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A Mountain of Crumbs: A Memoir Paperback – Feb 8 2011


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (Feb. 8 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1439125686
  • ISBN-13: 978-1439125687
  • Product Dimensions: 14 x 2.3 x 21.4 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 295 g
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #224,881 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

Review

"Elena Gorokhova has written the Russian equivalent of Angela's Ashes, an intimate story of growing up into young womanhood told with equal grace and humor." -- Billy Collins, former U.S. Poet Laureate

"What is it about A Mountain of Crumbs that makes it so damn readable? Is it the setting -- the Soviet Union in the second half of the last century on the verge of disintegration? Is it the author's way with the English language? This is a rich experience -- a personal journey paralleled by huge national changes and ending in a deeply satisfying portrait of peace in America. Those who have traveled from another place to America will find themselves in this rich memoir." -- Frank McCourt, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Angela's Ashes

"An honest, captivating story of a girl from a middle-class Soviet family, growing into a young woman, searching for her identity and unable to find it...In the spirit of Dostoyevsky, it is also an endlessly Russian quest for self-redemption...I advise you to read the book. It will give you pleasure." -- Sergei Khruschchev, son of former Soviet Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev

"The story of a young person of sparkling intelligence, full of curiosity about the world, struggling to grow and blossom under a duplicitous, censorious, and unremittingly mean-minded social system. Elena Gorokhova conveys all the ugliness of daily life in Soviet Russia, as well as its humiliations, but is awake to its strangled, submerged poetry too. An enthralling read." -- J. M. Coetzee, winner of the 2003 Nobel Prize in Literature and author of Summertime

“[An] exquisitely wrought, tender memoir of growing up in the Soviet Union. . . . A Mountain of Crumbs could be taught as a master class in memoir writing. . . Gorokhova writes about her life with a novelist’s gift for threading motives around the heart of a story . . . Each chapter distills a new revelation in poetic prose . . . This moving memoir made me cry . . . Powerful.”
—Elena Lappin, The New York Times Book Review

“A Mountain of Crumbs vividly, devastatingly conveys what it was like growing up in the shabby disillusion of the Brezhnev-era Soviet Union—and also swooningly indulges the nostalgia for place and landscape that’s seemingly steeped into every Russian soul. . . . Marvelous reminiscence.”
—Ben Dickinson, Elle

"Elena Gorokhova has written an endearing, sensitive story of her early years in the USSR. Her memoir is proof that the human spirit can triumph even in the most repressive of times." -- Edward Hower, author of The New Life Hotel and The Storms of May

"A Mountain of Crumbs is an extraordinary memoir. Elena Gorokhova's writing -- gorgeous and evocative -- is enriched by her connection to two languages, Russian and English. Brilliant and moving." -- Ursula Hegi, author of Stones from the River

"This is a diamond of a memoir. Elena Gorokhova captures the essence of a vanished world with a poet's eye, taking the reader on an unforgettable journey, where every detail transcends the commonplace and every page bears witness to the deepest longings of the human heart. This memoir offers a rare glimpse of life in the former Soviet Union, and also of the universal search for love and autonomy that binds us all together, regardless of time and place." -- Carlos Eire, author of Waiting for Snow in Havana

"Almost painful in its authenticity, this hypnotically readable memoir has the sweep and power of a great Russian novel." -- Bruce Jay Friedman, Academy Award-nominated screenwriter and author of A Father's Kisses and Stern

" An instant classic...[A] deeply affecting memoir . . . recalled with spare, lyrical beauty and wry humor.”
—Carmela Ciuraru, More

“A smart, spirited tale about growing up in the colorless Soviet Union of the 1960s.”
People

“Elena Gorokhova doesn't use broad strokes to paint a picture of daily life in Brezhnev-era Soviet Union. Vivid memories . . . brightly dot the harsh, gray background of everyday life in Gorokhova's native Leningrad. . . . Her spare lyricism delicately captures a vanished world.”
— Korina Lopez, USA Today

