Welcome back to another post in the Monday Inspirations series, where guest bloggers write about the books and authors that have inspired them. Today’s post is by Dr Gulara Vincent.
What can a memoir set in Soviet Russia have in common with a memoir set in Iran? Let’s find out.
Elena Gorokhova’s ‘A Mountain of Crumbs’ stole my heart straightaway. Her writing is exquisite: I can see, smell, even taste the places she is writing about. Set in Leningrad in the thick of the Soviet regime, the characters in her story and the oppression she experienced as a young girl feel painfully familiar. Her mother reminds me of my grandma, and her rebellious sister of my mum. The poverty mentality, the constant fear of saying or doing the wrong thing, even her sweet tooth and the candy she used to eat as a child – I could relate to them all. I have memories of becoming a young pioneer, and the brainwashing we underwent at school. The public humiliation for loving someone at school if it came out into the open was on the cards too.
There were also points which diverged from my personal experiences. Like Elena, I loved English. Albeit grudgingly, Elena’s family supported her to pursue her dream and learn the language well. In contrast, although my family made an effort to get me into the best school in town, which happened to have a special class with pupils learning English every day from eight years old, they didn’t let me join that class. In 1983 English wasn’t deemed important. Why bother? It was only when I was graduating from school and Azerbaijan transitioned to independence in 1992 that they said, well, perhaps it might have been a good idea….
The differences in the class system were also striking. Although Elena’s mother didn’t originate from the intelligentsia, her teaching position in higher education and her marriage paved her way into a higher class. In some ways, Elena’s childhood was privileged – I’d be delighted to have at least half of what was accessible to her as a child. I came from a working class family, and even though my grandparents worked hard to educate their children, it wasn’t as easy to jump into the ranks of the intelligentsia. Most of my female classmates’ parents were lecturers at the local Institute, and I could tell how markedly different our lives were. The opportunities and wealth that was available to them was always out of my reach.
What was striking to me about Elena’s memoir was the way she questioned the Soviet regime. Perhaps she was born with that critical mindset. It never even crossed my mind to disagree or to disapprove of what I had experienced. I just didn’t know any different. Or maybe they brainwashed me well. I remember crying my eyes out when my younger uncle changed the words of a song I had learnt at the kindergarten. The song declared our undying love for Lenin and desire to see him. So when he tried to teach me these lyrics I was devastated:
I am a little girl
I don’t go to school yet
I haven’t seen Lenin
And I don’t want to see him at all.
How could he even say those words? Of course, everyone wanted to go and see Lenin’s shriveled up mummified body in the Kremlin!
Anyway, I digress. Perhaps, because of Elena’s ability to question the regime she managed to escape from the USSR in her early 20s.
Azadeh Tabazadeh’s memoir ‘The Sky Detective’ is set in Iran and shows the country before and shortly after the 1978 revolution. From the first page of the book, I could relate to this young girl with her unquenchable thirst to learn, and who hoped against all hope that one day she could become someone, despite being female. Her family was well off. They had servants, and overall, she was brought up in a loving and abundant environment.
Her relationship with religion and her attitude to the changing regime are two key points I could recognise as my own. Azadeh has a religious and superstitious grandma who believed in Allah’s wrath. Then she has an uncle educated in Germany who denied Allah’s existence. You could tell that in her young mind she was trying to decide who to believe. I had the same dilemma as a child, except it wasn’t a heretic uncle who made me question Allah, it was the Soviet education which denied the existence of god.
The collapse of the Shah’s regime in Azadeh’s memoir was painful and unsettling. Fundamentalist religion flared up in its place. Confusion as to where to take the country set in. Although the circumstances were different, I resonated strongly with this account. The collapse of the Soviet Union was painful and unprecedented. The military used force to maintain the regime and innocent people died. Going on rallies and demonstrations became the norm, even though there was a constant fear of the consequences. After the collapse, there was an attempt to fill the void left by the Soviet ideology with religion, but luckily it didn’t stick. Much.
So what do these two books have in common?
- A powerful personal narrative set against the backdrop of an oppressive political regime.
- (Spoiler alert!) Both Elena and Azadeh escaped to the USA.
- Much of the narratives of these two books have marked parallels to my life as a young girl in Azerbaijan, my country of origin. You see, not only is Azerbaijan geographically located between Russia and Iran, but it also morphs these two different worlds into one. In my memoir, provisionally titled Where Black Rivers Meet (which is not published yet), I articulate some of the themes I’ve mentioned above creating a window into daily life in Azerbaijan, its folklore and culture, and on the values and roles ascribed to religion and political changes, in this relatively unknown part of the world.
Dr Gulara Vincent is a writer, blogger, and a university law lecturer. She lives in Birmingham, England, with her husband and two young children. You can visit her writer’s blog or connect with her on Facebook and Twitter @gulara_vincent.