A Mountain of Crumbs
By: Elena Gorokhova
Elena Gorokhova’s A Mountain of Crumbs is the moving story of a Soviet girl who discovers the truths adults are hiding from her and the lies her homeland lives by. Elena’s country is no longer the majestic Russia of literature or the tsars, but a nation struggling to retain its power and its pride. Born with a desire to explore the world beyond her borders, Elena 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 is controlled by the state the same way she is controlled by her mother, a mirror image of her motherland: overbearing, protective, difficult to leave. In the battle between a strong-willed daughter and her authoritarian mother, the daughter, in the end, must break free and leave in order to survive. Through Elena’s captivating voice, we learn not only the stories of Russian family life in the second half of the twentieth century, but also the story of one rebellious citizen whose curiosity and determination finally transport her to a new world. It is an elegy to the lost country of childhood, where those who leave can never return.
As some of you know, I specialised in Soviet-Russian history during my undergrad and Masters programs. One major question that always came up in my mind whenever I studied and researched the Soviet period was what was it like to live under the Soviet regime? While the post-Stalin period was not as autocratic as it was under Stalin, it was nonetheless a totally different reality from that lived in the West: their value system was different as well as the availability of material goods (to name a few). Naturally Gorokhova’s memoir appealed to me because she grew up in such an environment.
A Mountain of Crumbs is a highly accessible book and Gorokhova draws you into her life and her family from the first page. There’s not a dull moment in the book as she relates various experiences from her life growing up in the Soviet Union. You get to know her family as well. Along the way, she would also drop important information about the Soviet state and Russian life and culture. It was also nice that she included a number of Russian words and phrases in the text, adding a further layer of culture for the reader; from a personal standpoint, it was a reminder that I haven’t practiced Russian in a long while now. My favourite chapters had to do with her early childhood because of the household dynamics, education and conditions in the early post-war period (from an academic standpoint, it was interesting to see how much carried over from the immediate post-war period). I also enjoyed the chapters concerning Russian literature and how much of it contrasted with the state ideology; again, I have a personal interest in this subject as I had examined possible reasons why the state decided to reintroduce Russian literature–and emphasised them above other national literature–over time.
What is also interesting about this novel is the overarcing theme of the discrepancy between the state and the population. It’s one of those weird paradoxes when it comes to the Soviet system, something that I still find myself grappling over every time I read something about the Soviet period (would make a great dissertation! if your brain doesn’t implode first from all of the contradictions, that is): the state has this strict code of rules and values and the population has their own perceptions and activities that circumvent the state’s that in the end there’s this contradiction between the two. The author summarises this reality in the following quote:
“The rules are simple: they lie to us, we know they’re lying, they know we know they’re lying, but they keep lying to us, and we keep pretending to believe them.” – p. 172 – 173
Gorokhova does not offer any sort of new enlightenment on this issue–her memoir is obviously a reflection of her life in the Soviet Union rather than an academic dissertation of it–but it’s interesting to read Gorkhova explain how people socialise with each other in certain situations, the games and the vranyo that they play. It’s an interesting exploration of what it’s like growing up in the Soviet Union; what’s also interesting is how she was able to cultivate her interest in English in a society that abhorred the capitalist West and yet is indirectly influenced by it.
Overall, I enjoyed reading Elena Gorokhova’s memoir; it was interesting, poignant and introspective, both in her coming to terms with the conditions in which she grew up in and with Soviet society in general during the 1960s and 1970s. It was a period that was not as strict as the early Soviet period but seeing hints of the population struggle between towing the Party line and surviving was a fascinating read. If there’s anything about the book that was not completely satisfactory, it was how the author’s mother sort of slipped to the background in the second half of the book. While this is compeltely understandable as she grew older, the book description made it sound as though her tensions with her mother would be greater than it actually was.
On a final note, I also laughed out loud at this remark by Elena’s mother concerning football/soccer:
“A bunch of silly men chasing a ball,” my mother says. “Give each one his own ball if they’re so desperate to have one.”