Friday, April 15, 2011

A Mountain of Crumbs

Publisher's Summary. A Mountain of Crumbs is the moving story of a young Soviet girl's discovery of the hidden truths of adulthood and her country's profound political deception.

Elena, born with a desire to explore the world beyond her borders, 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's home is no longer the majestic Russia of literature or the tsars. Instead, it is a nation humiliated by its first faltering steps after World War II, putting up appearances for the sake of its regime and fighting to retain its pride.

In this deeply affecting memoir, Elena re-creates the world that both oppressed and inspired her. She recounts stories passed down to her about the horrors of the Bolshevik Revolution and probes the daily deprivations and small joys of her family's bunkerlike existence. Through Elena's captivating voice, we learn not only the personal story of Russia in the second half of the twentieth century, but also the story of one rebellious citizen whose love of a foreign language finally transports her to a new world.

Review. Vranyo is Russian for a white lie or half-truth. During the Soviet Union era vranyo became the de facto way of life. As author Elena Gorokhova explains:

“In Russia we played the vranyo game on a daily basis. The government lied to us, we knew they were lying, they knew we knew they were lying, but they kept lying anyway and we pretended to believe them. There was a joke: ‘They pretend they pay us and we pretend we work.’ It was ingrained in the system.”

In practice vranyo provided a coping mechanism for both unbearable tragedies and petty annoyances. Can’t feed your starving children? Tear up a piece of bread to make a mountain of crumbs and declare it an abundance of food. Observe an innocent loved one being snatched away by authorities and later learn he was shot for “escaping?” Conclude that it was all a mistake committed by crooked authorities and kept from the great Soviet leaders. Forced to eat a meal of rancid buttered bread? Devour it anyway. Step into a state store for foreigners filled with food you aren’t allowed to taste and books you are forbidden from reading? Feel proud that you are allowed to stand next to the shelves.

Reading A Mountain of Crumbs was like stepping into a muted grey world with only occasional bursts of color. Corruption and scarcity are the natural order that shape everyday existence. Occasionally, there is dark humor in the unfortunate circumstances. For example, when a foreigner queries Gorokhova as to what the hoards are lining up for and the treasured goodie turns out to be toilet paper! Another moment occurs when Gorokhova tries to help an American companion discover the news on the recent Soviet invasion of Afghanistan:

“We trek all over the city center in search of an English-language newspaper that will explain what’s really happening . . . . We find the Morning Star, published by the Communist Party of Great Britain, and the Daily World, published by the Communist Party of the United States. ‘I’ve never seen any of these papers,’ Robert says ‘In America or England.’ But he doesn’t buy them, even out of curiosity. He wants to read the real news, he says. He wants to know Pravda, the truth, with Pravda stacked up in piles everywhere we look, being the last place to find it.”

Fortunately for readers, Elena finds her truth (as in her true self) via learning English and coming to the United States. A Mountain of Crumbs is a remarkable memoir!

Publisher: Simon & Schuster (January 12, 2010), 320 pages.
Advance Review Copy Provided Courtesy of the Publisher.


  1. Muted gray, what a world. But it does make for an interesting book

  2. Oh my, you know how I love a great memoir! This one sounds fabulous!

  3. This sounds like a very interesting memoir. I don't read too many memoirs but this one sounds like one not to miss.

  4. going to tell Mrs Q about this one too.

    She just finished Shades of Grey and would love this memoir next.

    PS great review