A Girl, Growing Up and Growing Wiser, in Leningrad

Book review: A Mountain of Crumbs, by Elena Gorokhova
Book Depository

This memoir has one of the most beautiful and intensely evocative openings I’ve read in a long time:

I wish my mother had come from Leningrad, from the world of Pushkin and the tsars, of granite embankments and lace ironwork, of pearly domes buttressing the low sky. Leningrad’s sophistication would have infected her the moment she drew her first breath, and all the curved facades and stately bridges, marinated for more than two centuries in the city’s wet, salty air, would have left a permanent mark of refinement on her soul.

But she didn’t. She came from the provincial town of Ivanovo in central Russia, where chickens lived in the kitchen and a pig squatted under the stairs, where streets were unpaved and houses made from wood. She came from where they lick plates.

There was nothing I disliked about this book, except where it ended. Elena Gorokhova wrote another memoir, Russian Tattoo, and I hope it’s as wonderful as this one.

Gorokhova writes about her childhood and adolescence in Soviet Leningrad, as she becomes more and more aware of the truth about her homeland. She navigates this growing awareness of her world and whatever world might lie beyond USSR borders alongside her coming-of-age, her place within and relationship to her family, and ideas about the future.

She has a brilliant gift for observation and memory, spinning vivid tales from the incidents she recalls. There’s a purpose to everything: she ties her recollections smoothly into what she’s learned from an adult perspective of understanding, or how she learned from the actions of others. Her stories of her big sister’s work in a theater troupe, of work culture in general, and of her own fumbling romantic experiences were well-told and fascinating, especially for topics that I often find boring or uncomfortable.

It becomes ever clearer that a good future, or the kind that she wants, can’t be had in the Soviet Union.

As her English advances, she studies with a tutor, another Russian with whom she encountered the mystery of the word “privacy.” A British textbook had the line, “‘Helen and her new husband lost their privacy when her mother moved across the street,’ the sentence even my tutor didn’t know how to decode.”

She tells these stories, demonstrating this strange awareness of a foreign way of life, one so different that even the language describing it is entirely incompatible with her own frame of reference.

Some lines resound eerily reminiscent to certain arguments I’ve heard from supporters of our current president, or his love affair with strongman dictator types: quoting her uncle reminiscing about the order in place under Stalin, “Look around. Gangs of hooligans on every corner, nurses drunk in operating rooms. Where has the order gone? A hand of steel – that’s what the people need. They understand strength and that’s the only thing they listen to. Put someone strong in charge and even the worst bum will shape up overnight.”

One scene that stayed with me was her visit to a Beriozka (souvenir) shop as part of her elite work leading English-speaking tour groups through Leningrad. She’s gifted a silver bracelet, having never owned jewelry, by one of the British students she’d carefully shepherded through the city’s tourist sites, and recognizes her privilege: this job allows her to enter a shop full of goods and treasures, otherwise off limits for Russians to even see.

But is it really a privilege to stand next to shelves with foods I can’t eat and books I can’t read? I don’t know the answer…No matter how many jokes I tell, no matter how cynical I’ve become, this is the way things are here. Contrary to my mother’s hopes for a better future, I will never travel to London, or save for a car, or taste shrimp.

But fate surprises her, in the form of a young American man who has a plan to help her leave her home country, if that’s what she wants. Even with his help, she’ll be left to face so much on her own, in a world beyond her tightly controlled environment that never prepared her for living beyond it. Her decisions and the circumstances of this change are bittersweet and poignant. Like life.

I don’t know why Aunt Mila, who has to hide food in a nightstand drawer in her own country, thinks that Russian emigres were all miserable. Would I be miserable if I were forced to live in Paris or London? If, instead of lining up for bologna or cucumbers, I had to choose between something called an artichoke and something called shrimp? If I could walk into a bookstore and find any book on its shelves – any book title one could dredge out of memory – even stories by Nabokov or poems by Mandelstam, even Pushkin’s volume of shameless poetry?

As she prepares the route, at once both hopeful and heartbreakingly difficult, that will lead her out of the Soviet Union and to a life in America, a place that once seemed beyond any reality that included her, she steels herself for the journey and changes ahead. “I don’t say anything. I don’t want to show what I am thinking. It’s a lifelong practice, a tribute to Grandma’s words, What’s inside you no one can touch.”

That’s where the word “nostalgia” comes from, Aunt Mila insists. Looking back at your homeland. Looking back at those birch trees and peasant huts…Looking back and remembering things that used to seem insignificant and small: a wisp of smoke curling from a chimney into the frosty sky, for example, or your mother’s figure growing bigger on the dacha road until you find yourself burying your face in her soft belly under a polyester dress with a red apple print.

I think I learned more from this book about Russia and what life was like in the Soviet Union than from most history books I’ve read on these topics. Achingly beautifully written and poetic, I took breaks from reading it because I didn’t want to finish too quickly. Gorokhova’s descriptive writing is so rich, the kind to savor slowly. 5/5

I love this cover, from a UK edition

A Mountain of Crumbs: A Memoir
by Elena Gorokhova
published 2009 by Simon & Schuster

Book Depository

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