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Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Stalinism Through a Child’s Eyes

In a 2012 interview with The Horn Book, Inc., Russian author Eugene Yelchin seemed to take quiet pride in his Newbery Award-winning book Breaking Stalin’s Nose and its special designation as “the first children’s book about Stalin.”  This pride was well-deserved. Like Watership Down and Maus before it, Breaking Stalin’s Nose tells a story that is not always pleasant, but which advanced young readers will enjoy and ask important questions about nevertheless. It is an incredible teaching tool for a world that has largely footnoted, rewritten, or forgotten about the murderous reign of Joseph Stalin.

Myth vs. Reality in Breaking Stalin’s Nose

The protagonist of Yelchin’s tale is ten-year-old Sasha Zaichik, an idealistic boy living in the Soviet Union during the Stalin-era. Raised by his father, a state security officer whom he adores, young Sasha is a true Communist believer whose “greatest dream,” according to the fan letter he writes to Stalin in the book’s opening pages, is “to join the Young Soviet Pioneers — the most important step in becoming a real Communist like my dad.” Throughout his first person narrative, he and the supporting characters around him continually sing the praises of their State-controlled society.

The Soviet Union is “the most democratic and progressive country in the world.” Sasha lives in a communal apartment with forty-seven other people who are “all equal.” Together, they share a single kitchen and toilet “as one large, happy family.” There is not enough food for everyone, but this is okay because “Communism is just over the horizon; soon there will be plenty of food for everyone.” Sasha is a student in the Soviet school system, “the most democratic in the world.” When he is confronted by a classroom bully, he does not retaliate because “The Pioneers rules are clear on this: no fights.” And presiding nobly over this most virtuous of social orders is the godlike Comrade Stalin, “our great Leader and Teacher.”....

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