vital and unfair. Elena cannot grasp the benefit of the struggle of the people. She begins the search for something more in her life. Informative, honest, sweet and witty writing. Really enjoyed the journey through Elena's life.
This memoir is a fascinating look inside the life of ordinary soviet citizens of the communist era in the 60¿s and 70¿s when Elena was growing up in Leningrad (St. Petersberg). It is beautifully written and gives you a sense of the day to day lives of people who are still relieved by the ¿freedom¿ Lenin has given Russia with the revolution, and they are stalwart in their defense of their communism. Elena draws colorful depictions of these stalwart Russians and their attitudes, ¿ `She refuses to drink vodka, so maybe she¿s not even Russian.¿¿(p.131). At the same time you see clearly how the ordinary citizen was brainwashed into believing it is perfectly normal to stand in endless lines for toilet paper or bread. In fact they do not even know that this is NOT the case elsewhere in the world as the government keeps them so insulated from access to the foreign world. Elena takes advantage of one loophole in this system. She is allowed to study English and this transforms her, allows her to see beyond the borders, especially when she becomes a tour guide for English speaking visitors for the House of Friendship and Peace. As she meets English and American visitors the extent of her Russian insulation becomes clear as she doesn¿t understand them (¿I¿m saving to buy a car,¿ he says. That¿s funny, the notion of being able to save enough in one¿s lifetime to buy a car. I chuckle¿.¿(p.179) and they don¿t understand her. Elena¿sfamily and friends continue to support her, albeit suspiciously, as she finally marries an American in order to ¿escape¿ Russia. Elena¿s story allows for a genuine understanding of how people on the other side lived, and does it with dignity and love and optimism.
Fresh, poignant, and with a generous dose of well-directed sense of humor, this bitter/sweet memoir is also a history book of sorts. Written from the point of view of a child, then an adolescent, a teenager and, finally, a young woman growing up in the Soviet Union (starting in mid 1950s till 1980 when she immigrated), it's a story I could relate to in so many ways and an eye-opener to those who were not privy to that unique and unfortunate political system. Throughout the book the author, at different stages of her life and in tune with her age at the time, poses ingenious questions as to the validity of that system. Her prose flows effortlessly and engagingly. ( Writing in the present tense, she reminds me of another favorite author - Adriana Trigiani.)
A Mountain of Crumbs was called the "Russian equivalent of Angela's Ashes" by U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins, while Frank McCourt, author of Ashes, calls it a "rich experience". J.M. Coetzee gave it high praise. These are some powerful endorsements. Is is warranted? I believe so. The writing is top notch and intelligent, her choice of detail from daily life in Soviet Russia during the 1960s and 70s opens new vistas into a lost world. The sense of growing up in the USSR - Gorokhova was born in 1955 - is vivid and memorable. Gorokhova comes of age and discovers the mysteries of love and life, yet she was never innocent to the pervasive control the Soviet state holds on private life, it was an open secret. Eventually, success comes - not in the form of material wealth or conquering ones enemies or inner demons, Gorokhova is likable and well adjusted - but by finding a happy home and someone she loves. Her love of books means Russian literature peppers the memoir, the real and fiction sometimes merge, just as the real and fiction of the USSR were hard to tell apart.
I loved this book and can think of nothing negative to say about it. I suppose the main attraction is the exotic feel of the author's girlhood in Soviet Leningrad. This book truly provides an insider's look at how things were in those days, but it's unique in that most of it is told from a child's perspective. For a biography, this is a fascinating read. The author has an interesting website and blog that provide further illumination. Amazingly enough, last time I checked, her 96-year-old mother is still alive and living with her in New Jersey!
This fascinating memoir of growing up in Communist Leningrad was a real eye-opener! Born in 1955, all of Lena's early years were spent trying to live within the rules and regulations of the local Party. In order to advance in school she had to be an active member of the Young Pioneer Society, and and needed contacts in the government. Lena wanted to study English, and much as her mother wanted her to learn something practical, like engineering, English it was. Then, when she was about 20, she had the opportunity to teach Russian to American students, and her life changed forever.Although for me this book dragged in places, the writing was sometimes stunning. Like this passage when Lena and her mother and sister went mushrooming, "I step into the forest. Musty leaves marinate in thick loam; dead branches and old pine needles slowly become part of the forest floor." Very nice! Worth reading in spite of the slow spots!
I haven't much had the chance to read about everyday Soviet life, and this book gave me a great view of what it was like. I especially enjoyed the sections explaining the view of love and sex because I teach "1984" every year, and it really will help me illuminate Julia and Winston's relationship...and why it is forbidden.
