Thursday, May 27, 2010

Guest Blogger, Elena Gorokhova

Please join me in welcoming author Elena Gorokhova as the special guest blogger here today at Thoughts in Progress.

Elena is the author of A MOUNTAIN OF CRUMBS, the story of a young Soviet girl’s discovery of the hidden truths of adulthood and her country’s profound, brazen lies. The narrator recreates the world that both oppressed and inspired her. She recounts stories passed down to her about the horrors of Stalin’s terror and the Great Patriotic War and probes the daily deprivations and small joys of her family’s life in Leningrad.

Elena joins us today to talk about writing what she thought would be her memoir, but turned out to be “A Medal for My Mother.”

I thought that A Mountain of Crumbs, my memoir about growing up in Soviet Russia, was my memoir. I didn’t know that it was my mother who would become the core of the story, the “rock-solid mother,” as the Daily Beast called her in celebration of Mother’s Day. The Christian Science Monitor, in its turn, named the book one of the 10 best Mother’s Day books of 2010. 

Almost seventy years ago, in the spring of 1942, a woman carried an unconscious nine-year-old boy into the make-shift hospital where my mother was a surgeon, one kilometer away from the front. It was April, and when the ice on the Volga turned porous and frail, mines frozen into the river began to explode, touched off by the slightest shift, sending flocks of birds into the air and schools of fish to the water surface, belly up. Locals with buckets, driven by wartime hunger, waded into the river to collect the unexpected harvest floating among chunks of ice, setting off more mines.

It was prohibited to treat civilians in a military hospital, but my mother unbuttoned the boy’s quilted jacket and muddy pants and carefully pulled them away from his perforated flesh, revealing blind belly wounds: entrances of shells with no exists. She lifted a scalpel out of the boiling water, made an incision, and pulled apart flaps of skin, exposing multiple intestinal wounds, big and tiny holes in the coils of the boy’s belly. Then she removed each piece of shrapnel, rinsed the boy’s intestines with antiseptic, and sewed up the holes, one by one. 

Every day of the war the soldiers came in trucks from the front and although she scooped the lice out of the wounds with a teacup and cleaned the flaps of torn tissue as diligently as she could, lice festered in layers of dirty bandages, keeping the wounded awake and screaming through the night. They were younger than she was, those wounded boys – her brother’s age – and she peered into their dusty faces, clinging to a shred of hope that in some miraculous way her brother, stationed on the border with Poland when German

tanks crossed into Russia on June 22, 1941, would be brought into her hospital for her to heal from seven hundred kilometers away. She hoped her brother was not among the thousands of bodies she knew had been plowed into the warm summer earth of western Russia. She hoped for a quick victory in the Great Patriotic War, as World War II is still known in Russia. 

Her brother never came home, and the Victory took five long, excruciating years.

May 9, 2010, was the 65th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany, a holiday that is visceral to every Russian. A Fedex package from the Russian Consulate in New York addressed to my mother arrived at my house in New Jersey, where she has been living with me for 22 years. In it was a letter from the Consul to all living veterans of the Great Patriotic War, a certificate issued in my mother’s name, and a medal.

It was her third medal; she received her first one during the war and her second - for the 50th anniversary of the Victory. My mother put on her best dress, pinned the medal to her chest, and offered to help me make pirozhki for our celebration. We rolled the dough and chopped eggs and scallions side by side in our kitchen. Here in America, it was also Mother’s Day.

Elena, thank you for being here today and sharing this with us. This is a very touching and inspiring post. I can see how your memoir became your mother’s. Elena will be dropping back today to answer any questions you might have and respond to your comments.

Elena grew up in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg.  She received a Doctorate in Language Education and has taught English as a Second Language, Linguistics, and Russian at various New Jersey colleges and universities. For more information on Elena and her inspiring story, check out her website -


  1. What a moving post. I'm definitely going to read A Mountain of Crumbs. My father was in the German army and fought in Russia, and toward the end of his life, he started to talk about some of the horrors of war that he had kept bottled up inside for most of his adult life. WWII caused so much devastation on both sides of the conflict, and I think memoirs like this are an important part of reminding the world that this can never happen again. They also help remind us that real people lived through those dark days and that these events were not just a page in a history book.

  2. Sounds like a wonderful read - I will locate it. Thank you for hosting Elena!

  3. Mason, you are great to bring these writers to us. How else would I know about these talents?

    Elena, This sounds like a crying book for me. How privileged you are to be able to tell these stories. Good for you. It is history we all need to know.


  4. Mason - Thanks for hosting Elena.

    ELena - Thank you for sharing such a wonderful story with us. It's a beautiful reminder that history is never really that far from us. It's the individual, human stories like this one that keep history alive.

  5. Morning all. Thanks so much for stopping by. I think Elena's story is one that will inspire us all.

    Elena, thank you so much for blogging here today and sharing your story with us.

  6. Elena, This story seems like a moving tribute to your mother. I especially like that it is more than a broad history, and includes "the daily deprivations and small joys of her family’s life." It is so often these very real instances that connect to and move readers.

    Mason, thanks for hosting Elena and her intriguing story.

  7. An important and moving post and book. I feel privileged to have read it and eager to read the book. I am going to put it on my wish list immediately. Elena, thank you for sharing your story with us,

    Mason, thank you for hosting her!!!

  8. I read the interesting interview on the website.

  9. And added the book to my wishlist. I gather books on my wishlist and then purchase them.

  10. How interesting. I love reading books that capture an era from a land I've only read about. Sounds like an awesome setting for an awesome story. Best wishes for your success.

    Stephen Tremp

  11. Wow, what an amazing story. Thanks to Elena for sharing it and to you for hosting her!

  12. Hi Mason and the wonderful blog visitors,
    Thank you for your insightful comments! When I was growing up in Soviet Russia, my mother seemed as overbearing as my Motherland. They were both controlling, protective, and difficult to leave; I was escaping both of them. It is only in this country, where my mother (ironically) followed me, that our roles reversed. I work and speak English; she doesn't. The relationship is much healthier, and I'm so glad she lived to be 96 to see this. But then, anyone who has gone through so much hardship and survived, I think, should live forever.

  13. Hi Mason and Elena,
    So sorry I'm late to reading this moving post. Thanks, Mason, for having Elena as a guest blogger. I am always captivated by Elena's writing. A Mountain of Crumbs is amazing and I am so proud of Elena and her accomplishments. Her mother truly was/is a remarkable woman.


I'd love to hear your thoughts on today's post. Thanks for dropping by.