Archive for the ‘Elena Gorokhova’ Category

A Mountain of Crumbs by Elena Gorokhova is a good but certainly not great memoir of Gorkhova’s life growing up in St. Petersburg during the 1960s and 1970s.  Gorokhova is charming and at times quite engaging; overall, it was a pleasant but not particularly special or memorable reading experience.  I’d gone into the book hoping for a unique perspective, something that I hadn’t got from other memoirs based elsewhere in the U.S.S.R. and was disappointed.  Mushroom hunting in the forest, initiation into Young Pioneers, weekends fixing up the family dacha, all of this was a little too stereotypical for me, the kind of thing I’d heard from my own mother and from other memoirs.  However, I was introduced to Gorokhova’s impressive mother who, frankly, deserves a book entirely to herself, and for that I will be forever grateful.  She is the character who sticks in your head while Gorokhova fades quickly away. 

But for Gorokhova as a child, her mother with her loud, blunt ways was an embarrassment.  Gorokhova begins the book promisingly, talking about her mother and wishing, like all children, that she was something other than what she was:

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.  (p.1)

There’s a life I’d like to know more about!  A handsome, thrice-married doctor, she served in military hospitals during WWII and raised two daughters largely on her own.  Not a warm, indulgent maternal figure by any means but one of great strength and all the more compelling for that.

Those initial passages, indeed the first two chapters of the book that deal with Gorokhova’s family history, remain the most fascinating to me.  Once she moved on to her own childhood and adolescence I rather loss interest.  What I did note was how idyllic it made my mother’s own youth in Czechoslovakia seem.  There was absolutely nothing in here to glamourize Soviet Russia, not even in its most glamourous city. 

Gorokhova had a unique perspective on her country since, from a quite early age, she was interacting with Western visitors, first practicing her English while accompanying school groups and then eventually teaching Russian to English-language students on exchange.  Going into the sanctioned tourist shops with these visitors, seeing Russian classics on the bookshelves that were officially censored within the country, only made it more clear to Gorokhova what she was missing out on, what was being denied to her by her own country.  So it was hardly a surprise, at least to the reader, when she contracted what was essentially a marriage of convenience with one of her American language students. 

Oddly enough, this deeply unromantic marriage was perhaps what made me like Gorokhova best.  I can’t say I completely understand the American husband’s motivation (especially since there was still a woman he was seeing back in Texas) but it’s easy to understand Gorokhova’s perspective and to respect it.  It also sounds as though it was a rather common practice among her friends at the time, though most were only marrying Western Europeans, leaving but not going off the continent.  I hate to think of being brought to that, of selling yourself in order to leave your homeland and make a reasonable life elsewhere.  My family left Czechoslovakia on their own terms in ’68 and, despite all the hardships that came with that decision, how glorious an option it now seems by comparison!

Gorokhova settled in America, eventually divorced her first husband, remarried and had a daughter.  Though she was so eager to leave Russia thirty years ago and become an American, she, like many immigrants I think, finds it difficult to see how very American her daughter is, worrying that perhaps the precious parts of her Russian heritage have been lost to her:

I want my daughter to speak Russian, to read Turgenev, to memorize Pushkin’s verse the same way we memorized it in school.  I want her to love theatre and spend nights in the kitchen pontificating about personal happiness and the meaning of life.  I want to infect her with the germ of Russia so she stops being American and becomes like me. (p. 305)

Overall, it’s an interesting enough book but not terribly original or memorable.  Perhaps worth a read if, like me, you’re interested in life in the USSR but best to borrow from the library rather than purchase.

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