“[L]eavened with wistful humor . . . This memoir offers valuable insight into those bleak years bracketed by Khrushchev and Afghanistan . . . [R]endered with sharp detail . . . Gorokhova is attuned to the inherent absurdities of a society that, while aspiring to a supposedly common ideal  . . . cannot care for its citizens on the most rudimentary level.”
—Alexander Nazaryan, Christian Science Monitor

“Gorokhova’s engaging, beautifully written memoir depicts her childhood in 1960s Leningrad and her restless dissatisfaction with life behind the Iron Curtain.”
—Donna Marchetti, The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)

“[A Mountain of Crumbs is] as sweet and earthy as sugar and brown bread. It's a mesmerizing story of an intelligent, adventurous, curious girl and a country with a rich past and lumbering social constraints, both finding the way to a new future.”
—Peggy McMullen, The Oregonian

“Endearing, a collection of well-sculptured memories . . . Lovely . . . Evocative . . . A minor-key coming-of-age story.”
—Dwight Garner, The New York Times

“Gorokhova has the reader in the palms of her hands. . . . Stellar . . . This compelling and unusual tale . . . is inherently captivating.”
—Christine Thomas, The Miami Herald


“[A] witty, illuminating book . . . with telling detail, and a winning balance of affection, insight and satiric bite.”
—Misha Berson, The Seattle Times

“Elena Gorokhova reveals with beautiful writing the panic of growing up inside the secrecy of Brezhnev’s Soviet Union. . . . Even if Elena Gorokhova weren’t such a gorgeous writer, her memoir, “A Mountain of Crumbs,” would be a terrific read. . . . She writes with irony and subtlety about the “bright future” of the Soviet Union, even as she plans her exodus. What makes this book so remarkable, though, is Gorokhova’s evocative and sensuous writing.”
—Laurie Hertzel, The Star-Tribune (Minneapolis-St. Paul)

“A moving memoir about one woman’s journey from the Soviet Union . . . Captivating.” (The Daily Beast)

“Artful memoir about the angst and joys of growing up behind the Iron Curtain. . . . Articulate, touching and hopeful.”
Kirkus Reviews

“Extraordinarily rich in sensory and emotional detail . . . An engrossing portrait of a very lively, intelligent girl coming of emotional and intellectual age in the post-Stalinist Soviet Union.”
Bookpage

“Wry . . . both comic and anguished . . . but never cold or simple.”
Booklist

“Three pages into this beautifully crafted memoir and you know that Gorokhova has always been a writer. . . . the kind that envelops and transports you and every so often leaves you breathless. . . . Recounted in shimmering detail.”

—Bill Ervolino, The Bergen Record (New Jersey)

Gorokhova has the reader in the palms of her hands. . . . Stellar . . . This compelling and unusual tale . . . is inherently captivating.”
—Christine Thomas, The Miami Herald

“Exquisitely lyrical . . . Every page of Elena Gorokhova s coming-of-age-in-the-Soviet-bloc memoir unveils the magic of her origins. . . . Stunning.”
—Anne Grant, Providence Journal-Bulletin (RI)

“A dream ride . . . A delight . . . with pitch-perfect lyricism, tremendous power of recall, and disarming wit.”
—Kapka Kassabova, The Guardian (UK)

A Mountain of Crumbs is . . . a stunning memoir: subtle, yet brimming with depth and detail.”
—Viv Groskop, The Daily Telegraph (UK)

“Brims with an elegiac emotion and sensuality which even Turgenev, in his own European exile, might have envied.”
—Charlotte Hobson, The Spectator (UK)

“Remarkable . . . beautiful and evocative and worth your attention.”
—Nathan Thornburgh, DadWagon.com

“Her richly detailed story explores the reality of her politically subversive passions for language and freedom in a fearful, failing society that distrusted its citizens and repressed individuality.”
Saga (UK)

“Gorokhova is a lush and beautiful writer. Her tidy, witty descriptions of characters keep the book moving along at a good clip . . . the rich political milieu of the former Soviet Union sets this book apart. You really do get the feeling of what it smelled, tasted and felt like to grow up in that particular place and time.
— Ellen Silva, senior editor, NPR’s All Things Considered

