This reading group guide for A Mountain of Crumbs includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Elena Gorokhova. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Soviet Russia of the 1960s and 1970s, where Elena Gorokhova grows up, is a bleak, disillusioned world, a land that promises everything but delivers little. How do you preserve the spark of enchantment amid the mandatory courses in scientific communism and banners proclaiming “We thank the party for the people’s welfare” above lines for toilet paper? Elena searches for the magic missing in her life and finds it in the English language— a passion that in the Soviet Union verges on the subversive.
Controlled by the state the same way she is controlled by her mother, Elena learns early to play the national game of pretending. “They pretend to pay us,” says her older sister, summing up Soviet life, “and we pretend to work.” Her mother, born eight years before Russia turned into the Soviet Union, is a mirror image of her Motherland: overbearing, protective, and difficult to leave. Their suffocating nurture exacts a price, and when Elena upsets the expected order, she becomes an outcast. Moving to the U.S. gives Elena her only chance for personal happiness. Yet to her mother it feels like a betrayal, perhaps the most terrible of all, in a lifetime of Soviet deception.
In this powerful and affecting memoir, Elena Gorokhova recreates the world that both oppressed and inspired her. Revealing the human scale of the crumbled Soviet dream, A Mountain of Crumbs
is an elegy to the lost country of childhood and youth, where those who left can never return.
QUESTIONS AND TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION
A CONVERSATION WITH ELENA GOROKHOVA
- Explain the significance of the book title. Where did it originate? How does it keep recurring throughout the course of the book? In what way is a “mountain of crumbs” a metaphor for the failing Soviet Union?
- Discuss the notion of vranyo. How does Elena first learn about vranyo? How do Russians play the game of vranyo in their daily lives? How is this game played in Elena’s family?
- Elena believes her mother was once “cheerful and ironic, before she turned into a law-abiding citizen so much in need of order.” (p.99) Why do you think she changed? How did Elena avoid falling into the same trap?
- Elena and her tutor cannot find the Russian equivalent of the English word “privacy.” What do you think this says about Russia?
- How do Elena’s parents and grandparents represent the “old” Russia? What ideologies does Elena have trouble accepting? In what way does she voice her opposition to her mother and her beliefs in the old ways? Does she voice her opposition to anyone else?
- What is the “secret” that Elena struggles to learn about during her teenage years? Why does she feel she cannot turn to her mother? How is her statement “There is a door between us, as always, and that’s where all important things are kept, behind closed doors” (p. 124) a metaphor for the current state of Russia and her desire to go to America?
- After learning about what intelligentny means, who do you think best embodies it? Elena? Her sister? Her mother? Do you need to be intelligentny to decide if others are?
- Recount the encounter between Elena and Kevin in the marketplace. How is it indicative of the differences between the East and the West?
- Were you surprised when Elena accepted Robert’s offer of marriage? What does this say about Elena? Did your opinion of her change after learning this? If so, in what way?
- Elena chooses to end her story with her departure to America, followed by a short epilogue about the present day. Why do you think she chose to end the story there? How would reading the story of her first few years in America impact the tone of the book for you?
Your book spans the first twenty-four years of your life. Was it a challenge to find the right “voice” for your memoir?
It was a challenge. For many years the book was an amorphous compilation of reminiscences about growing up in a Leningrad courtyard with summer stays at a dilapidated dacha. One editor who read an early submission referred to it as “monochromatic,” which clearly meant “boring.” It was just like the old movies, where a camera pans over bleak landscapes and actors do nothing but pontificate about their black-and-white lives.
It all changed in the summer of 2004, when fate (undoubtedly) brought me to Frank McCourt’s memoir workshop at the Southampton Writers Conference. He was as brilliant a teacher as he was a storyteller, and my black-and-white writing began to bloom with color. Among the many things I learned from Frank McCourt was irony. The voice of the memoir changed, and it all congealed into A Mountain of Crumbs
. How were you able to remember everything so vividly? Did you need to go back and do any research for your book? Did you rely on friends and family to recount certain details?
My mother has always loved telling stories about her life. My aunt, who still lives in a small town in Russia, even wrote a book about their family and had it typed and bound for her children and grandchildren. Interestingly, she remembered only good things, but from her reminiscences, my mother’s stories, and from what my sister told me, I was able to glimpse, I think, what really happened.Your mother “is the only one who has had three marriages, three hasty unions, of which none seemed perfect or even good.” (p. 233) Yet you entered into a hasty union with Robert, which allowed you to leave Russia for the United States. Did you ever consider that you might have been going down the same path as your mother? Or did the ends justify the means in your marriage with Robert?
It didn’t occur to me, at the time, that my hasty marriage to Robert might resemble my mother’s – simply because I didn’t know then those details about my mother’s life. It was only later, when she moved to the U.S. to live with me (and when she, possibly, considered me to be fully grown-up), that she revealed how many husbands she had and how long (or, rather, how short) it took her to marry them. In hindsight, I certainly seem to have followed in her footsteps, which is a rather unsettling thought. Before you left Russia, you made the observation that you had been “so diligent in slicing my soul in two and keeping the real half to myself, away from the outside, away from my mother, who wants me to be safe.” (p. 250) If you remained in Russia, do you think your mother would ever have known the “real” you?
