Saturday, October 5, 2013

Breaking Stalin's Nose by Eugene Yelchin

Sasha Zaichik lives with his father in a one room apartment in a komunalka, a communal apartment. They share a kitchen and toilet with forty-eight Soviet citizens. His father works in the State Security on Lubyanka Square. The State Security is the secret police working to expose and eliminate enemies of the Communist state. Considered one the best, Sasha's father has been given the order of the Red Banner by Stalin. Convinced of the superiority of the Communist state, Sasha wants to join the Young Pioneers, his first step towards following his father. He will finally become a Young Pioneer at a rally to be held the next day. His father has been invited to the ceremony as a guest of honor to tie the scarves of the Young Pioneers.

However, things do not go as planned when one of the residents of their komunalka, Stukachov, reports Sasha's father to the Secret Police and he is taken away in the middle of the night. Sasha is put out into the cold October night after Stukachov and his family immediately take over Sasha and his father's room. Determined not to miss school and his Young Pioneer ceremony, Sasha shows up the next day convinced that his father will be set free to attend the ceremony. Despite his father's arrest, Sasha remains firmly devoted to the Communist ideals and to his beloved Stalin. But things go from bad to worse when Sasha breaks the nose off of Stalin's statue in the school. This is a serious offense - the damaging of Communist property that is punishable by death.

Terrified, Sasha hides in the washroom only to learn that a fellow classmate has seen him commit the offense. It turns out this classmate, Vovka  Sobakin, whose father was executed as a traitor. When Sasha and Vovka return to their class, the teacher attempts to learn who committed the offense by ordering the students to write who they think might be implicated. This of course terrifies the students who have no idea who broke the statue. The teacher warns them that if they do not implicate someone, they themselves will be implicated, setting before them an impossible situation. Sasha watches as students are forced to choose between self preservation and doing what it right. Within the span of two days, he goes from being unquestionably devoted to the Communist ideals to realizing that they are non-existent. He no longer wants to be a Young Pioneer.

Yelchin portrays the paranoia of 1950's Soviet Union and the Great Terror that comprised Joseph Stalin's dictatorship through the eyes of a ten year old boy. His pencil drawings help portray some of the main themes this short novel touches on.

Breaking Stalin's Nose provides young readers some idea of what it is like to live under a totalitarian government, where individual freedoms do not matter and devotion to the state is paramount, but that even that might not be enough. Sasha lives in a country in which even children can be killed for the most innocent mistakes, where people are too afraid to speak the truth because it will lead to imprisonment or death, and where paranoia and fear rule every aspect of life. Readers, through Sasha, will be asked to consider the use of propaganda, the role of social responsibility and the functioning of a justice system which uses guilt by association as a means of controlling people.

The author, Eugene Yelchin grew up in the Soviet Union in the 1960's. His father survived the Great Terror and was a devoted Communist Party member. Yelchin left his homeland and now resides in the United States.

Book Details:
Breaking Stalin's Nose by Eugene Yelchin
New York: Henry Holt and Company        2011
151 pp.

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