“An exquisitely moving memoir detailing Gorokhova’s experiences of growing up behind the Iron Curtain. Her story of oppression and hope is described in distinctive poetical prose.”
Marie Claire (UK)

“Despite the specificity of the memoir, the themes and characters have universality - a domineering mother, a rebellious child, finding passion and beauty in surprising places. A celebration of the triumph of the human spirit over adversity and oppression.”
Easy Living (UK)

“Combining Gorokhova’s fantastic eye for an image with her acute sense for the absurd, A Mountain of Crumbs elegantly dramatizes the bewildering chasm between the projected, glittering idealism of the Soviet Union and its drab, quotidian reality.”
—Claire Allfree, Metro (UK)

“In this gently delightful memoir, Elena Gorokhova recounts her coming of age in Russia during 1960s and 1970s . . . There’s a wonderful cozy intimacy to her writing; her use of the present tense keeps it fresh and unburdened . . . I loved reading A Mountain of Crumbs. Gorokhova is a fine writer with a delicate, sensitive touch, whose voice in nonetheless fearless and clarion. I hope there’s a sequel. After coming of age comes surely that other great memoir, coming to America.”

—Wendell Steavenson, The Sunday Times (UK)

“It takes talent to write a good memoir and Gorokhova has more than most. Fascinating anecdotes show us her mother’s youth, and her own recollections spring to life with an artist’s eye for those details that can conjure a mood or a moment. The privations, oppressions and joys are all described with shining curiosity in this captivating book.”
Waterstone’s Books Quarterly

About the Author

Elena Gorokhova grew up in St. Petersburg, Russia, although for most of her life it was known to her as Leningrad. At the age of twenty-four she married an American and came to the United States with only a twenty kilogram suitcase to start a new life. The author of A Mountain of Crumbs and Russian Tattoo, she has a Doctorate in Language Education and currently lives in New Jersey. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Daily Telegraph, on BBC Radio, and in a number of literary magazines.

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Customer Reviews

3.7 out of 5 stars
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Most helpful customer reviews

8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Joseph Haschka on Jan. 26 2010
Format: Hardcover
"I think of my mother, the one in the portrait her brother painted before he died (in the Great Patriotic War) ... But what is it that wiped the smile off her face and dimmed the luster in her eyes? Was it the war, the wayward husbands, the two dead brothers? Or did it happen later, when my father got sick and needed a hospital and they refused to admit him? My mother knocked on the door of every party boss in Leningrad, until finally one issued an order to let him in for one week. A special ukaz ..." - Elena Gorokhova

"I think of the dream I had about (my father) when I was eight, in which he sat in his rowboat and spoke about theater, about the audience holding their breath and growing silent the moment before the curtain is about to go up. The anticipation of magic, he called it, the expectation of illusion. The moment when the noise stops. The moment when you're no longer ordinary." - Elena Gorokhova

Elena Gorokhova was born in 1955 in Leningrad (before and after the Soviet era, St. Petersburg) of a physician mother and her third husband, a Communist Party apparatchik. At twenty-four, Elena immigrated to the United States. In 2008, she wrote A MOUNTAIN OF CRUMBS, an account of her life from age five to her emigration from the Motherland.

Skipping through the years of her life in Leningrad a year or two at a time, Gorokhova's chronicle includes such experiences more or less unique to a Soviet (as opposed to an American) citizen: her induction into the Young Pioneers, hunting for mushrooms in the forest, lengthy store queues for basic foodstuffs, serving as a Leningrad tour guide, restrictions against unsanctioned contact with foreigners, vacationing with peers on the Crimean seashore, and teaching Russian to American exchange students at Leningrad University.
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Format: Paperback
This book was one of my favorite books of last year. I read it, enjoyed it, and read it again. It meanders through the life of Elena, a young woman who grows up in the Soviet Union. Not only did it make daily life in the USSR real for the reader, it was captivating and fun. As a history teacher, I loved it. As a reader, I loved it.
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Format: Paperback
As a fan of Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes, I've been searching for a book that captures the same spark. On the cover of A Mountain of Crumbs it lists one quote advertising itself as, "The Russian equivalent of Angela's Ashes." This statement is a disservice to Frank McCourt. The author attended one of Frank McCourt's writing sessions and it would appear she considers herself as the next protégée. What's missing in A Mountain of Crumbs that was present in Angela's Ashes is wit and humour!

