Breaking Stalin's Nose by Eugene Yelchin was one of two books that won the Newbery Honor Medal this year. I had never heard of it but the title was immediately intriguing and upon reading, the book proved to be chilling, suspenseful and utterly unforgettable. Because of the title, I thought the story might begin with a young communist's realization that his great leader was not so great and track his rebellion. Instead, Breaking Stalin's Nose starts with ten-year old Sasha Zaichik writing a praise filled, grateful letter to his great leader while waiting for his father, a chekist, a member of the first secret police organization in Soviet Russia, to come home from work. Because of his government job, Sasha and his father share a relatively large room in their komunalska, the communal living space where a kitchen and bathroom are shared by twelve families living under the same roof, while other families of four or more cram themselves into smaller rooms. It is this small luxury, combined with the paranoia spread by the government, that changes Zaichik's life irrevocably.
Zaichik's love, adulation and unquestioning belief in Stalin and Stalin's desire and ability to deliver his fellow countrymen to the promised "worker's paradise" is all encompassing and expressed in the letter he writes to him on the eve of his induction into the Young Pioneers, a sort of communist version if the Boy Scouts that trained up model citizens. As Zaichik gazes out his window at the enormous statue of Stalin while eating a grubby carrot, he thinks, "I wonder what it is like in the capitalist countries? I wouldn't be surprised if children there had never tasted a carrot." Although a short, fast paced book, Breaking Stalin's Nose is packed with so many political ideas and history that I urge all adults to read this book with kids and to encourage a discussion afterward to make sure they understand that Breaking Stalin's Nose is not a work of fantasy, no matter how much worse that Voldemort Stalin may seem to us adults. The paranoia that he spread through his country over the three decades of his rule is so insidious and deeply embedded in the people and the culture that some young readers may not understand the true significance of Stalin's reign as they follow Zaichik's story.
Although the story takes place over the course of one night and a day, so much happens. In the night, Zaichik's father is taken away by the police to Lubyanka, the prison from which few emerge, which also happens to be the headquarters of the secret police. Before this, he tells Sasha never to tell their neighbor Stukachov anything because "He will use it," and to go to his Aunt Larissa's if anything happens to him. As soon as his father is out the door, Stukachov begins moving his family into Sasha's room. Convinced that his father's arrest is a mistake, Sasha believes that Stalin will fix it and return his father to him in time for the Young Pioneers induction ceremony at school that his father was asked to preside over. In the middle of the night Zaichik walks to the Kremlin to inform Stalin of this error but is turned away by guards. Sasha is then turned away by Aunt Larissa's husband who is sure he will draw the police to them as well and he spends the night in the basement of their building. He makes his way to school in the morning, entering into a nightmarish labyrinth of constant fear worthy of Kafka. When his classmate, the once model student Vovka, uses the slur Amerikanitz to goad Zaichik into throwing a snowball at Finkelstein, the glasses-wearing Jewish student who's parents have been sent to Lubyanka, things begin to unravel. Nina Petrovna, their zealous, sadistic teacher, makes continuous veiled threats and insinuations that keep all of her students, Sasha, especially, on edge. Petrovna allows the class to vote on whether or not Finkelstein should be sent to the principal when he refuses to reveal who broke his glasses, praising the "democracy" of the communist system that allows everyone to have a say. Of course they all vote to send him.
In a series of events that begin with Zaichik joyfully imagining himself carrying the Young Pioneers banner past Stalin at the May Day Parade, a fantasy which results in the nose being broken off the bust of Stalin in the school hallway, accusations are made, suspect lists are compiled, the secret police are called in, a false confession is given and Zaichik finds himself breaking up a fight between Vovka and their teacher. As he returns to his classroom, Zaichik overhears a substitute teacher Luzhko, one he had always suspected of being less than loyal, discussing Nicolai Gogol's story "The Nose" with his pupils. Luzhko points out how Gogol's story demonstrates that "when we blindly believe in someone else's idea of what is right or wrong for us as individuals, sooner or later our refusal to make our own choices could lead to the collapse of an entire political system. And entire country. The world, even." Zaichik dismisses this nonsense and ducks into a biology classroom to hide. Shivering and afraid, Zaichik discovers Stalin's nose sitting in the room, smoking a pipe and exhorting him to renounce his father and join the Young Pioneers. Zaichik passes out. Shortly thereafter, a meeting in a supply closet with a secret police officer plays out the same way and Zaichik helplessly shakes his hand, effectively agreeing to renounce his father and head up the Young Pioneers ceremony. As he is about to enter the auditorium, Zaichik makes a stunning decision.
Yelchin's website provides fascinating backstory for his characters, including Zaichik's mother who was an American who embraces communism and moves to Russia, as well as the history surrounding the places, people and events in his amazing book. Breaking Stalin's Nose is remarkable for Yelchin's ability to tell the story of the hardships, horrors and dogma of Stalin's rule and make it understandable, interesting and appropriate for young readers. Besides his website, Yelchin provides a very concise and informative, if not horrifying, Author's Note that you might want to have young readers start the book with to give them a context for just how tenuous Zaichik and all Russians' lives were. As he says in his author's note, "Stalin ensured absolute power by waging war against the Russian people. Stalin's State Security executed, imprisioned, or exiled over twenty million people. Not a single person, be it a government official, war hero, worker, teacher, or homemaker, could be certain he or she would not be arrested. To arrest so many innocent people, crimes had to be invented. Stalin's propaganda machine deceived ordinary people into believing that countless spies and terrorists threatened their security. Tormented by fear, Soviet citizens clung to Stalin for guidance and protection, and soon his popularity reached cult status." It is especially interesting to read and discuss Breaking Stalin's Nose in a time when the Arab Spring is still playing out in some very brutal ways. Stalin's rule ended with his death in 1953, but Yelchin, who was born in 1956, can attest to the long lasting effects of this era of Russian history and the Soviet propaganda that continues on.At the end of Yelchin's author's note he says, "I set this story in the past, but the main issue in it transcends time and place. To this day, there are places in the world where innocent people face persecution and death for making a choice about what they believe to be right."