File this one under Real Life Inspiration for all Those Super Cool Dystopian Novels You're Probably Reading Right Now. (Shmoop likes to keep our files very specific.)
The society depicted in Eugene Yelchin's Breaking Stalin's Nose is a sort of Big Bang event for all the dystopian fiction that is currently popular. We're talking The Hunger Games, the Divergent series, The Giver series, and even the oldies but goodies (the ones that got this whole ball rolling) like We, 1984, and Brave New World.
Yelchin drops us into the not-too-distant paranoid past of the 1950s Soviet Union, where you've basically got to be one of the sheeple in order to survive. Plus, Big Brother's always watching you for screw-ups, and if you're unlucky enough to be caught doing something not kosher, you're thrown into prison—or worse.
And Yelchin would know. In fact, he had quite an experience with the dystopian Powers That Be when he was growing up in Moscow in the 1960s. In a scene that parallels Sasha's conversation with the spooky senior lieutenant, Eugene himself was interrogated by a Soviet secret policeman (to read his description of this, check out the "notes" that follow the story).
So don't kid yourself—while this book is very compact (it only involves the events of a mere two days), and told from the perspective of a ten-year-old boy, it deals with some painful, very scary issues, very real issues: abandonment, betrayal, and death.
See, the novel follows little Sasha, whose dad is a Communist hero. Sasha's about to be made a Young Soviet Pioneer, which is the first step he needs to take to follow in his dad's footsteps and be more like that "brilliant genius of humanity," Joseph Stalin. After his dad is arrested in the middle of the night—and Sasha accidentally breaks the nose off of a statue of Stalin the next day at school— we follow Sasha down the Red rabbit hole of fear, paranoia and groupthink that pervaded Soviet society in the 1950s. It's a wild ride with some Very Important Lessons along the way.
And now for the requisite hoity-toity literary street cred stuff: Newbery Honor Book 2012? Check. One of Horn's Best Books of 2011? Check. It's no wonder he has received these kudos. In Breaking Stalin's Nose, Yelchin gives us a kid's-eye view of an extremely complicated, scary, and grim moment in world history, and that's something well worth reading.
Here's the thing. Yelchin's book shows us the real brutality of life under communism during the Cold War, when the champions for capitalism (the US) and for communism (the USSR) were busy figuratively duking it out for supremacy. In other words, it's a book about a war that's long over, in a country you've probably never been to.
So why care?
Well, as it turns out, this book's got a lot to say about your country, right now. This long, long period of tension between the US and the USSR left a giant Stalin-statue-sized scar on the American psyche. The Red Scare rears its ugly head even today, in the form of some politicians calling other politicians socialists and communists (and when those politicians fire right back calling the other dudes money-grubbing elites).
Since many not awesome things came out of the Soviet experiment with communism (like gulags and secret police forces), lots of people are immediately suspicious, if not downright hostile, to anything that smacks of socialism, communism, or anything authoritarian. That's why when your federal government launches broad-reaching programs designed to even the playing field, some folks are bound to get a bit twitchy.