Newbery Honor book explaining the Stalin era to kids
My third pick for the top works in the Soviet-Jewish world this decade is Breaking Stalin’s Nose, by Eugene Yelchin. It’s one of the very few books for kids about the Soviet period, and explains the mechanisms of the Stalinist era the eyes of a 10-year-old.
Breaking Stalin’s Nose opens with a very earnest letter to Dear Comrade Stalin from young Sasha Zaichik, thanking him for his happy childhood. It’s the 1930s, and Sasha lives in a Moscow communal apartment with his father, a secret policeman. He describes their living conditions in proud detail, praising everything from the thin walls (because they have no need of secrets), to the carrot he eats in tiny bites to make it last. For Sasha, this world is warm and cozy, his father a hero in the fight against the Enemies of the People. And tomorrow, he will finally — finally! — don a red scarf to join the Young Pioneers and take his rightful place among honourable Soviet citizenry.
But late that night comes a tell-tale knock on the door. Within minutes, Sasha’s life is turned upside-down, with his father in jail and their room taken over by a jealous neighbour. His journey through the darkest of the Soviet era has begun, though he still holds hope for the Pioneer ceremony the next day at school. But to reach that prized moment, Sasha must decide whether he will denounce his father and prove his communist loyalties.
Despite a decade that’s been full to bursting with Soviet-Jewish cultural production, not much of that has made its way into children’s literature. Yelchin’s book is one of the few I’ve been able to share with my kids about the world their family came from. Though Sasha is not Jewish, anti-Semitism appears in the story, and Yelchin himself is from a Soviet-Jewish family. He’s a prolific children’s writer and illustrator, and his black-and-white pencil drawings highlight the menacing world into which Sasha is suddenly thrust.
All the elements of Soviet propaganda and Stalin’s purges are here, told by a sympathetic and compelling character — the informing neighbours, the fear of being associated with enemies of the people, the blind worship of Stalin, the casual, everyday cruelty. Details about food, housing, and school are all things which kids can easily compare to their own lives in North America. Is there anything more relatable to kids than the petty cruelties of classroom hierarchies where, in this case, the outcasts are Jews and the children of “class enemies”? There is also an author’s note at the end, and explanations about Soviet life during this period, including a diagram of a typical komunalka.
This is an excellent, underrated book — and not just because it fills an educational gap — but because the story itself is emotional and dramatic. Breaking Stalin’s Nose was selected as a 2012 Newbery Honor book. But I don’t often hear it mentioned in Russian-Jewish circles, which is a shame because this book should really be on every Soviet-Jewish bookshelf.