Monday, January 23, 2012

Review: Breaking Stalin's Nose, by Eugene Yelchin

Editor's Note:  Eugene Yelchin's Breaking Stalin's Nose was named a 2012 Newbery Honor Book today by the American Library Association.  This is a great honor.  Congratulations to Eugene Yelchin!

Reviewed by Oksana Lushchevska, The Pennsylvania State University

Depicting Ideology in Children’s Realistic Fiction: Eugene Yelchin's Breaking Stalin’s Nose 

Eugene Yelchin’s debut novel for children Breaking Stalin’s Nose presents a realistic slice of Soviet history. Born in Leningrad in 1956 right after Stalin’s reign, Yelchin involves personal experience in telling a story from the point of view of ten-year-old Sasha Zaichik. Yelchin provides an interesting nexus between the image of the broken nose of a plastic Stalin and an image from the classic short story “The Nose” by Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852), which represents the absurdist theme of something that takes place only in someone’s imagination or in a dream. This brief allusion is mentioned by Yelchin in chapter 24 of his book and, in fact, sets the plot of the story.

Through Sasha’s eyes we see the depiction of Stalinist political ideology and its terror in the Stalin-era Soviet Union (1928-1953), as well as the inculcated people’s belief in the prosperous Soviet future and the creation of a cult of Stalin for children. Sasha admires Comrade Stalin and
regards him as a Leader and a Teacher. More than anything, Sasha desires to become a Young Pioneer and to follow the communist doctrine.

Sasha wants to be a communist like his father, who is “the eagle eyes” of the people’s “beloved State Security” (54). An overarching belief in communism is seen in the father’s preaching to Sasha: “It’s more important to join the Pioneers than to have a father” (27). Another vivid reference to beliefs is expressed through Sasha’s imagined bright communist future: “Believing is the most important part. If you really believe in something, it will come true” (72). It is childish Sasha’s pure naïveté that creates sympathy and appeals strongly to the emotions of the reader.

Curiously, not only does young Sasha see great prosperity in the imagined utopian future, but so does his aunt Larisa, who tells her baby: “When you grow up, you’ll be living under Communism” (40). But these are not the only beliefs of the adults and the children. As Yelchin depicts it, there is also a fear of Stalin that overwhelms people. For example, when State Security officers arrest Sasha’s father, Sasha’s aunt and her husband cannot let Sasha into their apartment because he is a son of the enemy of the people. Sasha has his own fear of not being accepted as a Young Pioneer because he accidently damages a statue of Stalin by breaking its plaster nose. This act is compared to “a vicious act of terrorism” (99) because a person who damages property of the people is considered guilty of a crime, according to the Criminal Code of the Soviet Union (78).

When the principal of Sasha’s school reveals the truth about Sasha’s father’s arrest, the boy loses his sense of the “WE” idea of communism and starts to feel his “otherness.” Sasha learns from a State Security officer that his father is “an iron broom purging the vermin from [the Communists’] midst” (136), and that it was his father who gave the order to arrest Sasha’s mother. For the first time, Sasha does not trust a representative from State Security. Moreover, right before being accepted as a Young Pioneer, he escapes from the school to visit his father in the Lubyanka prison.

In his book, Yelchin presents a number of images that represent Communist ideology and propaganda such as red Pioneer scarves, communal apartments, numerous portraits of Stalin, recitations of the Pioneer Law, black state security automobiles, etc. He also makes strong symbolic references in the last names of his literary protagonists to represent the main features of their characters. Hence, Zaichik derives from Russian word “bunny rabbit,” which often refers to one who is a small and naïve; Stukachov comes from the Russian word “knock” (stuk) that in slang means a “stool pigeon”; Sobakin has its origin in the Russian word “dog”(sobaka) and represents an aggressive character. Another important feature of Yelchin’s story is his knowledge of an implied reader. He chooses a ten-year-old boy as the narrator--a boy who tends to use simple structures and short sentences. He also speaks primarily to his readers, explaining the issues that might be unclear for children, and in this way Yelchin presents the reality of a work in the context of historical fiction.

Yelchin’s illustrations distinctively interrelate with text. Done in a style that satirically resembles Socialist Realism, they not only depict the main episodes of the story, but they also provide additional elements to the plot. In contrast to Socialist Realist art, Yelchin uses black and white colors that set a mood for the story. Through his illustrations, he creates tension and emotional involvement not only by showing the experiences of the main character, but also by representing the overwhelming effect of major symbols of communism.

Breaking Stalin’s Nose will be of interest to educators, teachers, librarians, parents, and children for providing a link between the understanding of ideological power and its crucial consequences. It also provides discourse on cultural diversity and the perception of Otherness. It will also serve as a source of research for scholars and graduate students interested in the history of the Soviet Union, Stalinism, ideological regimes and their culture, as well as post-Soviet representations of the Soviet Union’s in children’s literature.

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