Elena Gorokhova grew up in a Leningrad strangled by Communism. Her mother was a doctor and her dashing father died of tuberculosis when she was young. Her family owned a summer home farm but they were not high up cadre members and so they faced shortages and discrimination like so many others. Gorokhova herself was fascinated by the English language and attended a special school in order to become fluent, working first as a student tour guide and then in other prestigious jobs, ultimately marrying a foreigner and being allowed to emigrate to Texas with her husband.Gorokhova's childhood was certainly materially different than a childhood here in the States at the same time and her spirit of endurance and perseverance shine through the book. At the same time, she is writing a paean to her mother and the strength of character that she obviously inherited from Galina. The narrative is sometimes episodic in nature as she skims over large swaths of time, occasionally only touching the surface of her feelings at the time or her impression of the feelings of the adults around her. As she is clearly writing this from the vantage point of many years on, it would certainly be acceptable for her to speculate on the adults' experience of Communism more than she does. Her schooling and experience with censorship, toeing the official doctrinal line is illuminating and makes the reader wonder how many others went along with obvious untruths and injustices out of expediency. Although there is an air of want and lack and bleakness, it is also obvious that Gorokhova was raised with much love, whatever the hardships of being raised under Communism. Her rebellion and desire to escape made her unique. Her English speaking ability threw her in the path of an opportunity to make good her escape. And so we have this interesting and very different memoir.The episodic feel I mentioned above sometimes caused a choppiness to the book and the history of Gorokhova's family felt almost like a rote recitation devoid of emotion. But an interest in Soviet life will overcome the flatness and the pacing issues for the Russophile reader. As an affirmation that Communism, at least as embodied by the former Soviet Union, was hypocritical and ultimately unworkable, this stands out. As a coming of age in a place incredibly foreign to those of us in the west, this will resonate both with familiarity and strangeness. Over all, it was a decent read and I'd be curious to read more from people who grew up under the restrictive regime that so characterized Soviet Communism.
Wonderful book couldn't put down!
Paints a good picture of her childhood and pre-adult life. Very informative for us who never knew that type of life. Introduced a different view into what privileged life we lead, but still if that is your universe you don't know there is something different out there. I will be reading the sequel!
Enjoyable, insightful, would have loved a deeper exploration. Almost everyone’s story includes a nod to the ‘old country’. If yours is found on the iron side of the curtain then Gorokhova’s ‘A Mountain of Crumbs’ will be familiar. The author braids together history, philosophy, and memoir, and in doing so, strengthens the book as a whole but forgoes depth in each subject. I found much to enjoy here and much to relate to: my own grandparent’s frugality. My mother’s firm belief in the satisfaction of hard work. My family’s sloughing off of the old ways. But I wish Gorokhova would have explored some things more deeply. Why was her mother such a staunch supporter of state truth? How did the author decide to leave country, family, and friends? I would have loved for her to juxtapose the poverty and security and welfare of the Soviet State versus freedom loving Americans allowing people to ‘sleep under bridges’ and suffer without healthcare. It seemed so easy for the author to leave her homeland and family. She never expresses longing for freedom or for the West but is mostly just perturbed with silly state protocol – the same things I feel when I renew my driver’s license. In fact, her decision to leave isn’t really even a decision: she simply jumps aboard a wind that blows from an American student: he proposes to her as a means to help her leave the USSR with the caveat that he will continue to see other women while they are married. However much I wished for something deeper I was absorbed by the book and story. The prose is wonderful, especially for a non-native speaker. The characters can be thin and, typical for memoirs, there are some dry spots but the story will carry anyone with an interest in family or history. This isn’t quite Tolstoy or Solzhenitsyn but a very good read in its own right. Well worth the cost.
Extremely Interesting! I think this book really takes off after a couple of chapters when the author begins focusing more on her life, not just her family's. Her life focuses on the difficulties of growing up in Russia in the 1950s, 60s. 70s and 80s, and she makes this history very interesting by personalizing it. She's amazing at overcoming the challenges of her life in Russia. Her sense of humor also adds a lot to the interest and enjoyment of reading this.
The memories that Elena Gorohkova relates are told in a vivid, calming style. She paints pictures with her words. Themes are woven through this book such as her mother's need to protect, the disillusionment with the Soviet system, her own need to break free of regimentation and explore the world. This is one of the best books I have read in quite some time.
Usually don't like memoirs but Ms Gorokhova has a way with words that is charming, funny and yet very realistic. She paints a picture of growing up in the Cold War years that is vivid yet not heavy or pedantic. Her mother and mother Russia have many of the same character traits. Elena's courageous move to the unknown and her hard work are poignantly portrayed. I hope she is working on the next section ... I can't wait to read it!
A Mountain of Crumbs is an excellent read, detailing life during the Soviet era. Elena Gorokhova gives the reader a window into her life, as she details events from her childhood, as well as specifics in the life of her family members. It is nostalgic for some, as well as intriguing and heart-tugging for others. This is a story that is highly recommended.
A Mountain of Crumbs is a memoir about a young Soviet girl who comes of age during the 1960's and 1970's in St. Petersburg Russia - a country fraught with political struggles and vast limitations. The story opens after World War II while Russia is well into the throes of communism. Elena's well-educated mother is a trained physician with high expectations for both her daughters. Told through the author's own eyes, the memoirs provide the reader with a snapshot into everyday Russian life. It starts during Elena's childhood and the tale unfolds with innocence and vivid clarity. The creative title of the book came from the author's own grandmother who recalled that when her children complained there was not enough to eat but a crust of bread and a cube of sugar, she would crumble the food and sweet it into a pile and saying, "Look at how much you've got. A whole mountain of crumbs." It was her way of making a little look like a lot. While Elena's physician mother, Galina, strives to make her way in a communist world, raising her daughters with strictness and high expectations for education, the author describes her world without bias and in a matter-of-fact style. A Mountain of Crumbs is a fascinating memoir that reveals to readers a glimpse into the difficulties of growing up in a communist country. From the author's demanding mother, to an ill father who dies far too early, it is a contrast of joy and sadness, struggles and success. Although memoirs are seldom page-turners, this was a truly enjoyable book. The writing is beautiful and gives a good first-hand depiction of life in a country where nothing can be taken for granted. I thoroughly enjoyed this very private glimpse into the author's own life and appreciate the passion with which she wrote every word.