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Book Reviews, Historical Fiction, LOVELACE NOMINEE 2016-17, Middle Grade Readers, Read-Aloud Suggestions, Teacher & Parent Recommendations

BREAKING STALIN’S NOSE by Eugene Yelchin

by Eugene YelchinBreaking Stalin’s Nose is an interesting read.  Originally I thought the title was a metaphor.  Upon reading the book I discovered that although the title does serve as a metaphor as well, it is actually a description of the pivotal incident of the story.

Ten-year-old Sasha Zaichik is a patriotic citizen of the Soviet Republic under Josef Stalin, who ruled from 1923-1953.  Stalin’s propaganda–especially with young boys–was overwhelming in its portrayal of Stalin as  a benevolent, protective father figure.  Sasha  devoutly believes that Josef Stalin is the greatest leader his country could have: an intelligent, gifted man who truly cares about the welfare of the people.  (In fact Stalin was a dictator whose Security Forces secretly killed hundreds of innocent people with little or no provocation.)

Sasha’s father works for the government, ferreting out spies and turning them over to the police.  Sasha believes his father to be a hero and, indeed he has been honored by Stalin himself as such.  Sasha is finally old enough to join the Pioneers–the youth organization started by Stalin to raise young Russian boys within his system of government to eventually support and defend it as adults.

The night before Sasha is to participate in the Pioneer ceremony government officials break into their room in the communal apartment building, arrest his father and take him away to prison.  Sasha is sure there is a mistake. The neighbor who has reported Sasha’s father as a spy immediately moves his entire family into the room occupied only moments before by Sasha and his father and throws all their belongings into the street. Bewildered, but confident Stalin will clear up this mistake with his father tomorrow, Sasha goes to the home of his aunt to spend the night.  His aunt’s husband refuses to allow him into their home and he ends up sleeping in the basement of his aunt’s building.

The next day at school Sasha is to have the honor of carrying the Pioneer banner into the assembly.  In his zeal to practice he gets carried away and accidentally breaks the nose off a statue of Stalin.  Sasha is horrified and fearful of being accused as a traitor to both Stalin and his country.  To make matters worse, a classmate whose animosity for Sasha is well-documented sees what happens.

Sasha’s journey from his unwavering belief in Stalin, communism and the way the government works to a sad understanding that the ideal is usually not the reality of any theory or system of government is one we all encounter.  As we grow up we learn that not everyone is trying to do the “right” thing all the time.  We encounter greed and betrayal and disillusionment.

Sasha comes to understand that his father’s arrest and imprisonment will not be ‘corrected’ by Stalin.  He is not hopeless at the end of the book; he has a deeper understanding of the consequences of behavior and a new determination to find his father and follow that path wherever it takes him.

The author grew up in the Soviet Union (now Russia) in the 1960’s. His details of Sasha’s life and the ever-present fear of betrayal and making a costly mistake (even misperceived) in word or behavior are woven insidiously into the entire narrative.  As a reader I could feel them twining around my own insides as I followed Sasha’s story.

The triumph of the book is in its historical details (both large and individual) and its dogged path through fear and Sasha’s newly discovered resolve to face and conquer it.

I don’t know that you are going to see a lot of students pick this book up on their own, but it is a fairly easy and entertaining read if they are pointed in its direction.  It would be a great read-aloud or side resource in a classroom for a variety of historical units (Stalin, communism, USSR-USA relations from the 60’s through the 80’s, daily life in the USSR, etc) from a kid’s point of view.

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