Elena Gorokhova (2010) A Mountain of Crumbs: a memoir, Growing Up Behind The Iron Curtain.

Here Elena describes her mother: ‘Born three years before Russia turned into the Soviet Union, my mother became the mirror image of my motherland: overbearing, protective, difficult to leave…A survivor of the famine, Stalin’s terror and the Great Patriotic War…’. Food features heavily in the account. They have a Dacha thirty miles from Leningrad.  A property owner in a property-less state with no such thing as privacy. Her father had a chauffeur and a car and worked for the Communist Party. He was over fifty when he became a father to Elena, her mother, Galina, an anatomy professor, in her thirties. They were the intelligentsia the upper class of Russia’s bureaucracy and Elena’s path was smoothed from the childhood Pioneers to the Komosol to membership of the Communist Party. Her half-sister, Marina, from her father’s first marriage is also indulged and allowed to pursue her dream and study drama in Moscow. In a classless society with no unemployment some are more equal than others. But several times she tells the same story of Uncle Volya and the NKVD coming for him:

‘For what? asked Aunt Lilya in a ragged voice.

‘You’ll find out,’ muttered one of the men.

Uncle Volya stood in the middle of the room, in silly flannel pyjamas, trying to quell and asthma attack. His round shoulders were slouched forward, and his mouth gasped for breath as he mopped his forehead with a handkerchief.

…It wasn’t even a political joke. Two militiamen are invited to Comrade Kozlov’s birthday party. What should we give him? asks one. The best gift is a book, says the other. No, says the first militiaman. Comrade Kozlov already has a book.’  

Elena was not there. She never met her uncle, who was shot ‘trying to escape’. But in her memoir she uses the omniscient voice and implies that she was. She also uses the same device when describing her mother’s early years and later what she seems to think. Elena becomes infatuated with the strange sounding English language and is allowed to study it at Leningrad’s equivalent of University. She’s guaranteed a job and when her superior dies or retires in twenty or thirty years she’s also guaranteed promotion. But she’s a rash young thing. She teaches English to those sitting exams and makes more money than her professors, who have referred their colleague’s sons and daughters to her. But there’s nothing to spend it on. Most of the time they spend at the Dacha is spent planting and harvesting food they can bring back to the city with them. And those living in the countryside travel to cities like Leningrad to buy food and city dwellers in cities like Leningrad travel in the opposite direction to buy food. Her most valuable possession is a pair of blue Levis. And she is courted by a visiting physicist whom she is teaching Russian. He is American and the enemy. She makes a business-like decision to marry him and leave Leningrad. Russia has just invaded Afghanistan and anti-American rhetoric she thinks will make it more difficult to leave. But when you’re married to an American, even in Soviet Russia, anything can happen.


CM I love reading stories like this. I have a great fondness for writings which happen outside of England and regular English experience. Right now I am along the Aswan Dam in the Winter Vaults. You will probably like Bluebird by Vesna Maric. The teenage author and Metallica fan, together with her mother and sister, leaves her council flat in war torn Bosnia for London and then Hull. Life is lonely, dull and dismal and one day she tells herself she 'must stop pitying myself' and starts to get on with it and makes a few friends. The final section where now, about 15 years later,and a young mum in Edinburgh who has built up a career working for Lonely Planet travel, she revisits home is good too.

sounds good elsie. Just ordered Bluebird. I'll have a look. cheers.