Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Breaking Stalin's Nose (fiction)

"The Young Pioneer is devoted to Comrade Stalin, the Communist Party, and Communism.
A Young Pioneer is a reliable comrade and always acts according to conscience.
A Young Pioneer has a right to criticize shortcomings."

Sasha memorizes the Young Pioneers' Oath, believes everything that his teachers say about Comrade Stalin and the amazing future of Communism, and is certain that his father will attend the ceremony when Sasha can finally wear the coveted red Young Pioneer scarf.

So why highlight a book about a ten year old boy here? Eugene Yelchin's father survived the informers who reported neighbors to Stalin's State Police. As the author of Breaking Stalin's Nose grew up in Russia, Stalin's brutal regime was completely ignored, his Purges removing every potentially disloyal citizen never mentioned in the history books.

Only when the author emigrated to the USA did he begin to learn of Stalin's Great Terror. How can a nation wipe away every memory of such brutality? Brainwashing its children to never question their teachers and parents is one way, and the Young Pioneers movement ensured this unswerving loyalty for many decades. The Young Pioneers organization still exists today in Russia, but only Lenin is mentioned, never his bloodthirsty predecessor Stalin.

Breaking Stalin's Nose takes us into Sasha's innocent trust that Comrade Stalin would make everything all right... Find this Newbery Honor Book at your local library or independent bookstore, and be sure to explore its website where Yelchin has collected objects and information that make those dark days under Stalin even more real.

Book info: Breaking Stalin's Nose / written and illustrated by Eugene Yelchin. Henry Holt Books, 2011. [author's website] [publisher site]

My Recommendation: Tomorrow! Finally, Sasha will become a Young Pioneer and help Comrade Stalin bring the prosperity of communism to the USSR. His father, an officer in the Soviet State Police, will be guest of honor at the ceremony and will tie Sasha’s red Young Pioneer scarf for the first time.

Waiting in the apartment kitchen that they share with 46 others, he knows that his father will be late to dinner since he is always busy catching spies. Sasha adores his father, but he worships Comrade Stalin who watches over all the people of the USSR. How sad that the children in capitalist countries will never be free enough to live together in such harmony!

But heavy boots come up the stairs late at night, and the State Police arrest Father! A neighbor has reported lies about his loyalty to Stalin, just to get their apartment for his own family. Now Sasha is alone in the darkness and the snow.

There must be some mistake! Comrade Stalin himself pinned a medal on Father’s coat for catching spies. Sasha decides that he must report this error to Comrade Stalin at once, so that his father can attend the Young Pioneer Ceremony at school tomorrow.

Everyone at school knows how children are treated when their parents are arrested as enemies of the State – scorned and mocked and bullied. And if the parents don’t return from bleak Lubyanka Prison, then it’s off to the orphanage for their children… perhaps a worse fate than a mere firing squad.

Can Sasha reach the Kremlin to speak with Comrade Stalin before it’s too late for his father? Will he be able to join the Young Pioneers when his father’s whereabouts are unknown? Can he find his Aunt Larisa on this dark winter night?

Yelchin’s black and white sketches show the bleakness of life under Stalin’s brutal control, even as Sasha begins to realize that the glowing words he has memorized about his Great Leader are no truth at all. (One of 5,000 books recommended on Review copy courtesy of the publisher.


  1. Thank you for the great review! I tried to get this at my Indie, but I have to wait a few days, due to high demand!

    1. It's worth the wait, Annie! Be sure to visit the author's website for photos & other background info on the book. Quite a contrast between the reality of living in Stalinist Russia and young Sasha's wide-eyed idealism...

  2. Whew...I love that you read this...I don't think I could handle it but if I could...I

    1. Patty - Do try to read it!! The novel is all from Sasha's perspective, with his child's boundless faith that his father and Stalin can truly bring a warm, prosperous future to Russia - even as he spouts the rationalizations he has been taught and taught and taught while he endures hunger and overcrowded living conditions.

      This book is the quintessential childhood seen through rose-colored glasses; Yelchin's website about the book gives the true information in black and white. Experiencing both parts helps us understand a bit better how such things can occur.


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