Book of the Week: A MOUNTAIN OF CRUMBS by Elena Gorokhava

Elena Gorokhova’s lyrical and moving tale of growing up behind the Iron Curtain — and her discovery of the hidden truths of her mother, and her Motherland.

It’s something many of us wondered during the long years of the Cold War: What perceptions do ordinary citizens living behind the Iron Curtain have of the West? Do they believe their government’s (and their media’s) view of capitalism: its inherent decadence, its seedy and sinful nature? The promise that their lives, besides being more moral, are safer, more culturally rich and ultimately, better lived?

Elena Gorokhava’s Mountain of Crumbs (Simon & Schuster) depicts the frustrations, deprivations and joys of growing up in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in the 1960s and 70s. (Elena was born in 1955.) It is a vividly remembered and exquisitely written account of daily life in the eras of Khrushchev and Brezhnev, as well as the stories passed down to her about the horrors of the Bolshevik Revolution, Stalin’s terror and the Great Patriotic War.

The memoir takes its name from a game played during the famine of the 20s. In an effort to ease the hunger pangs of her youngest son, Elena’s grandmother transforms his meager meal of a single slice of bread and a sugar cube by crumbling them into a tiny heap that becomes, in fact, “a whole mountain of crumbs”.

It is just one example of how daily deprivations of Soviet life were faced with both resourcefulness and wry humour. An aunt recounts this joke: “A man comes to a butcher shop. ‘Do you have any fish?’ he asks. ‘Here we don’t have meat,’ says the saleswoman. ‘Fish they don’t have across the street.'”

Although Elena’s is a solid and hard working family (her mother is an Anatomy professor and her father the director of a technical school), there is still not enough food to go around. She writes poignantly of summers spend at their crumbling villa near the Gulf of Finland where the family would fish, grow vegetables, forage for mushrooms and make jam in order to round out their meager diets.

Like many around her, Elena becomes a cynical communist, realizing that her country is no longer the majestic Russia of literature, but a nation engaged in a massive political deception against its citizens as well as an international struggle to hold on to its power. The author describes the national game of ‘make-believe’ or vranyo: “… they (the regime) lie to us, we know they’re lying, they know we know…” Or as her older sister, Marina, puts it, “They pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work.”

Set against this backdrop, Elena struggles with the usual teen angst of rebellion, love, sex and most of all, freedom — particularly from her mother, whom she believes tries to control her in the same heavy-handed manner as the state. She suspects however, that her authoritarian, order-loving mother, was not always so. When viewing a portrait of her mother as a young woman (thrice married, her mother was fearless as a surgeon on the front lines during World War II), Elena speculates about a time “when my mother was cheerful and ironic, before she turned into a law-abiding citizen so much in need of order”. She sees a parallel between the transformation of her mother and her country, writing of her mother: “… a mirror image of my motherland: overbearing, protective, difficult to leave. Our house was the seat of the politburo, my mother its permanent chairman.”

Elena loves her city, but it is an angry and suffocating love, and she begins her search for another life. She studies — and eventually teaches — English and finds escape in books and theatre. (Interestingly, when studying the English language, she discovers there is no word for privacy in Russian, although there is one for isolation.) Eventually, through her teaching, she meets and marries an American, an act that provokes a scandal — and provides a way-one ticket for escape.

By the end of this moving and riveting memoir, Elena travels a long way — as, eventually, does her mother, and her Motherland.

A conversation with Elena Gorokhova