Breaking Stalin's Nose
by Eugene Yelchin
We're not going to lie to you. As a narrator, Sasha's as naive as they come. At first, he buys into that whole rah-rah Communism thing hook, line and sinker. Case in point? He tries to comfort a crying baby by telling him that "[w]hen you grow up, you'll be living under Communism" (9.6), and one of his favorite pastimes is jamming out to patriotic tunes on the radio (1.2). Yeah, he's not exactly a free-wheeling free thinker. He believes what he's told.
But hold the phone. We can't just write him off as a Stalin stooge, because Sasha is also a decent guy:
- He's "embarrassed" at the difference between the size of his living space and that of Stukachov (who shares a tiny room with a large family) (4.2).
- He feels badly for Four-Eyes when he beans him with the snowball.
- And he refuses to laugh at others' misfortunes (which seems to be the most popular sport among children at his school).
So while he may not have the wherewithal to question authority just yet, Sasha's also got a pretty good moral compass wheeling around in that brain of his. So the good far outweighs any bad in Sasha's case. Plus, what he believes is the result of many years of indoctrination, and the desire to just survive. And for that, we can hardly fault him.
A Cold War Huck Finn?
What makes Sasha's naiveté truly frustrating is that it makes him a bit of an unreliable narrator. We can't really trust what he says because he just doesn't know enough about the world to truly understand what's going on around him (for the most part). To be fair, the kid's only ten. Think back to when you were his age: just how much did you really know about the world? Probably not too much.
In a way, that's a perfect fit for the novel. Yelchin is able to use Sasha's youth and misunderstanding of the world around him to throw down a pretty serious critique of the Stalinist Soviet Union in the 1950s. For example, Sasha can say unironically, without even the barest hint of a smile, that Stalin is "a brilliant genius of humanity" (13.4). Those of us who are familiar with the darker side of Soviet history know that that's less than true. He can also speculate as to the chances that kids growing up under capitalism have ever tasted a carrot (3.2), which we definitely know to be false.
See, Sasha's basic understanding of the world flies in the face of what readers actually do know about life under Stalin, which was full of long food lines, longer prison lines, and lots of mass graves filled with dissenters. So Sasha's cluelessness about how things really are turns the volume up on just how bad and twisted things are in the Soviet Union. They're so twisted, in fact, that he can't even recognize them.
A True Pioneer
Sasha has that whole hero worship thing going on pretty strong for his dad—and for Joseph Stalin, too. Above all, he wants to be a good little communist, and the first step along that road is to become a Young Soviet Pioneer. Sasha has dreamt of this day, and he is so ready: "I've had these laws down since I was six," he assures us (13.14).
But the harsh lessons that Sasha learns throughout the book make him question what the Pioneers—and by association the whole Soviet system—are all about. The first real chink in Sasha's idealistic armor comes when his dad is arrested. But what really drives it all home for him is what occurs after he breaks the nose of the statue of Stalin at school.
When the principal rants and raves about the assorted "conspirators, spies, murderers, and provocateurs" (19.1) who have done this horrific deed, Sasha is all, "Dude, calm down. I know who did it, and it was an accident." Okay—you got us. That's not really how he phrases it. He thinks, "[T]his time, [the principal] has gone too far. I should know. I'm the only one who knows what really happened" (19.2). The takeaway here for Sasha is that if the principal can be pigheadedly wrong (and in the past, Sasha has "always agreed" with him), then maybe lots more of what he's taught to believe can also be wrong, too.
This slow burning realization culminates when Sasha defies the rules outright. In a move that we might expect more from Vovka, he disobeys Nina Petrovna and grabs the Pioneers banner, proudly singing a Soviet patriotic song. This little rebellion hammers home the fact that Sasha has learned a lot from all of the things he's seen, heard, and experienced. He's not so naïve anymore.
In the end, Sasha gets a crash course in how it's not all rainbows and unicorns in Soviet Land. Instead, people are hungry, stuffed into small apartment buildings with forty strangers, and live in a constant state of terror under the threat of being thrown into prison any second. Now that he's armed with that insight, he's strong enough to reject the Senior Lieutenant's offer that will once and for all allow him to become the Young Soviet Pioneer of his dreams. Instead, he demonstrates a true pioneering spirit when he risks prison (or worse!) and leaves school to go wait in line to see his dad in prison.Timeline