Out of the darkness, three large figures in State Security uniforms stomp into the kitchen. They follow my dad past where I’m standing and into the corridor toward our room. The last in line catches his cap against the laundry line, picks it up, swears, and clomps after the rest. All this noise in the middle of the night, but our neighbors’ doors stay shut. Nobody looks out to complain.
The guards pull out the drawers and dump our things on the floor. They shake loose pages out of our books. They cut up Dad’s mattress and feel inside it. They tap on the walls, listening for hidden places, and open part of the floor where the nails are loose. Soon what we have is in a pile, torn and wrecked. The only thing they don’t touch is a framed picture of Stalin.
Sasha Zaichik, age 10, lives with his father in Stalinist Russia. All his life he has gloried in Communism, eagerly awaiting the proud day when he is awarded the red scarf of the Young Soviet Pioneers, zealous to prove his loyalty to the beloved Comrade Joseph Stalin. His reality is anchored in the communist maxims he’s memorized, in his father’s identity as an important member of the secret police, and in his mother’s vague illness in years past.
All of these foundational truths are about to be shaken to pieces over the course of two, turbulent days.
Eugene Yelchin has written a gripping, sobering novel about the murderous reign of Joseph Stalin, one of very few treating this subject for middle graders. His superb story takes place over just two days, in which Sasha’s life and world views are turned upside down. Fear, a stubborn clinging to what he “knows” is true, betrayal, disbelief, revelations — a dizzying cluster of thought, emotion, and experience swirls through Sasha’s life as he stumbles through the tumult and danger.
The author was born and educated in Russia, and has firsthand experience of “chats” with the Committee of State Security. In an Author’s Note, he writes of the insidious fear instilled in the Russian people by the Stalin era, a fear which prompted him to write this 2012 Newbery Honor book. As I have taught modern history to highschoolers, we have shaken our heads over how kind history has been to this ruthless man, who “executed, imprisoned or exiled over twenty million people” during a 30 year period, more than 3 times the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust. Albert Marrin’s book, Stalin, is an excellent non-fiction account for highschoolers. Yelchin’s historical fiction title makes a fantastic addition to what is available for us.
Yelchin is also an incredibly talented artist, and his graphite illustrations in this book really act as part of the story. There is a menacing, art noir quality to them, and a surreal feeling that ramps up our ability to step into Sasha’s shoes.
Technically, this is a middle grade novel. However, to understand the
story, the reader needs to manage a great deal of dramatic irony, and be able to read between the lines. Those on the younger end of the spectrum, say 10-11, might need help understanding that what Sasha says and believes is true, is often the opposite of what is actually happening, while it aligns more and more with reality as the plot moves along. It’s not a juvenile story, and older readers will likely appreciate it all the more.
Here’s the Amazon link for this excellent novel: Breaking Stalin’s Nose