A Review by Nat
I picked up A Mountain of Crumbs by Elena Gorokhova by chance while browsing in-store at Indigo. Not often does one find contemporary books about Russia, written by a Russian and – interestingly enough – originally written in English. The story itself sounded compelling: a woman growing up during the Soviet era in what used to be Leningrad and is now St. Petersburg, told as she reconciled the country’s past and her own future.
But to be honest, I was mostly drawn to support a fellow Russian trying to make it in the English-speaking literary world.
The memoir opens with Gorokhova’s grandparents and mother as they lived through World War II. Her mother’s story was both sad and inspiring. She worked as a nurse during the war, saw two husbands come and go before settling down with a third, watched too many people die and then went on to live a relatively quiet life in St. Petersburg and then New Orleans. Her tumulus life became a great backdrop for Gorokhova’s own story that moves from her days in kindergarten to her time as a teenage tour guide for British student tourists, to university and then, briefly, her immigration to the United States.
The storytelling is quick paced and the writing style accessible and intriguing. Gorokhova wields a clear, crisp voice that breathes life into the fairly mundane, creating a colourful world of the grey and sometimes sad city. She paints a beautiful picture of Leningrad in the 1970s: the constant lines for everyday things like bread, toilet paper, milk and shoes; the patriotism and uncertainty of the older generation; the denial of Western culture; the bureaucracy; and the cultural propaganda that made Russia seem like the growing promise in an evil world.
I found this picture strangely familiar. I was also born in Russia but 30 years after Gorokhova, in 1990, a year before the Soviet rule collapsed. Yet, it seemed that not many things had changed. The society and culture stayed very much the same – as had the people. My parents were Gorokhova’s contemporaries, my mother only a couple of years younger than she, and therefore their stories had many parallels. However, my mother was never like Gorokhova. She was a patriot, a straight A student, a Pioneer leader and completely devoted to her country and all that it stood for. Gorokhova, in contrast, was a doubter, a dreamer who had contact with the foreign and potentially dangerous English language. She didn’t completely trust the system in which she lived and actively sought a way out when her time came.
For me, those are the things that made this memoir thrilling. The familiarity of events and culture, the different glimpse into a world which my parents described through memory, and the love for a language that is not my own. Russia was a country that claimed to have no problems, no drunks, no depression, no homelessness, and my mother who lived in a small, closed city believed that. But it was (and still is) a country of opposites, of extremes, and filled with problems that it’s people are still trying to solve.
A Mountain of Crumbs is an accurate, bitter-sweet portrayal of life in Soviet Russia during the ’60s and ’70s. It is a country that is not completely wild and desperate. It has its beautiful moments and its glaring downfalls. If you are looking to be absorbed in a not-so-distant past and learn about what life was like during those times of which Gorokhova lived, I highly recommend this read. It is quick, powerful, and sweet.