If you are looking for a monochromatic book that provides a look-in at what it was like to grow-up in a communist country you may like it.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 99 reviews
49 of 56 people found the following review helpful
Waiting twenty-four years for the curtain to rise Dec 12 2009
By Joseph Haschka - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product
"I think of my mother, the one in the portrait her brother painted before he died (in the Great Patriotic War) ... But what is it that wiped the smile off her face and dimmed the luster in her eyes? Was it the war, the wayward husbands, the two dead brothers? Or did it happen later, when my father got sick and needed a hospital and they refused to admit him? My mother knocked on the door of every party boss in Leningrad, until finally one issued an order to let him in for one week. A special ukaz ..." - Elena Gorokhova

"I think of the dream I had about (my father) when I was eight, in which he sat in his rowboat and spoke about theater, about the audience holding their breath and growing silent the moment before the curtain is about to go up. The anticipation of magic, he called it, the expectation of illusion. The moment when the noise stops. The moment when you're no longer ordinary." - Elena Gorokhova

Elena Gorokhova was born in 1955 in Leningrad (before and after the Soviet era, St. Petersburg) of a physician mother and her third husband, a Communist Party apparatchik. At twenty-four, Elena immigrated to the United States. In 2008, she wrote A MOUNTAIN OF CRUMBS, an account of her life from age five to her emigration from the Motherland.

Skipping through the years of her life in Leningrad a year or two at a time, Gorokhova's chronicle includes such experiences more or less unique to a Soviet (as opposed to an American) citizen: her induction into the Young Pioneers, hunting for mushrooms in the forest, lengthy store queues for basic foodstuffs, serving as a Leningrad tour guide, restrictions against unsanctioned contact with foreigners, vacationing with peers on the Crimean seashore, and teaching Russian to American exchange students at Leningrad University. But her narrative also includes activities that transcend borders, politics and cultures - activities familiar to those, such as myself, who grew up in the United States of the 50s, 60s and 70s: classroom drop and cover drills in anticipation of a Cold War nuclear blast, the dreaded childhood appointment with the dentist, a visit to the grandparents' rural homestead, the confused and frustrated curiosity about sex, the adolescent schoolyard crush, the first job, parental opposition to one's chosen career, the tyranny of low-level bureaucrats, and the petty spitefulness of co-workers.

For the Western reader, Elena's winning story provides a window on urban life in the European half of America's and Britain's most formidable Cold War adversary. Gorokhova's memoir should remind us of the basic commonality of the human experience regardless of ideological and political differences.

A MOUNTAIN OF CRUMBS has, however, two flaws that cause me to knock off a star. Elena became infatuated with the English language, and mastering it became her academic major. With such came a desire to at least visit, if not immigrate to, the West. Yet, nowhere in the book is the genesis of this relationship with English explained. One can only infer from the effect pending marriage to an American student had on her mental attitude and self-perceived place in Soviet society:

"I'm glad I'm marrying (Robert) because I like his foreignness. I like that he represents the forbidden and the unknown, that his nationality makes people gasp. I like that Robert has lifted me above the collective and now I can be the opposite of what we all are here, cynical and meek ... I like that I am no longer, as I was in (the) third grade, a yearning Pioneer vying for attention ... I think of my imminent marriage as a play with a punch-line ending that is going to stun the English Department of Leningrad University into near unconsciousness ... students will whisper in the hallways, voices tinged with respect and envy."

Disillusionment with life in the U.S.S.R, the rulers of which promised so much and delivered so little to nourish the inner spirit? Most certainly that.

