Even the children might critique Stalin

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

A friend suggested this text, especially in light of my reading Bloodlands, and it was, in a word, perfect. Yelchin’s protagonist is ten-year old Sasha Zaichik, a young boy living in the Soviet Union in what may be the post-World War Two era. Written and illustrated by Yelchin, the book is dedicated to the author/illustrator’s father who “survived the Great Terror.” Readers of my review of Tim Snyder’s book will understand what such survival is a remarkable feat.

Young Sasha is a great fan of Joseph Stalin at the outset of this remarkable little book, writing a touching letter about why he wants to join the Young Pioneers and how he is “fortunate to live in the Soviet Union, the most democratic and progressive country in the world.”(2-4) Yelchin describes life in a komunalka (communal apartment), the joys of carrots, eternal hunger, and the fear of a life in which the State Security is an omnipresent force “purging the vermin from our midst.”

Sasha has a problem however and Yelchin brilliantly unveils the complex and uncertain nature of life in the Soviet Union. Sasha’s father is an important officer in the State Security, yet that doesn’t protect him from arrest. The fate of Sasha’s mother is revealed as the story evolves as well, and in general, what we see is an increasingly cynical world system that depends upon blind obedience, even in the face of personal uncertainty.

The book poses interesting questions about life in a totalitarian state, speculates as to how a young person might engage with such an environment, and carries it off with a blend of humor and almost Kafka-like bizarreness at times. Breaking Stalin’s Nose would be highly appropriate for history courses exploring totalitarianism and perhaps even as a humorous foil to either the entirety of Bloodlands, or excerpts from that book. Yelchin succeeds in his aim to portray how fear had become an integral part of people’s lives. In addition, he hopes that the text can serve as a model for people to understand the problem of living in fear. “To this day,” writes Yelchin, “there are places in the world where innocent people face persecution and death for making a choice about what they believe to be right.” (Author’s Note)

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