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A Mountain of Crumbs

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

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Gorokhova is much more confident in recounting her rather comfortable upbringing in postwar Leningrad, with her mother (now a professor of anatomy), her consistently ailing father, and her rebellious older sister, an aspiring actress with a Westward gaze. A dutiful McCourt acolyte, Gorokhova is attuned to the inherent absurdities of a society that, while aspiring to a supposedly common ideal – whether a free Ireland or a workers’ paradise in Russia – cannot care for its citizens on the most rudimentary level. “We hear a lot about love for the motherland and love for the Communist Party, but never about love for one another,” she writes.

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In fact, her school years are full of subtle terrors that Gorokhova chronicles capably (if not always with great narrative gusto) in a reminder that, even in the twilight that followed Stalin’s death, the manufacture of fear continued apace. During a meeting of Young Pioneers, a teacher interrupts the procession of laudatory speeches to announce, “One of us wrote a note incongruous with the Code of Young Pioneers.” The students wonder if a counterrevolutionary is in their midst, but soon learn that the guilty one was simply a girl who had scribbled “I love you” to her beau.

Gorokhova’s own first love truly was subversive: as a teen she becomes enamored of the English language and consequently begins dreaming of “stately England” and “mythical America,” in awe of societies indulgent enough to have the need for living rooms and coffee tables. A political awakening occurs when she comes across the word “privacy” in a textbook and realizes that it has no equivalent in Russian. “It simply doesn’t exist,” her perplexed English tutor announces. “We do have seclusion, though, as well as isolation.”

That isolation begins to wane by the 1980s, just as Gorokhova is settling into adulthood. After receiving a degree in English from Leningrad University, she is assigned to tutor American college students in Russian. Here she meets an amerikanets from the University of Texas who wants to marry Gorokhova and take her back to the States, a hasty plot that ruffles the feathers of her compatriots. “You don’t want to get fired there, or get sick or get old.... You are on your own,” warns a dean whose dire assessment of American priorities rings truer today than it ought to.

Not that she listened. Before her departure, Gorokhova’s sister Marina bemoans the “bright future” had been promised by the Soviet Union. Only, she notes, “no one has told us it’s on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.” Luckly, it wasn’t too late: Marina now lives in New Orleans, while Gorokhova and her mother are happily settled in New Jersey.

Alexander Nazaryan is a writer and teacher living in Brooklyn. He is writing a novel about Russian organized crime in Brooklyn.