A Conversation with Elena Gorokhova

What inspired you to write this memoir?

I think the inspiration was a necessity.  Chekhov once said, “If you can NOT write, don’t.”  I suppose I couldn’t not write it because over the years I kept writing little bits about my life in Russia—not knowing what I’d do with them.  I kept writing and saving them on my computer until in 2004 I took a memoir class with Frank McCourt.  He taught me irony, among many other things, and that was when the voice of the memoir changed. It all congealed into A Mountain of Crumbs.

You provide such rich detail about daily life in the Soviet Union during the 1960s-1970s when you were growing up.  Was it hard to dig into your past?  Were family and friends helpful in providing their recollections or enhancing your own?

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.  She remembers only good things, but from her reminiscences, my mother’s stories, and what my sister told me, I was able to glimpse, I think, what really happened.

Once I started writing it wasn’t difficult to dig into the past.  It was more difficult to choose which stories were more interesting and defining and to take out those that weren’t.  The process of elimination was hard, and I still have a lot pages sitting on my computer that didn’t go into the book.

You’ve received amazing quotes as a first-time writer from an amazing array of luminaries including the late Frank McCourt, former U.S. Laureate Billy Collins, Nobel-Prize winner J.M. Coetzee, National Book Award winner Carlos Eire, authors Ursula Hegi, Bruce Jay Friedman, and Edward Hower, as well as Sergei Khrushchev, son of former Soviet Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev.  How did these endorsements come about?

The writers I approached were extremely generous, and I was extremely fortunate.  I took Frank McCourt’s class at the Southampton Writers Conference, and he graciously agreed to read my memoir, despite the fact that—from what we know now— he was living the last several months of his life.

To Billy Collins I wrote a poem (I still can’t believe I wrote a poem to the Poet Laureate of the United States…).

I would never dare write to a Nobel Prize winner, but my agent pointed out that J.M. Coetzee had a novel set in my hometown—Master of Petersburg—and I happened to live a few blocks from where the action takes place.  I sent a letter along with a sample chapter from the book all the way to Australia, and I was stunned when he immediately wrote back and asked for a complete manuscript.

It took Sergei Khrushchev several weeks to read the manuscript in English, and I am very grateful to him for setting some historical facts straight.

Your father was a card-carrying member of the party and your mother—its staunch supporter, but from childhood, you questioned it.  What do you think changed between the generations to cause this shift?

My parents’ generation was inspired by the Revolution of 1917.  They believed in the bright future of communism, in living in the best country in the world.  It was almost their religion.

My generation was born after the war, after Stalin’s death, and we were living in the Brezhnev era of stagnation.  We were over-fulfilling five-year plans and yet the stores were getting emptier.  There was a joke: “A man comes to a meat store. Do you have any fish, he asks. No, here we don’t have meat, says the salesclerk.  Fish they don’t have across the street.”  We were told that capitalist countries were rotting and crumbling, but no one was allowed to travel there to verify the claim.  We were disillusioned and cynical.

As a child you were driven to learn English, which provided you, ultimately, with a way out of Russia.  Why were you so determined to learn the language of a Western country that you were taught was “evil”?

There was something captivating about the sound of English when I first heard it at age ten coming from a record called “Audio-lingual drills.”  There was something mesmerizing: all those rolled r’s and palatalized l’s and intonation soaring at the end of sentences.  It was so foreign, so rarely heard.  It sounded like music.

What was the hardest moment to write about?

My father’s death when I was ten. He was in a hospital, and the three of us, my mother, my sister, and I went down to the street to a phone booth to make a call to the hospital since we didn’t have a phone at home. I dialed the number, and the voice on the other end said that he’d died. A normal voice used to delivering abnormal messages. We all went back upstairs, silently, and my mother started watering the plants, and I stood there, not knowing how to feel.  Death wasn’t supposed to happen like this.  It was the topic of history books about the heroic valor of the Great Patriotic war; it was what happened in theatre and movies.  It was what my mother and sister knew—and I didn’t.

What contraband item did you most desire when you lived in the Soviet Union?  What was it like when you got your hands on it?

I wanted to have a novel by Mikhail Bulgakov, Master and Margarita.  It had been banned for a long time and first published in book form in 1973.  We passed the book around—you’d get it for a couple days, read it frantically, and pass it on to the next person.  It was the epitome of sophistication and glamour to have read Master and Margarita, and when I came to the U.S. I immediately bought a copy.

What were your first impressions of the U.S. when you arrived? What surprised you the most?

There were no smells of any kind.  I arrived in Washington, D.C. It was 90 degrees in August, and nothing smelled.  In Russia everything smelled.  Russia attacked you in your nostrils. There were smells of unleaded gasoline fumes, of sweat, of wool winter coats we wore every day for five months of winter, of mothballs and yesterday’s soup, of milk on the verge of turning sour.  Washington smelled of nothing.  It was completely sterile and antiseptic.

In the book, you talk a lot about vranyo, a game of pretending that everyone seems to play in Soviet society.  How much vranyo do you see in American society and institutions?

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 the U.S., I would be naïve to think that lies never happen in politics and institutions, but there are venues to address your grievances.  Protest is legal here.  For example, if you protest the war in Iraq, you’re not going to lose your apartment, and your daughter isn’t going to lose her seat at a university. It is more straightforward and transparent.

What do you miss about Russia?

I miss my friends. The definition of a “friend” is very different in Russia.  The relationship is closer, much more intense.  I also miss the safety of my courtyard—four buildings arranged as a quad, with eyes of windows always watching over you.

You write in the book that there is no Russian word for “privacy.”  What other linguistic (or cultural) differences made an impression on you?

There is no Russian word for “privacy” because there was no notion of privacy.  On the other hand, there is no English word for the Russian “toska.”  Toska is a combination of longing and sadness.  It is used in Tolstoy’s story “Death of Ivan Ilyich” several times, and it is translated into English in several different ways.

One cultural difference that has always bewildered me is that Americans don’t hunt for mushrooms.  There are perfect woods all over the country, and there are gorgeous mushrooms—completely ignored, left to crumble and rot.  It makes my heart weep.

How often do you go back to visit Russia? Do you still have a lot of friends and family there?

I go back every year.  I stay with my friend, and we sit in the kitchen talking, just as we did when I lived there, until the sun comes up at 2 or 3 in the morning during the period of white nights when it never really gets dark.

My half-sister lives there, too, and we go to the cemetery where my father is buried.  We pull the weeds out, and sit on a little bench, and fight off mosquitoes.

Your mother moved to the U.S. and now lives with you.  How was her adjustment to living in America?

My mother adjusted faster than I did, without speaking the language.  She didn’t seem to experience culture shock, as I did.  Maybe for someone who suffered so much adversity—a revolution, famine, two wars—moving to America to live in a nice house wasn’t that traumatic.

You’ve raised your daughter in the U.S. Does she speak Russian?  What have you instilled about her Russian heritage?

My daughter speaks, writes, and reads Russian, but it is her second language.  From the time she was born we read to her in Russian. My mother used to sit by the crib and read chapter books to her.  My daughter began speaking Russian before she spoke English.  But then—predictably—when she started school, she wanted to be like her peers, not like her mother and grandmother.  She began resisting speaking Russian, and it became a struggle.  Now she is a semester away from graduating from college, and she is back to being interested in the Russian language and culture. So maybe—just maybe—those readings by the crib didn’t completely go to waste.

Do you plan to write another memoir?

I’m working on something that is set in Russia during and after World War II. I don’t yet know what it’s going to be.