A Mountain of Crumbs

A Memoir

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About The Book

Elena Gorokhova’s A Mountain of Crumbs is the moving story of a Soviet girl who discovers the truths adults are hiding from her and the lies her homeland lives by.

Elena’s country is no longer the majestic Russia of literature or the tsars, but a nation struggling to retain its power and its pride. Born with a desire to explore the world beyond her borders, Elena finds her passion in the complexity of the English language—but in the Soviet Union of the 1960s such a passion verges on the subversive. Elena is controlled by the state the same way she is controlled by her mother, a mirror image of her motherland: overbearing, protective, difficult to leave. In the battle between a strong-willed daughter and her authoritarian mother, the daughter, in the end, must break free and leave in order to survive.

Through Elena’s captivating voice, we learn not only the stories of Russian family life in the second half of the twentieth century, but also the story of one rebellious citizen whose curiosity and determination finally transport her to a new world. It is an elegy to the lost country of childhood, where those who leave can never return.

Reading Group Guide
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.


INTRODUCTION

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

  1. 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?

  2. 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?

  3. 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?

  4. Elena and her tutor cannot find the Russian equivalent of the English word “privacy.”  What do you think this says about Russia? 

  5. 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?

  6. 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?

  7. 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?

  8. Recount the encounter between Elena and Kevin in the marketplace.  How is it indicative of the differences between the East and the West?

  9. 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?

  10. 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?

A CONVERSATION WITH ELENA GOROKHOVA
 

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. 

 
About The Author
© Lauren Perlstein

Elena Gorokhova grew up in St. Petersburg, Russia, although for most of her life it was known to her as Leningrad. At the age of twenty-four she married an American and came to the United States with only a twenty kilogram suitcase to start a new life. The bestselling author of A Mountain of Crumbs and Russian Tattoo, she has a Doctorate in Language Education and currently lives in New Jersey. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Daily Telegraph, on BBC Radio, and in a number of literary magazines.

Product Details
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (January 2010)
  • Length: 320 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781439135587

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Raves and Reviews

"Elena Gorokhova has written the Russian equivalent of Angela's Ashes, an intimate story of growing up into young womanhood told with equal grace and humor." -- Billy Collins, former U.S. Poet Laureate

"What is it about A Mountain of Crumbs that makes it so damn readable? Is it the setting -- the Soviet Union in the second half of the last century on the verge of disintegration? Is it the author's way with the English language? This is a rich experience -- a personal journey paralleled by huge national changes and ending in a deeply satisfying portrait of peace in America. Those who have traveled from another place to America will find themselves in this rich memoir." -- Frank McCourt, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Angela's Ashes

"An honest, captivating story of a girl from a middle-class Soviet family, growing into a young woman, searching for her identity and unable to find it...In the spirit of Dostoyevsky, it is also an endlessly Russian quest for self-redemption...I advise you to read the book. It will give you pleasure." -- Sergei Khruschchev, son of former Soviet Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev

"The story of a young person of sparkling intelligence, full of curiosity about the world, struggling to grow and blossom under a duplicitous, censorious, and unremittingly mean-minded social system. Elena Gorokhova conveys all the ugliness of daily life in Soviet Russia, as well as its humiliations, but is awake to its strangled, submerged poetry too. An enthralling read." -- J. M. Coetzee, winner of the 2003 Nobel Prize in Literature and author of Summertime

“[An] exquisitely wrought, tender memoir of growing up in the Soviet Union. . . . A Mountain of Crumbs could be taught as a master class in memoir writing. . . Gorokhova writes about her life with a novelist’s gift for threading motives around the heart of a story . . . Each chapter distills a new revelation in poetic prose . . . This moving memoir made me cry . . . Powerful.”
—Elena Lappin, The New York Times Book Review

“A Mountain of Crumbs vividly, devastatingly conveys what it was like growing up in the shabby disillusion of the Brezhnev-era Soviet Union—and also swooningly indulges the nostalgia for place and landscape that’s seemingly steeped into every Russian soul. . . . Marvelous reminiscence.”
—Ben Dickinson, Elle

"Elena Gorokhova has written an endearing, sensitive story of her early years in the USSR. Her memoir is proof that the human spirit can triumph even in the most repressive of times." -- Edward Hower, author of The New Life Hotel and The Storms of May

"A Mountain of Crumbs is an extraordinary memoir. Elena Gorokhova's writing -- gorgeous and evocative -- is enriched by her connection to two languages, Russian and English. Brilliant and moving." -- Ursula Hegi, author of Stones from the River

"This is a diamond of a memoir. Elena Gorokhova captures the essence of a vanished world with a poet's eye, taking the reader on an unforgettable journey, where every detail transcends the commonplace and every page bears witness to the deepest longings of the human heart. This memoir offers a rare glimpse of life in the former Soviet Union, and also of the universal search for love and autonomy that binds us all together, regardless of time and place." -- Carlos Eire, author of Waiting for Snow in Havana

"Almost painful in its authenticity, this hypnotically readable memoir has the sweep and power of a great Russian novel." -- Bruce Jay Friedman, Academy Award-nominated screenwriter and author of A Father's Kisses and Stern

" An instant classic...[A] deeply affecting memoir . . . recalled with spare, lyrical beauty and wry humor.”
—Carmela Ciuraru, More

“A smart, spirited tale about growing up in the colorless Soviet Union of the 1960s.”
People

“Elena Gorokhova doesn't use broad strokes to paint a picture of daily life in Brezhnev-era Soviet Union. Vivid memories . . . brightly dot the harsh, gray background of everyday life in Gorokhova's native Leningrad. . . . Her spare lyricism delicately captures a vanished world.”
— Korina Lopez, USA Today

