You don't get much more serious than a dead mom, an imprisoned dad, and a homeless kiddo. Even when Sasha gets some time to just relax and chow down on a carrot, we don't get a lot of lightheartedness in the deal:
I take small bites of the carrot to make it last; the carrot is delicious [...] I wonder what it's like for the capitalist countries. I wouldn't be surprised if children there had never even tasted a carrot. (3.2)
So, even though Sasha is enjoying a "treat" (3.1) that is "delicious" (3.2), the author keeps things on the serious level by focusing on the politics of eating. A carrot isn't just a carrot in Soviet Russia. It's a somber reminder of the wonders of Communism. Or something.
With all of the paranoia and arrests going on, there's a danger of things slipping into the absurd, which they never do. Take the moment when Vovka attacks Nina Petrovna. It's so over the top that we might expect to find some humor buried there, but it's all quite deadly serious and gruesome. Nina's "face turns red" and she "makes gurgling noises" (22.12). Yikes.
Despite all of this seriousness, though, Yelchin's tone is also hopeful, thanks to Sasha's irrepressible idealism. Seriously, it's tough to squash this kid's positivity. He's so hopeful, in fact, that he heads straight to prison to visit his dad, even though he has little chance of seeing the guy, and he knows his father handed his mother over to the cops. Is that hopeful or naïve? Maybe it's a little bit of both.
Can you say no-brainer? Even though the story is fictional, Yelchin's novel gives us a glimpse into what life was really like during one particular historical moment (the 1950s) in a real-life place (the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin). If you haven't checked out the "Setting" section yet, why don't you go ahead and do so now, since you'll find lots of helpful 411 on the basic situation in Moscow during this time.
Sure, Sasha doesn't completely grow up in this book (he's only ten years old, after all, and the novel takes place over the course of a mere two days), but he does make some pretty big strides in that direction. Even though he doesn't yet make it past adolescence, what happens to Sasha is huge, and he learns some harsh lessons. By the end of the book, he's moved away from his childish idealism and learns to question things more and not just blindly accept what the system tells him.
When a smartly-dressed talking nose interrupts an otherwise totes realistic narrative, we have one major clue that we've entered magical realism territory.
Sasha's running down his school hallway, trying to evade the senior lieutenant who is going to hustle him off to the dreaded orphanage, when suddenly he comes face to… well... nose with Stalin's nose. The nose tries to get Sasha to denounce his father as an enemy of the people, and then takes the opportunity to recount what he considers a real knee-slapper of a tale about how he once falsely accused some workers of stealing his pipe. A clue: it didn't turn out well at all for the workers (25.15).
But wait a second. What about Sasha's rather overactive imagination? Doesn't that account for this strange conversation with his new nasally acquaintance? Well, not quite. Keep in mind that in all other instances when Sasha lets his imagination run wild, none of the actions actually happen. So, when he's imagining being at the May Day parade, tanks don't really come rolling into the deserted hall.
Here, though, Stalin's nose apparently does really speak to Sasha. Pretty weird, huh? What do you think this adds to the narrative? What's the author trying to do by giving us this delightful little moment of utter surreality?
Ah, don't you just love a good piece of cake? Breaking Stalin's Nose literally refers to the moment in the book that sets off a chain of events that ends up making Sasha start to call into question the system he has so far blindly accepted. Simple, right?
This kid has quite the imagination, and he really lets it run wild. Unfortunately, a bit too wild, since in his marching around with the Pioneers banner, it "shoots out of [his] hands and its pointy metal tip knocks Stalin's plaster nose clean off his face" (15.11).
The title (along with this central scene) also hints at how Stalin is, ultimately, not all-powerful. It's a facade (although a very strong one) that can be chipped away at. In breaking Stalin's nose, Sasha demonstrates this, although it's accidental.