Finally, Elena's subsequent life in the U.S. since 1979 rates only a three-page Epilogue. After so many years waiting for the curtain to rise, did she find magic and illusion in her new home? What was it like to wander an American supermarket and chain-bookstore with all their abundance for the first time? How did the reality of Western economic strata compare with strident Soviet claims? How did she react to the open and rambunctious U.S. political process? What was her first impression of American road traffic? She doesn't say. Perhaps the author is saving that part of the story for a sequel. I think she owes the reader an answer to those questions after such an engaging build-up.
28 of 33 people found the following review helpful
Nyet huda bez dobra Dec 16 2009
By S. Fishburn - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product
Nyet huda bez dobra - There is no evil without good. Ms. Ghorokhova's memoir can be summed up in that single pithy line. But oh, what that summary would leave out! I loved reading A Mountain of Crumbs; though written by a non-native English speaker, she is so facile with the language, has such a perfect ear for the funny, or poetic, or heartbreaking turn of phrase - she had no trouble getting those words down. Her family, friends, and colleagues practically leap from the pages in startling clarity. Told with a true storyteller's sense of timing, the book was as engrossing and suspense-filled as any novel worth its salt, and all the more intriguing because it's a memoir of a time and place that is 360 degrees from the lives many (American) readers of the current generation live. Ms. Ghorokhova writes with somber precision and large compassion, capturing small details with which she paints the Big Picture. I would totally recommend this for high-schoolers as well as adult readers.
17 of 20 people found the following review helpful
Profound journey Jan. 6 2010
By Alyssa A. Lappen - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product
Of all personal accounts I've read recently, this is by far one of the best. In July 1979, the year the author emigrated, I visited the Soviet Union. That year, eight of my distant Leningrad cousins also emigrated, each allocated 200 kilos of possessions, 92 rubles and wedding rings, their only valuables. I can relate.

Gorokhova's poetic descriptions of Russian oppression reverberates mightily for me. I witnessed and sensed it first hand. In three weeks of visits to Moscow, Kiev, Kharkov, Odessa and Leningrad, we met some family so frightened they refused to speak English on city streets and received us silently until they'd shuttered apartment windows and barricaded their doors. The atmosphere in Odessa and Kharkov were particularly harsh. Apartments were one, two or three rooms, at most, for even the largest multi-generational families.

We knew the feasts served to us either cost several months' wages (on the black market) or endless hours in lines --- unknowingly waiting for "something worth buying" at the end. Black market dealers approached us in quiet spots near Red Square, the Odessa steps, Kiev's monument of heroes and Leningrad's Nevsky Prospect. Lines, often two abreast, wound around corners or into the next block in every city. We waited ourselves a few times to experience what ordinary Russians suffered to buy most everything. The result was usually a hand of bananas, bag of oranges or toilet paper --- provided the items weren't sold out upon reaching the line's end. Department store shelves were virtually naked but for odd-sized or grotesquely colored underwear no one wanted or bought.

Readers who have not experienced all this may be all the more overwhelmed by the tight, neat impact of Gorokhova's games of vranyo --- pretending, which everyone involved pretends seriously to believe, while everyone knows that it's all pretend.

This was a major factor in Soviet life, populated even for veteran Communist party officials by inadequate health care (often resulting in needless death), inadequate homes, inadequate food, inadequate clothing, inadequate income --- and the complete absence of privacy, a foreign concept that Russians literally could not comprehend, much less determine how to appropriately translate into Russian.

Every experience --- from Gorokhova's kindergarten and grade school through her high school and university matriculation --- involved vranyo. But even her dealings with family members were largely draped by her innate recognition that nothing was right with the Soviet world view or life. Her questions as to why, or potential differences elsewhere, collected in a complete vacuum, closed off to external sources of information and any open discussion.

Alas, far too many Americans seem now enamored with socialist thinking. Indeed, one recent interlocutor described another as "an enemy of the people" just for disagreeing about the best potential resolution for a societal ill all present recognized as major. To my horror, the verbal assailant spoke without irony --- apparently unaware that such a charge during the Soviet era most often resulted in death by a firing squad, with no semblance of a fair trial.