Had I remained in Russia, I probably would have withdrawn further from my mother in an effort to isolate and protect the part of me that I felt needed to be protected. In the United States, our roles were reversed. I was fluent in English and worked to provide for our safety. In essence, I no longer had to hide from my mother. Living in the U.S. gave me a distance she could not invade. It was now up to me to determine if I wanted my mother to know the real me. If I had remained in Russia, I don’t know if I could have allowed my mother to get that close.There were many assumptions about the West that were made before you left Russia. How many of them were true? What were some of the bigger misconceptions? What advice would you give to someone who wants to make the move from Russia to the United States today?
We knew very little about the West. A lot of assumptions (and accusations) were made by the Soviet media, as part of their national vranyo
campaign, but my friends and most of my fellow university students took them for what they were, lies. However, there was no truth to replace those lies, so my move to the U.S. in 1980 was a plunge into the unknown. I knew I probably wouldn’t have to beg or live under a bridge, as my mother feared, but I didn’t know if Americans shared the same human values we grew up with. It sounds foolish, but I wasn’t sure they were the same people we were. I didn’t know if the familiar rules of interpersonal interaction applied in the U.S. just as I didn’t know if I would ever see my family and friends again.
Today, with the iron curtain relegated to history, a move from Russia to the U.S. is no longer a blind leap. But it is not an easy move, by any means. Anyone who considers emigration must remember that they’re giving up the life they know and the places they are familiar with, becoming unmoored and thrown to the will of new, foreign waves. Did you become vrag naroda like you feared? How often have you returned to Russia since immigrating to the United States? Do you feel as though you left a part of yourself there, or are you more whole now than when you left?
I have been back many times: every few years before 1991, when communism collapsed, and almost every year since then. On my first visit in 1982 I learned that my friend Nina was fired from her university teaching position because she hadn’t informed the administration about my impending capitalist marriage. Each time I went back there were scores of changes. People on the streets wore leather shoes; crowds on the metro washed their hair more than once a week. My courtyard was paved and gated; there is now a brightly-painted playground, a dozen parked cars, and modern double windows that announce a new middle-class. And although I am more whole now because I no longer need to pretend, there will always be a part of me left on that courtyard bench of childhood.When you met with Dean Maslov, you confided to the reader that the “…real reason for leaving has nothing to do with the cause of political freedom. It has to do with my mother.” (p. 291) Twenty years later, do you still hold this statement to be true? Or have you realized there were other motivating factors besides your mother?
Looking back, I understand that leaving the Soviet Union had as much to do with the Soviet Union as it did with my mother. The national game of vranyo
, or pretending, made us cynical and disillusioned; Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika
was still almost a decade away; the Soviet state machine seemed mighty and indestructible. Even if I couldn’t consciously admit the need for escape, it smoldered beneath the surface in my mind and in the minds of most people who surrounded me.How have your feelings for Russia changed since your time in America? Before you departed you commented that Russia was like “the inside of a bus at a rush hour in July: you can’t breathe, you can’t move, and you can’t squeeze your way to the door to get out.” (p. 263). Do these feelings still hold true? How has Russia changed over the years?
Russia will always remain the place where I was born and raised. There will always be nostalgia for my childhood, which has been filtered through memory, for the roots that stubbornly clutch to the Russian soil no matter how violently I try to yank them out. But I would not want to move back. My country is no longer locked behind the iron curtain: people can travel abroad and read anything they like. Yet, in a way, it is the same country. The communist apathy has been replaced by the general apathy, allowing the Kremlin to consolidate their influence over the national media and discourse. The government controls all television and all but one radio stations. The country’s governors are not elected but appointed by the president. The new generation of Russians is too busy traveling and making money to pay attention to the freedoms being stealthily pulled away from them.What’s next for you? Could there be a possible sequel to A Mountain of Crumbs chronicling your first years in America?
There could be a sequel, a memoir about my first years in the United States. Or I may decide to concentrate on my current project: a fictionalized account of my mother’s and sister’s life during the post-war time of reconstruction and then the “thaw” under Nikita Khrushchev in the 1960s. Whatever it turns out to be, it will be driven by Russian themes, the currents that always help me stay afloat.In your epilogue you note that your inspiration for writing A Mountain of Crumbs came from Frank McCourt’s seminar at the South Hampton Writers Conference. What advice would you give to someone who is thinking of writing a memoir?
I owe the voice of this memoir to Frank McCourt, who taught me to look for the “hot spots,” those defining moments in life when something significant happens, and to dig deeply into the past. He compared memoir writing to walking on the beach: you can look at the surface of things, or you can take a metal detector, wait for it to beep, and go for the gold that’s deep inside. If you are thinking of writing a memoir, think of the hot spots in your life, arm yourself with a metal detector, and dig for the gold.