cover imageTitle: Breaking Stalin’s Nose
Author/Illustrator: Eugene Yelchin
ISBN: 9780805092165
Pages: 154 pages
Publisher/Date: Henry Holt and Company, c2011.
Awards: Newbery Honor, 2012

“Why does Vovka call you Amerikanets?”
I shouldn’t tell him. “My mom was American. Don’t tell anyone.”
He squints at me. “And she was arrested and shot?”
“What do you mean? Of course not. She came from America to help us build Communism.”
He nods. “They think all foreigners are spies.”
“She wasn’t a spy! She was a real Communist.”
“My mom and dad are real Communists, too,” Four-Eyes says. “They are in Lubyanka prison now–enemies of the people.” […]
“My aunt took me there last week,” says Four-Eyes. We stood in line for two days, but when we got to the door, they wouldn’t let us see them. No visitation rights, they said. My aunt tells me they always say this when the prisoners have been shot already, but I know she’s lying. They’re alive and I’m going to see them.” (63-64)

Sasha Zaichik has dreamed about becoming a Soviet Young Pioneer for as long as he can remember. His father works for the secret police force, unmasking enemies of Stalin’s Communist regime, and is scheduled to attend the ceremony taking place tomorrow as a guest of honor. In the middle of the night, Sasha’s father is taken by the same police force and Sasha is forced out of his home by opportunistic neighbors. He hopes that this is all a big misunderstanding and that his father will be waiting for him at school. With enemies at every turn, both imagined and real, Sasha must be careful that no one finds out about the “mistake” that has occurred. But compounding events and accusations during the school day lead Sasha to see the world in a whole new light. What if it wasn’t a mistake that his father was taken?

Velchin writes in a succinct and appropriate manner, placing events strictly from the viewpoint of Sasha. Sasha, for all the information he thinks he knows, is naive about what the government is doing and how people feel about it. Readers see this in his letter that he writes to Stalin in the opening pages, filling it with the propaganda that he’s been fed his whole life. Part of that is due to his father shielding him from his environment. We never really find out what happened to his mother, or what role anyone had in her death, which Sasha can’t even confirm for us since he never saw a body or funeral.

Readers witness the fear and greed that arise from the Communist life style through Sasha’s eyes, even though Sasha himself doesn’t recognize it. He mentions how his room that he shares with his father is bigger then the one the family of six down the hall have, and is “embarrassed that we live in luxury”. (14) His father gave that same family their ring on the large iron stove that the twelve families share when they added a stove to their room. But Sasha tells readers that “My dad and I oppose personal property on principle. Personal property will disappear when Communism comes.” (32) American readers will be exposed to a lifestyle and government system that they have no knowledge or experience with, and witness the horror.

Stalin’s rule reminds me of Hitler, the way innocent people who believed in something different were secretly whisked away. In an author’s note, Velchin talks about his own experience with the secret police and provides important background information. During Stalin’s 30 years in power, over twenty million people were executed, imprisoned, or exiled. To put it in perspective, that’s more than the commonly accepted number of people who perished in the Holocaust. I personally think it might be the residual bad feelings regarding the Cold War and the USSR/Rusia that might be preventing students from getting information about these events. There is so little literature about Communism available for students that this book is a necessary addition just for the subject matter alone. The fact that it won a Newbery Honor only stresses the book’s importance.