Friday, July 26, 2013

Historical Fiction Review: BREAKING STALIN'S NOSE by Eugene Yelchin


Yelchin, Eugene. 2011. BREAKING STALIN’S NOSE. New York, NY: Henry Holt. ISBN: 978-0805092165

All ten-year old Sasha Zaichik wants to be is a “Young Pioneer” and serve Comrade Stalin, the Communist Party, and Communism just like his dad.  Growing up in the Soviet Union is all Sasha has ever known, and after the abrupt death of his mother, he is even more devoted to his father who works for the State Security.  But, when Sasha’s father is suddenly arrested and an accident happens at school, he questions everything he thought about the Communist regime and if being a Young Pioneer is worth the sacrifice.

Yelchin highlights the cruel and dark times of the Soviet Union during Joseph Stalin’s reign sometime between 1923 and 1953, through the eyes of ten-year old Sasha Zaichik. Told over the course of a two-day period, it shows how life for children during these times can change so quickly.  One minute they are living with their families in a communal home and the next they are orphans.  The story shows how Russia’s people lived under a harsh government regime that used fear, suspicion, and power to control its citizens. If you are even suspected of spying for the enemy you are immediately found guilty and sent to Lubyanka prison.  If you are innocent it wouldn’t matter because “Everybody confesses at Lubyanka. We know how to make people talk.” Sasha’s father is taken on the first day, but Sasha has confidence in Comrade Stalin and is certain his father will be found innocent and released in time to come to the “Pioneers rally” the next day at school.

Sasha lives in a communal apartment with one bathroom that he shares with 48 other people, which is common in a communist country where nobody has more than anyone else and where everyone is poor except high government officials.  After his father’s arrest he is literally kicked out by the family of the man that turned in his dad. You immediately dislike Stukachov and his greedy family who doesn’t care that Sasha is all alone and will be picked up the next morning to be taken to an orphanage.  They are just happy for the larger living space.  Not even his aunt and her family can take Sasha in because they would be sent to prison for harboring the son of an enemy. 

The next day at school, Yelchin shows the ugly side of the school system that will turn their backs on their own students and teachers to save themselves.  When Sasha accidentally breaks the nose off a statue of Stalin he literally fears for his life because he knows a harsh punishment will await him if he is found out, and his hope of becoming a Young Pioneer will be ruined.  Children whose parents have been executed or sent to prison are treated harshly by everyone at Sasha’s school, especially the teacher Nina Petrovna.  She humiliates and accuses her own students and lets her bias show without hesitation, as shown when she said, “You should know, children, that Sobakin’s father was executed as an enemy of the people.”

This book is great to share with older students 9 and up to compare and contrast Communism and Capitalism, as well as to discuss the privileges of living in a free society.  The large print and sketched illustrations throughout the story will captivate and sustain readers.  The plot will intrigue and absorb the reader until the very end.  Yelchin provides an author’s note that provides information on his background and more facts about Russia during the Stalin Regime.



HORN BOOK starred review: “…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.”

SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL: "Yelchin skillfully combines narrative with dramatic black-and-white illustrations to tell the story of life in the Soviet Union under Stalin.”

* This book is great to share with younger readers regarding children growing up in a communist country.  It’s a wonderful book to compare and contrast Communism and Capitalism.  The tragic loss of family that many children had to endure during the Stalin Regime is something to consider for more sensitive readers.

*Other historical fiction books about children suffering from Communism:
Compestine, Ying Chang. REVOLUTION IS NOT A DINNER PARTY. ISBN: 978-0312581497
Durbin, William. THE DARKEST EVENING. ISBN: 978-0439373074
Marsden, Carolyn. MY OWN REVOLUTION. ISBN: 978-0763653958
Yue, Guo and Clare Farrow. LITTLE LEAP FORWARD: A BOY IN BEIJING. Ill. Helen Cann. ISBN: 978-1846861147

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