A Mountain of Crumbs

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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