By itself, Gorokhova's poetic language is enough to strongly recommend her book.

More importantly, however, the volume is an extraordinary reminder of the horrible costs to individuals and families in societies that lack U.S. Constitutional rights to freedom of expression and religion, property, private businesses and free and open commerce. Indeed, all high school global history teachers should immediately add this title to their reading lists --- to inform both students and their sometimes unconscionably ill-advised parents.

--- Alyssa A. Lappen
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
Well-Written, Enjoyable Soviet Coming-Of-Age Tale March 17 2010
By Tom Tracy - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product
I loved this book! I have a very good friend who was born in the former Soviet Union & emigrated to the U.S. as a child, so I was drawn to the subject matter, wanting a better understanding of his early upbringing. This memoir did not disappoint - far from it. Beautifully written and a compelling read, I devoured it within one 24-hour period, only putting it down to get some sleep overnight.

The author does a very admirable job sharing her innermost thoughts, dreams & fears while revealing a world that was so very different from the one I experienced while growing up in the U.S. The shortages, the struggles, the cynical "mind games" played with authority figures are all portrayed skillfully and poignantly. She has a genuine gift for storytelling and is an artful wordsmith - all the more impressive given that English is not her first language. This memoir read as well as the best of novels. Highly recommended - I hope Ms. Gorokhova writes another book, and soon!
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
"We all pretend to do something and those who watch us pretend that they are seriously watching us..." Dec 16 2009
By K. M. - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product
Elena Gorokhova's memoir, A Mountain of Crumbs: A Memoir, recalls her youth in the Soviet Union. Born in the 1950's, she ultimately left the country at age twenty-four to marry an American physicist and writer about a decade before the collapse of communism and the subsequent reversion of her native Leningrad to its original name of St. Petersburg.

Gorokhova's title is taken from the story of one of her uncles who, as a three-year-old boy in the 1920's, was too young to bear the food shortages without bawling at mealtimes unless his ration of black bread and sugar was crumbled into a little mountain for him; this small act gave him the illusion of having more food, and kept him busy longer putting one crumb into his mouth at a time. In a book filled with such reminisces, Gorokhova's mother also remembered her own Uncle Volya being hauled away by the NKVD for telling a well-known joke about a comrade who already had one book, so there was no need to gift him with a second. The unfortunate Volya was never heard from again, and the family later learned he had been shot.

Although Gorokhova's mother was a practical woman who had studied medicine, operated on wounded soldiers during World War II, and even successfully petitioned Stalin for assistance in setting up a delivery room for expectant mothers, Elena and her older sister favored the arts. Marina desired the stage and her talent earned her a place in the Moscow theater school, and Elena had a spark for languages and writing. Learning English at a special school and being allowed to guide English-speaking tourists around Leningrad as well as later teaching Russian to English speakers, brought her into contact with foreigners with greater frequency than most of her countrymen were allowed. Although Elena loved her country and a few of its young men who romanced her, she longed for the greater freedom outside the Communist Bloc. She did not want to live in a country where a certain game is played by everyone. As Elena explained, "The game is called VRANYO. My parents play it at work, and my older sister Marina plays it at school. We all pretend to do something and those who watch us pretend that they are seriously watching us and don't know we are only pretending." Conformity, at least in action if not in intention, was the watchword for Soviet citizens during the rather colorless years during which Elena Gorokhova gained adulthood. Even the annual trip to the dentist was an impersonal mass production with lines of chairs and whiny, rusty drills. She was determined to live somewhere she could more fully express herself, and that meant leaving the stagnant fatherland.

A MOUNTAIN OF CRUMBS tells the sometimes dreamy, sometimes stark, story of Gorokhova and her family with a decidedly Russian voice (accented too by the author's now nearly three-decade Americanization). The facts of life under communism permeate the pages. But mainly this memoir explores the flowering spirit of young Elena Gorokhova herself. She knew how to play the VRANYO game as well as those around her, but she didn't want to pretend. She wanted a freedom that the Soviet Union would not bestow.


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