Friday, March 6, 2015

Breaking Stalin's Nose by Eugene Yelchin

More than anything, Sasha Zaichik, 10, wants to become a Young Pioneer in Stalin's Soviet Union and a good Communist like his dad.  Comrade Zaichik, who works for the State Security or secret police capturing enemies of the state, is a true Communist hero, even receiving a medal personally pinned on by Stalin himself.

However, when Comrade Zaichik is arrested by people from State Security in the middle the night before Sasha's Young Pioneer ceremony, he suddenly finds himself homeless, an orphan of the state slated to be sent to an orphanage the next morning.

Certain his father's arrest is a mistake, Sasha decides to go to the Kremlin and personally speak to Stalin about it.  After all,  he reasons, since Comrade Stalin's light is always on, he is probably up working, anyway.  But as soon as the guards see him, he is forced to run away.  Not only that, he gets turned away by his aunt's husband when he goes to her for help.  Sasha finally ends up sleeping in the basement of his aunt's building, under some warm pipes.

He decides to go to school the next day, in the hope that his father's arrest will have already been recognized as a mistake and he will be at the ceremony as promised to tie Young Pioneers red scarf around the necks of Sasha and his classmates.  But his day is filled with moral choices and the events that follow in school turn out to be a microcosm of the wider Soviet world, a world in which people turn each other in to the authorities, where good and bad communists are separated from each other and confessions are forced out of everyone including school children using questionable methods.

As you might expect, by the end of the 24 hours in which Sasha's nightmare takes place, his life has been changed forever.  But what is to become of young Sasha?

There aren't many stories that take place in Stalin's violent, oppressive Soviet Union, and using a young, idealistic boy to reveal what it was really like makes this a much more accessible story than had Sasha already become another suspicious opportunist using the state to get what he wants.    

Yelchin sets Sasha's story in the icy cold Soviet winter, a setting that is a perfect reflection of the attitudes and policies of the characters.  Warm friendships just didn't happen in this atmosphere, instead there was a pervasive atmosphere of fear and mistrust, but also a little honor among 'outsiders' that was refreshing.

Even as his world comes completely apart, as he learns truths that would be difficult for any child to handle, such as what really happened to his American mother, what really went on in the prison his father was taken to, Sasha retains a hopeful, innocent voice with a blind faith that right will win out.  In many ways, Sasha reminded me of Felix from Morris Gleitzman's Holocaust books Once, Then, and After (books I highly recommend if you haven't already done so).

Simple spot black, white and gray graphite illustrations done by the author are used throughout Breaking Stalin's Nose, which aptly reflect to colorlessness of the story's setting.

I can't believe it took me so long to read this book, but now that I have I can see why it is a 2012 Newbery Honor Book.

Be sure to read the Author's Note and accompanying information about the Sasha's Moscow found at the back of the book.  Want more? You can actually explore it all in depth on the novel's dedicated website HERE

You can also find an in-depth 11 page discussion guide from the publisher, Macmillan, HERE

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book is part of my personal library

This is book 1 of my 2015 Newbery Reading Challenge hosted by Smiling Shelves


  1. I try to read a lot of Newbery books too, but I haven't tackled this one yet. I actually didn't know that much about it before reading your thorough review. Thank you.

    1. This was a fast well done novel that I read in one sitting. I hope you decide to read it soon, it is well worth it.

  2. I have heard of this one and that title grabs me every time I see it. After your review I've put it at the top of my books to read next. Thanks and good luck on the Newbery Reading Challenge.

  3. This is one of my favorite books! I loved the character arc and how well he conveyed the fear and oppression of the former Soviet Union. My son has read this as well. It's such an important book.

  4. This one had been on my To-Read pile for quite sometime and I just never got to it. But your review has reminded just how good this sounded. Back on the pile but I'll leave it at the top.
    Apples with Many Seeds

  5. Thanks for your great review - it sounds like one I could (and should) share with my son...

  6. Thanks for sharing your review - I read this in 2013, and I thought it was worthy of the Newbery, too. I thought the descriptions of the cold as well as the black and white illustrations really enhanced the brutal, cruel lifestyle. I would recommend it, just as you have, especially because its a quick read (and brings to light good moral questions for readers to discuss). Thanks for sharing!

  7. This sounds gripping and excruciating, as I know I would cry the whole way through. We have recently been watching THE ASSETS, a mini series set in that time, so this book really intrigues me. Thanks for a great recommendation on the Kid Lit Blog Hop

  8. Wow, this does sound like a powerful story! Thanks for the great review. Stopping by from the Kid Lit Blog Hop.

  9. I have read several review posts for this book, but haven't had the chance to read it. It certainly sounds like a fantastic read.


Imagination Designs