“[L]eavened with wistful humor . . . This memoir offers valuable insight into those bleak years bracketed by Khrushchev and Afghanistan . . . [R]endered with sharp detail . . . Gorokhova is attuned to the inherent absurdities of a society that, while aspiring to a supposedly common ideal  . . . cannot care for its citizens on the most rudimentary level.”
—Alexander Nazaryan, Christian Science Monitor

“Gorokhova’s engaging, beautifully written memoir depicts her childhood in 1960s Leningrad and her restless dissatisfaction with life behind the Iron Curtain.”
—Donna Marchetti, The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)

“[A Mountain of Crumbs is] as sweet and earthy as sugar and brown bread. It's a mesmerizing story of an intelligent, adventurous, curious girl and a country with a rich past and lumbering social constraints, both finding the way to a new future.”
—Peggy McMullen, The Oregonian

“Endearing, a collection of well-sculptured memories . . . Lovely . . . Evocative . . . A minor-key coming-of-age story.”
—Dwight Garner, The New York Times

“Gorokhova has the reader in the palms of her hands. . . . Stellar . . . This compelling and unusual tale . . . is inherently captivating.”
—Christine Thomas, The Miami Herald

“[A] witty, illuminating book . . . with telling detail, and a winning balance of affection, insight and satiric bite.”
—Misha Berson, The Seattle Times

“Elena Gorokhova reveals with beautiful writing the panic of growing up inside the secrecy of Brezhnev’s Soviet Union. . . . Even if Elena Gorokhova weren’t such a gorgeous writer, her memoir, “A Mountain of Crumbs,” would be a terrific read. . . . She writes with irony and subtlety about the “bright future” of the Soviet Union, even as she plans her exodus. What makes this book so remarkable, though, is Gorokhova’s evocative and sensuous writing.”
—Laurie Hertzel, The Star-Tribune (Minneapolis-St. Paul)

“A moving memoir about one woman’s journey from the Soviet Union . . . Captivating.”

– The Daily Beast

“Artful memoir about the angst and joys of growing up behind the Iron Curtain. . . . Articulate, touching and hopeful.”
Kirkus Reviews

“Extraordinarily rich in sensory and emotional detail . . . An engrossing portrait of a very lively, intelligent girl coming of emotional and intellectual age in the post-Stalinist Soviet Union.”
Bookpage

“Wry . . . both comic and anguished . . . but never cold or simple.”
Booklist

“Three pages into this beautifully crafted memoir and you know that Gorokhova has always been a writer. . . . the kind that envelops and transports you and every so often leaves you breathless. . . . Recounted in shimmering detail.”

—Bill Ervolino, The Bergen Record (New Jersey)

Gorokhova has the reader in the palms of her hands. . . . Stellar . . . This compelling and unusual tale . . . is inherently captivating.”
—Christine Thomas, The Miami Herald

“Exquisitely lyrical . . . Every page of Elena Gorokhova s coming-of-age-in-the-Soviet-bloc memoir unveils the magic of her origins. . . . Stunning.”
—Anne Grant, Providence Journal-Bulletin (RI)

“A dream ride . . . A delight . . . with pitch-perfect lyricism, tremendous power of recall, and disarming wit.”
—Kapka Kassabova, The Guardian (UK)

A Mountain of Crumbs is . . . a stunning memoir: subtle, yet brimming with depth and detail.”
—Viv Groskop, The Daily Telegraph (UK)

“Brims with an elegiac emotion and sensuality which even Turgenev, in his own European exile, might have envied.”
—Charlotte Hobson, The Spectator (UK)

“Remarkable . . . beautiful and evocative and worth your attention.”
—Nathan Thornburgh, DadWagon.com

“Her richly detailed story explores the reality of her politically subversive passions for language and freedom in a fearful, failing society that distrusted its citizens and repressed individuality.”
Saga (UK)

“Gorokhova is a lush and beautiful writer. Her tidy, witty descriptions of characters keep the book moving along at a good clip . . . the rich political milieu of the former Soviet Union sets this book apart. You really do get the feeling of what it smelled, tasted and felt like to grow up in that particular place and time.
— Ellen Silva, senior editor, NPR’s All Things Considered

“An exquisitely moving memoir detailing Gorokhova’s experiences of growing up behind the Iron Curtain. Her story of oppression and hope is described in distinctive poetical prose.”
Marie Claire (UK)

“Despite the specificity of the memoir, the themes and characters have universality - a domineering mother, a rebellious child, finding passion and beauty in surprising places. A celebration of the triumph of the human spirit over adversity and oppression.”
Easy Living (UK)

“Combining Gorokhova’s fantastic eye for an image with her acute sense for the absurd, A Mountain of Crumbs elegantly dramatizes the bewildering chasm between the projected, glittering idealism of the Soviet Union and its drab, quotidian reality.”
—Claire Allfree, Metro (UK)

“In this gently delightful memoir, Elena Gorokhova recounts her coming of age in Russia during 1960s and 1970s . . . There’s a wonderful cozy intimacy to her writing; her use of the present tense keeps it fresh and unburdened . . . I loved reading A Mountain of Crumbs. Gorokhova is a fine writer with a delicate, sensitive touch, whose voice in nonetheless fearless and clarion. I hope there’s a sequel. After coming of age comes surely that other great memoir, coming to America.”

—Wendell Steavenson, The Sunday Times (UK)

“It takes talent to write a good memoir and Gorokhova has more than most. Fascinating anecdotes show us her mother’s youth, and her own recollections spring to life with an artist’s eye for those details that can conjure a mood or a moment. The privations, oppressions and joys are all described with shining curiosity in this captivating book.”
Waterstone’s Books Quarterly

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