A Mountain of Crumbs by Elena Gorokhova

A childhood in Communist Russia revisited.

Reviewed by Carmela Ciuraru

The title of this deeply affecting memoir comes from a heartbreaking anecdote related in the book’s opening pages. The author’s grandmother, who raised her children (including Gorokhova’s mother) in a provincial Russian town during World War I, invented the phrase to help them deal with their hunger. Whenever the little ones complained of growling stomachs, she would break a cube of sugar and a piece of bread onto their plates. “Look at how much you’ve got,” she would say. “A whole mountain of crumbs.”

Gorokhova’s own childhood in 1960s Leningrad—recalled with spare, lyrical beauty and wry humor—was not much better than her mother’s. Gorokhova (who joined the Young Communist League at 14) stood with her family in long lines for milk and toilet paper. American news-papers were confiscated by the government, and there were few luxuries for people to purchase with their rubles. As the writer recalls, “The shoe stores overflow with black vinyl contraptions that mangle feet, and the cosmetic departments offer . . . dry black mascara that cakes on eyelashes in toxic clumps.” In her tenth grade textbook, sex, violence and unemployment were listed among the “ugly characteristics of bourgeois society.”
Gorokhova soon yearned to escape the “ancient inertia” of her homeland. At university, seduced by the English language she’d studied, she wondered what it might be like to live in a place where there was no shortage of books and where she might eat “something called an artichoke and something called shrimp.”
A good girl who knew she ought to follow the rules but stubbornly resisted them, Gorokhova found her ticket to freedom at age 24 when she wed an American graduate student. The relationship didn’t last, but Gorokhova—now a happily remarried mother living in New Jersey—cherishes her life in America, where deprivation has been replaced by abundance: “We can simply live, and keep the door open, and wait for whatever enters.” 

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