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A Mountain of Crumbs

A writer recalls a Soviet childhood, lived at the height of the cold war.

By Alexander Nazaryan / January 26, 2010

Like “Angela’s Ashes,” the memoir of her one-time teacher Frank McCourt, Gorokhova’s A Mountain of Crumbs opens with a wish that youth had been an easier enterprise.” Both tales rest largely on childhood depredation, whether in famished Ireland or socialist Russia, and the cataloging of both personal and national grievances, leavened with wistful humor, is a modus operandi Gorokhova clearly learned from her acclaimed mentor. They also share an unabashed longing for America, where both would eventually find themselves.

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Despite Gorokhova’s debts to McCourt, “A Mountain of Crumbs” is not a Russian version of “Angela’s Ashes.” Gorokhova may lack McCourt’s lush storytelling skills, but her book is also free – thankfully – of his sugary sentiment. “A Mountain of Crumbs” is a straightforward account of Russia in the postwar decades, one that takes the reader confidently through the slow sinking of the Soviet ship. Like despotic Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Gorokhova was born in Leningrad in the early 1950s and came of age during the cold war. This memoir offers valuable insight into those bleak years bracketed by Khrushchev and Afghanistan, from which the nation emerged with the bruised ego it has since aggressively sought – under Putin’s guidance – to burnish.

Gorokhova’s story begins far from the palaces of Leningrad, in the village of Ivanovo, where her mother, a doctor, loses two husbands – to alcoholism, illness, and the ravages of World War II – before finally making her way to Leningrad with her third, an older and established Communist Party member. Necessarily imagined by Gorokhova, these early rural scenes lack the immediacy of later passages in which her own childhood is rendered with sharp detail. But she does recount an amusing episode in which her mother, indignant that Ivanovo has no maternity ward, writes to Stalin that “the Soviet women, who toil in peat swamps for our common bright future, deserve better.” Some time later, she is summoned by the local health commissioner. She is mortified, since
others had earned trips to the Gulag for far less, but learns instead that Moscow has awarded 15,000 rubles for her proposed project. It is between such straits of terror and promise that the Soviet leadership hemmed in its populace.