Even if Elena Gorokhova weren't such a gorgeous writer, her memoir, "A Mountain of Crumbs," would be a terrific read. Gorokhova grew up in the Soviet Union in the 1960s and '70s, where her life was unremarkable in many ways: Her mother was a doctor, her father a member of the Communist Party, her older sister hoped to be an actress. The family lived in a Leningrad apartment, waited in line for consumer goods (such an ingrained part of Soviet life that Gorokhova barely mentions it) and spent summers at their country dacha, where they gathered mushrooms and made jam from wild strawberries.But even the most ordinary Soviet life would be fascinating to those of us who grew up during the Cold War and viewed the Soviet Union as the Evil Empire. What was it like on the other side of that curtain? Well, for starters, Elena and her friends were wondering the same things about us."What do we know about America, really?" her mother asks. "People beg on the streets and sleep under bridges and everyone walks around with a gun."

Gorokhova's parents came of age during a dramatic time. "Brimming with energy and the enthusiasm of the first socialist generation, she was eager to make things better," she writes of her mother. When her mother graduated from medical school, "it was 1937, the 20th year of Soviet power, the busiest year of the gulag camps ... her future rose on the horizon like the huge crimson sun over the swamp outside her new apartment window."

But Elena, born in the 1950s, is of a different generation. The glorious revolution, the Great Patriotic War, the Siege of Leningrad -- those are all part of history, and she is left to toil in the oppressive grayness of the Brezhnev years. When her teacher enthralls the class with stories of the revolution -- "workers and peasants inside the Winter Palace ... stomping up the October Staircase ... with their hammers and scythes" -- she cannot help but compare that with her own dull time, "when simply to enter the Hermitage you must put on cloth slippers, cinch them around your ankles and glide slowly under the gaze of a million babushkas in the corner of every room."

Elena has a lively, questioning mind, but she understands that in Soviet life, you must keep everything to yourself. Reveal nothing; it is simply too dangerous. "What's inside you no one can touch," she says.

She also knows that dishonesty is a requirement of survival. It is so fundamental there is a word for it: vranyo. "The rules are simple: They lie to us, we know they're lying, they know we know they're lying, but they keep lying anyway, and we keep pretending to believe them."

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. Leningrad "shimmers like a cameo." Her sister's school dormitory smells of "impermanence and other people's clothes." Envy "curdles her heart," and "baked-apple-faced babushkas" sit watch. And when she boards the train to Stankovo, "the whistle blows, and the platform begins to sail away."

Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune's books editor.