Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Review: Breaking Stalin's Nose, by Eugene Yelchin

by Rebecca Suslik, Pomona College

Meet Sasha Zaichik: he is ten years old, his father is a national hero, and he is a devoted Communist in the making. He is also the protagonist of Breaking Stalin’s Nose, a 2012 Newbury Honor Book written by Eugene Yelchin, a Russian Jewish immigrant who left the Soviet Union and has now penned this marvelous, middle grade book that offers a glimpse into the horrors of Stalinism.

Sasha has been raised to be a proper Soviet citizen; he excels in his war-preparedness class, knows that “enemies are everywhere” (19), and admires Stalin, the “great Leader and Teacher” (72) who oversees everything in the USSR. At one point, he even, without realizing it, essentially prays to Stalin, thus emphasizing to readers the eerie cult created by the government. His world is turned upside down when his father, “the eagle eyes of [the USSR’s] beloved State Security” (54) is arrested.

Breaking Stalin’s Nose is heavily peppered with themes and phrases authentic to Stalinism: enemies of the people are regularly denounced and executed or imprisoned; anyone might be an informant; there is regular mention of the dreaded Lubyanka, where they “know how to make people talk” and “everybody confesses” (118); anti-Semitic and anti-foreign sentiments rule; and terror, paranoia, and distrust make up an uneasy way of life.

Sasha has been raised in this atmosphere, fed on the propaganda supplied by the government and his own father. He struggles to reconcile his belief in the heroism of his father with his ingrained sense of duty to the system; he knows that “if someone is arrested and executed, there must be a good reason for it” (103)—but then why was his father arrested? Like many real Soviet citizens who did not understand that Stalin was the one ordering mass arrests, he is convinced that his leader will rectify the error quickly; when this does not happen, he is forced to confront the newfound knowledge that his father is not the man he believed him to be and to begin reevaluating his knowledge and opinion of the system he was raised to love.

Yelchin writes with acerbic wit that is complimented by the simplicity of his style, and his choice of a young narrator makes the sharp contrast between reality and the constant supply of suspicions and conspiracy theories even more stunning. Sasha’s eager, naïve descriptions of life in the USSR offer his more perceptive audience insight that is often both priceless for its wry humor and painful for its truthfulness. Take, for instance, his description of conditions in his overcrowded communal apartment: he explains that he and his neighbors agree with the government’s position that shared living spaces contribute positively to the Communist identity, saying, “In the morning, we often sing patriotic songs together while we line up for the toilet” (8).

Yelchin is an illustrator, and his story would not be complete without its accompanying drawings, which adeptly convey the creepiness, absurdity, and despair of Sasha’s situation. The most poignant illustration is the last one—spanning eight pages, it shows a mass of people waiting in line to visit loved ones in Lubyanka. On the last two pages, the line winds off into the background, a testament to the sheer volume of individuals and families who were victims of Stalin’s reign of terror.

Eugene Yelchin. Breaking Stalin’s Nose. New York: Henry Holt, 2011.

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