The eponymous Nose is also an allusion to the Nikolai Gogol short story "The Nose" that Sasha overhears Luzhko (the substitute Russian lit teacher) telling his class. Both Sasha and the main character in "The Nose" experience a disembodied nose running around dressed up in fancy attire. Luzhko's analysis of this story also has important thematic implications for Breaking Stalin's Nose, since he claims it's all about what happens when you allow others to do your thinking for you (if you haven't checked out the character section on Luzhko, go ahead and take a peek now).
Poor Sasha. Things don't seem to be looking up for him at all. When we last see him, even though he's met a nice lady who has offered to take care of him, he's standing in a whopper of a line to try to get into Lubyanka prison to visit his dad, who's not the awesome guy Sasha thought he was. Yelchin's illustrations of this line are chillingly effective: it goes on for pages and pages as the line snakes down the street and off into the distance. The nice lady informs him that he'll be waiting in this line for three nights (30.23).
As they wait, the lady asks Sasha whether or not they will be able to sort out the "mess we got ourselves into" someday (30.31). And from this, it's clear she's not just talking about their wait in the prison line. No, she's talking about the entire Soviet Communist system that they're living under. Her conclusion is, "We will [...] But for now, we have a lot of waiting to do" (30.33). And they do. And that's the end of the novel.
So, we're left hanging in the end, with no real conclusion to the tale. Sasha's dad may be alive in Lubyanka, or like Finkelstein's parents, he may have already been executed. We just don't know.
And that's probably Yelchin's larger point—that the Soviet political system was pretty arbitrary and random, and there was little logic in its operations. In Yelchin's view, it was basically a destructive machine that tore apart families and destroyed individuals through extreme psychological stress (if not by outright execution). Some of this is mirrored in how we get no clear-cut resolution in the end. Sasha's just one of many whose lives have been ruined by The Powers That Be.
Sasha lives in the Soviet Union of the 1950s, when Joseph Stalin ruled with an iron fist.
A Communist dictator, Stalin wanted the USSR to quickly move from a farming-based society to one that was super industrialized and based on collectivization. As you can imagine, this required tons of control, and the only way to maintain this was by brutal means.
Anyone who questioned the system or its methods was imprisoned as an enemy of the people. Under Stalin, over twenty million people were imprisoned, sent into exile, or executed (Author's Note). To exercise total control, the state had a vast system of prisons, police, and surveillance, which of course made just about everyone afraid for their lives at one point or another. Paranoia ran rampant, and trust was tricky to find.
How does The Big Picture translate into day-to-day living in Sasha's time? Well, for starters, he lives in completely cramped conditions. He and his dad share the komunalka, or communal apartment, with over thirty other people. While Sasha and his dad have a fairly nice room all to themselves, there are others (like Stukachov) who squeeze in five or more to a small room. And still others don't even have a room; they sleep in the hallway or in the bathroom.
This type of living arrangement was said to increase feelings of belongingness to the group, but it's also a super effective way of getting people to spy on each other (which is exactly what happens when Stukachov turns in Sasha's dad).
People living in the Soviet Union during this time didn't have a choice of where to live—that was all dictated by the State. And don't think that they could skip out and escape this by taking a nice shopping trip. No way. All of the stores were also owned by the State, and you had to wait in long lines to even buy basic groceries. So, people couldn't just skip on down to Safeway or Whole Foods to buy what they wanted to eat.
Most people (that is, everyone except for the head honcho communists calling the shots) didn't have much choice of what they ate and usually didn't get nearly enough. Remember when Sasha eats the carrot slowly, so the experience won't come to an end (3.2)? That's a big hint of the food scarcity and lack of variety that was the everyday situation in Sasha's world.
His school situation probably seems pretty strange, too. In what we see, there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of learning going on. Typical subjects like math and science seem to be glossed over, but students get double doses of political ideology and conformity to groupthink. Even the playground games reinforce this: Sasha and his friends play "firing squad" instead of innocent games of tag or, you know, an actual, lighthearted snowball fight.
So, Sasha's day-to-day living experience shows us the practical results of communist control and paranoia that comes from The Big Picture.
