Breaking Stalin’s Nose
Ten-year-old Sasha wants nothing more than to become a member of the Young Pioneers – the corps of Soviet school children devoted to serving Communism. Although living conditions are cramped and food is scarce under Stalin’s regime, Sasha is convinced that he is lucky to live in “the most democratic and progressive country in the world” and idolizes his father, who works for Stalin himself. But when Sasha’s father is arrested, and Sasha accidentally commits a crime that makes him an Enemy of the People, he is forced to reevaluate his loyalties. Have the people he trusts most – his teachers, even his father – been misleading him all his life? Must he engage in the same cruelty to survive, or can he forge his own path and his own convictions of what is right?
Don’t be fooled by this slim volume: though the short chapters and simple narration give it the ring of a book for very young readers, the conflicts Sasha faces are complex enough for any adult to appreciate. Stanley Yelchin, who grew up in the former Soviet Union himself and whose father survived the Great Terror, offers a compact and affecting story of a boy moving from naïveté to understanding. While the reader always feels a bit wiser than the protagonist, Yelchin avoids the common pitfalls of adopting an innocent viewpoint in the face of horrible historical reality (e.g. the saccharine quality of John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas). The author’s accompanying illustrations, at once whimsical and slightly eerie, only enhance the mood. This is a wonderful little book for anyone in search of an affecting story – or of insight into an era that is so often neglected in our convenient reimaginings of history.