Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Breaking Stalin's Nose - Review

Title: Breaking Stalin's Nose
Author: Eugene Velchin
Setting: Russia in the 1960s
Source: My library

Goodreads  Summary:

Sasha Zaichik has known the laws of the Soviet Young Pioneers since the age of six:
The Young Pioneer is devoted to Comrade Stalin, the Communist Party, and Communism.

A Young Pioneer is a reliable comrade and always acts according to conscience.
A Young Pioneer has a right to criticize shortcomings.
But now that it is finally time to join the Young Pioneers, the day Sasha has awaited for so long, everything seems to go awry. He breaks a classmate's glasses with a snowball. He accidentally damages a bust of Stalin in the school hallway.  And worst of all, his father, the best Communist he knows, was arrested just last night.

This moving story of a ten-year-old boy's world shattering is masterful in its simplicity, powerful in its message, and heartbreaking in its plausibility.

My thoughts:

Powerful.  Heartbreaking.  These are the perfect words to describe this book.

When I was in college, I fell in love with learning about Russia. I took Russian for a semester, and I wish I had stuck it out (long story I am sure you don’t want to hear).  My dad had just gotten back from visiting Russia with the high school he was the principal of, and was hosting a teacher from the school they had visited. My dad had so many stories, and so did she. I had a million questions for her, but only felt comfortable asking her one, very unimportant question.  But these events began my lifelong interest in the country and its history.  I continued to take classes having to do with it, every Russian history class I could find.  I remember learning about Stalin, and what a terror he was to his country. During Stalin’s reign, 20 million people were exiled, imprisoned, or killed.

The story begins with Sasha at home, in his communal apartment, or kommunalka, waiting for his father to come home. He is writing a letter to Stalin, telling the leader how he, Sasha, is excited to become a Young Pioneer, which was the Communist version of the Boy Scouts. In his letter, Sasha proclaims how lucky he is to be growing up in the Soviet Union, because he is happy, and he knows that children in capitalist countries may not ever realize their dreams – he later in the chapter says that children in capitalist countries may never even have had a carrot, his favorite treat! Sasha also says that the “Soviet Union is the most democratic and progressive country in the world.” Sasha just wants to grow up to be a great Communist, like his father, a hero. 

Click image for original site

 When his father gets home, things start to go south, and quick.  His father is arrested, and the apartment that Sasha and his father shared is quickly taken over by a family in his kommunalka, leaving Sasha homeless.  Sasha can’t believe this has transpired, realizes that this must be a mistake, and that Stalin will free his father as soon as he hears about the error. The book continues with the next day of Sasha’s life, who goes to school the next day as if nothing has happened, because in his mind, it is something that will soon be remedied.

The reader knows what is going on, although Sasha doesn’t, being the good communist that he is, a true believer. My heart broke for him, as situation after situation came up, and you definitely see how things just snowballed.  If you didn’t suspect someone of spying, and couldn’t say without a doubt that they were loyal communists, you must name them as possible traitors, or be labeled a traitor yourself.  Events unravel and keep unraveling for Sasha. I wasn’t sure almost to the very end, how Velchin was going to finish the story.

Velchin references a satirical story by Gogol, entitled “The Nose”, where a nose leaves an officer’s face and goes to live a life of his own.  Sasha overhears a slightly subversive substitute teacher, Luzhko, talking about “The Nose.” He says:
‘What ‘The Nose’ so vividly demonstrates to us today,’ says Luzhko, ‘is that when we blindly believe in someone’s idea of what is right or wrong for us as individuals, sooner or later our refusal to make our own choices could lead to the collapse of the entire political system.’ ”
Later Sasha has a Kafkaesque experience of his own, where a nose smokes and speaks to him, telling him some ugly truths. 

Breaking Stalin’s Nose shows us how anything at all can look good, especially in the eyes of a child. The same could be said of our own country, where we preach the superiority of capitalism and democracy.  What is important is to remember to think for yourself.

If you would like to know more about this book, and the places and events within it, visit Eugene Velchin's site dedicated to the book.

Read and Reviewed as part of the European Reading Challenge. 

And if you haven't already, enter to win a hardcover copy of The Call of the Wild by Jack London in my Literary Blog Hop Giveaway

No comments:

Post a Comment

I love hearing from people, don't be shy! I would love to hear what you think! I always reply back, although it takes me a bit longer these days due to the little guy.