With the exception of a few phrases in Russian ("komunalka" and "Amerikanetz") and some political terminology that you will want to have down cold ("Communist," "capitalist," and "communal"—be sure to use the helpful links we've provided), Breaking Stalin's Nose should be no problemo.
While this is an easy-peasy (and super fast!) read that's aimed at middle-grade readers, don't let the surface simplicity of Yelchin's prose pull one over on you. The novel deals with some pretty complex subject matter and how a ten-year-old boy deals with it.
Breaking Stalin's Nose comes at you faster than the Red Army rolling down the streets of Moscow during the May Day Parade. Yelchin's relatively simple language, short paragraphs, and cut-scenes make the plot come on at a rapid-fire pace. When events are thrown out at such speed, it recreates the dizzying confusion that Sasha is feeling as everything he knows crashes down around him.
Most of the dialogue gets the same job done. The conversations are quick and tidy, and aren't bogged down by long walls o' text. The book's longer paragraphs are reserved for exposition and for moments that are especially thematically noteworthy. Here's just one example (a nifty two-fer, combining both exposition and thematic significance):
My desk is front and center, right next to the desk of Nina Petrovna, our classroom teacher. She always seats the best pupils up front. Vovka Sobakin used to sit in my place, but now he's in the back, in Kolyma, with all the bad ones. We call the back row Kolyma because Kolyma is a faraway region in our country where Stalin sends those who don't deserve to live and work among the honest people. (13.1)
Yelchin's style is also super imaginative, and recreates the experience of being immersed in Sasha's daydreamy mind. Check out this moment, when Sasha looks out at the snowy Moscow night and lets his imagination run wild:
I stare at the statue and pretend it's Comrade Stalin himself, watching over Moscow from his great height. His steady eyes track a legion of shiny black dots zipping up and down the snow-white streets. The dots grow larger and larger, until they turn into shiny black automobiles made of black metal and bulletproof glass. These beautiful machines belong to our State Security. I know because my dad has one. Night after night, Stalin's urgent orders drive these automobiles past our house, but tonight one turns into our courtyard. (5.5)
So Sasha checks out the city at night, and imagines the statue is really a larger-than-life Stalin watching over the streams of vehicles that zoom around town. The imaginative writing ("beautiful machines") turns something that should be terrifying to Sasha into something that is beautiful and somewhat comforting (that is, until the knock sounds at their door).
Sasha straight up tells us readers that this scarf is a Big Symbol. The "three tips" of the scarf stand for the three generations: "mature Communists, the Communist Youth, and the Young Pioneers" (4.11). Its color (red) stands for "blood spilled for the cause of the Communist Party" (4.14). Symbol decoded, right?
Ah, but there's more to it than that.
What about the reflection of the scarf in Sasha's dad's glasses? Here's what Sasha sees: "I see myself reflected in his glasses; scarlet burns at my throat" (4.18). It's a proud moment for Sasha, but that word "burns" sure throws an ominous note into the mix. A bit of foreshadowing, perhaps?
Sasha's dad has just tied the scarf around his neck, and now he sees it reflected in his glasses, which draws a parallel between the scarf and his dad. Which makes sense, since the scarf basically embodies the ideals of the type of person Sasha wants to be: "My dad is a hero and a Communist and, more than anything, I want to be like him" (1.1). His dad's also going to be the one to officially tie the scarf around his neck and make him a Pioneer the next day. Or at least that's the plan.
Initially, what the scarf symbolizes is positive to Sasha, and it's super important to him because of that. In fact, it's the only item he takes from his apartment when he's booted out (17.2). But in the end, after all of the lessons Sasha has learned (check out the "Character" section for those tidbits), he rejects what the scarf stands for, and declines to become a member of the Young Soviet Pioneers.
We never find out for sure what happens to this once-beloved scarf, though. The last thing we hear about it is when Sasha notes that it's tucked away in his pocket, and that it was the only thing he took from the apartment when he was kicked out (17.2). We think it's safe to assume that it's probably still tucked away in his pocket, forgotten, like his old dream.
