Yelchin, Eugene. Breaking Stalin’s Nose. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2013. ISBN 9780805092165
Sasha Zaichik is a devoted, upstanding Russian citizen who is eager to become a Young Pioneer and devote himself to his country. He looks up to his father, who he thinks is a strong man and a perfect example of a good Russian man. Then, Sasha’s father is arrested and imprisoned and an incident at school threatens to keep Sasha from joining the Young Pioneers. Sasha must decide what he truly believes and if he even wants to be a Young Pioneer at all anymore.
Yelchin’s main character, Sasha, has hopes and dreams that every child can relate to. He looks up to and adores his father, misses his mother who has passed away, eagerly awaits being old enough to join a youth group, and gets scared when he does something he knows he shouldn’t. The only difference is that Sasha is doing all this in Communist Russia during Stalin’s reign. He dutifully tows the party line of state first and readers get a glimpse into life in a Communist state when they hear how children are encouraged to turn in their own parents, how several families share one living space, and how a class of children votes on whether or not to send a classmate to the principal’s office.
This novel is based on actual events in the author’s life, so it is an accurate depiction of what it was like to be a child in Russia at that time. The attitudes and political climate are presented plainly and frankly, but in a simple enough way that children can understand. They are not, however watered down at all. Even an adult reader still feels the oppressive weight of the communist regime while reading about their practices and rules. The story takes place over the course of two days, but still moves along at a good pace and keeps the reader entertained and engaged throughout.
Sasha’s story takes place in Moscow with three main locations: his and his father’s communal apartment, his school, and the government building in Lubyanka Square where his father works. The locations are described in such detail that the reader can imagine herself as one of Sasha’s classmates and feel the bitter cold as Sasha stands in line outside the government building waiting to see his father.
The universal theme of right versus wrong runs throughout Yelchin’s book, but it is colored through the lens of communism. Sasha ultimately knows the difference between right and wrong, but a young lifetime of being taught communist views and attitudes clouds his judgement and causes him to question his decisions and views. A theme of patriotism is also present in this story. Sasha, his classmates, his teachers, and his neighbors are fiercely loyal to their government, but the reader gets a sense that for some of the characters, that loyalty is born out of fear rather than pride. For those characters that have a true pride and commitment to their country, the reader feels pity. For example, Sasha describes his communal apartment in which 48 people share a kitchen and one commode, as if he is proud of it and could want nothing better. He also tells about how his neighbor gave him a treat, a carrot, and he comments that he wouldn’t be surprised if kids in capitalist countries had never even tasted a carrot. These two examples show the severity of communism and how the people were blinded to certain realities.
Yelchin captures the authoritative demeanor and totalitarian rule of Communist Russia through his writing, dialogue of his characters, and his illustrations. The characters speak in short, didactic, and harsh sentences, alluding to the severity of the time period. His graphite on paper illustrations create sinister shadows and a stern-faced principal. Yelchin also uses shading and lines to show the strength of some characters and the meekness of others. All these elements come together to create a suspenseful, engaging story about a boy who runs into trouble and begins to questions his ideals as a result. The story could very well be moved to another time and place and still be entertaining, but the Communist element is what really helps this work stand out. Not only is it a good story, it teaches the reader about a time and place in history that is not much discussed these days.
There are no sources cited, nor is there any evidence of research for this book, but the author lived in Russia during this time period, so the reader has reasonable assurance that the information is accurate. There is an author’s note at the end that is worth the time. In it, Yelchin explains his motives for writing the book and explains that the main character and his circumstances are based on Yelchin’s own childhood. Yelchin does a good job of balancing the fictional narrative with facts about the time period and setting.
It is hard to choose words to describe my impression of this book because the book deals with such a heavy topic. I felt a slight weight on my chest as I read this book, but when I was done, I was glad that I had read it. It was a good book with a good story that sheds light on a dark time in history.
( NOMINATED FOR AN AWARD in 2012 )
( WON AWARD in 2012 )
( NOMINATED FOR AN AWARD in 2011 )
( NOMINATED FOR AN AWARD in 2012 )
( NOMINATED FOR AN AWARD in 2014 )
“ …this brief novel gets at the heart of a society that asks its citizens, even its children, to report on relatives and friends. Appropriately menacing illustrations by first-time novelist Yelchin add a sinister tone. Although the story takes place over just two days, it is well paced, peeling off the layers of Sasha’s naivet to show him — and young readers — the cynicism of the system he trusted.” — Horn Book Magazine, September 2011
“Yelchin’s illustrations are filled with pathos and breathe life into the narrative. Though there are many two-dimensional characters, mostly among the adults, Sasha and Borka are more fully drawn. While the story was obviously created to shed light on the oppression, secrecy, and atrocities under Stalin’s regime, Sasha’s emotions ring true. This is an absorbing, quick, multilayered read in which predictable and surprising events intertwine.” — School Library Journal, August 2011
“Picture-book illustrator Yelchin was raised in post-Stalinist Russia in the 1960s and left the country when he was 27. In his first novel, he uses the child’s innocent viewpoint to dramatize the heartbreaking secrets and lies, and graphite illustrations show the terrifying arrests of enemies of the people, even children, like Sasha’s classmate.” — Booklist, October 2011
Read another historical fiction book about Communist Russia by Yelchin:
Arcady’s Goal, ISBN 9780805098440
Read an autobiography of a girl from another Communist country, China, and compare and contrast the living conditions.
Red Scarf Girl: A Memoir of the Cultural Revolution by Ji-li Jiang, ISBN 9780064492805
Arrange an author visit (either in person or via the internet) with Yelchin and have him talk with students about his time in Russia and about the writing of the book.
Create a reader’s theater script for the book with students and then have them perform the script
Create a slideshow of photographs: the places in the book then and now, and share with students
Use Google Earth to explore present day Moscow
Image from Amazon.com, accessed April 1, 2015. Cover art copyright 2011 by Eugene Yelchin