But here's some food for thought: in the end, the red Pioneer scarf is symbolically replaced by the "woolen scarf" the nice lady gives him while they wait in line at Lubyanka prison (30.10). This tiny moment represents a new future and a new home for Sasha, where scarves are scarves, instead of political symbols.
Here's our first glimpse of a Stalin statue (and you can also take a peek at the drawing at 5.F1):
[A] giant statue of Stalin gleams under searchlights. The statue is made from the steel of fighter planes and stands taller than any building. You can see it from every window in Moscow. (5.3)
This statue is tall, powerful and strong. Plus it's made out of war materials, so you know it's tough. It is also surrounded by "searchlights" and you can bet that if it can be seen from every window in Moscow, it can look right back into those windows. Big Brother truly is watching these folks. So what's the ultimate impression we get from this imagery? All-powerfulness.
The plaster statue at school (after which the novel is titled) is rather puny in comparison. No doubt it's a miniature version of the big statue, meant to mean the same things to the kids at school: Stalin is powerful, strong, and watching you.
But unlike the tall statue, this one has weaknesses. The fact that its nose can be broken off suggests that in some ways, Stalin's power can be chipped away, even if it's just a little bit at a time.
The novel clearly takes place in winter in Moscow, and the novel's chock full of cold, wintry imagery. Here are just a few frosty gems:
In these examples, cold is associated with: isolation ("Red Square is deserted"); darkness ("thick black ice"); obscured vision ("icicles hanging over the frozen windows"); and imprisonment ("an ice cave...a peephole in a prison cell's door").
So, what might all of these things have in common? Well, they all seem to relate in some way to the effects of the political system in power in the 1950s USSR. People are isolated from each other because they're afraid. It's a dark time in which people can't get a good handle on what's going on. And lots of people are being locked up in prisons (some in the literally freezing wasteland of Siberia and the system of gulag prisons for which the Soviet Union was notorious).
First there's the fact that Vovka's award-winning painting disappears from its display after his father is executed (13.2).
Then there's the fact that the favorite pastime at Sasha's school involves violently crossing out photographs of those classmates whose parents have been imprisoned or executed as enemies of the people:
Nina Petrovna rises, walks to where the group photograph of our class hangs on the wall, and blackens Four-Eyes' face with her ink pen. That's what we always do to the pictures of enemies of the people, and it usually feels good, but not this time. (22.2)
Check out Yelchin's illustration of this at 22.F1. All traces of these kids are literally removed from the school. Well, not really. You might remember that storage room that the kids aren't allowed to go in:
A faint yellow light flickers from the doorway of some room farther in. It gives off enough light for me to make out the shapes of the things around me. At my feet is Vovka's prize watercolor, Comrade Stalin at the Helm, the colors running in streaks behind the cracked glass. Next, leaning against the wall and buckling in the water, are dozens of group photographs, the kids' and teachers' faces blackened, or stabbed out with something sharp. It's creepy. (28.3)
Keep in mind that the political system of the Soviet Union allows absolutely no dissent. If you speak out, you are imprisoned or worse. What's more, to maintain the illusion that this is the best system and that everyone is happy little communists, any evidence to the contrary must be swiftly, and sometimes brutally, whisked away. "Out of sight, out of mind" (28.4), right?
Breaking Stalin's Nose is told from the point of view of Sasha, a ten-year-old boy. That's a big clue that we should proceed with caution. In fact, we should probably take everything Sasha says with a grain or two of salt, since he's a pretty young guy trying to figure out a very complex and disorienting system that throws even adults for a loop.
Because he's so young and idealistic, Sasha is naive. He thinks everyone is just The Best Ever (teachers, secret police officers, principals, etc.), and in particular thinks Stalin is a "brilliant genius of humanity" (13.4). If you're thinking Sasha's kind of like an odd mixture of Chaucer's "innocent puppy" narrator in "The General Prologue" and Huck Finn, you're on the right track. The ultimate effect is that the book questions the Communist system while Sasha is 100% buying into it.
All is well for ten-year-old Sasha Zaichik. He's living in the Communist paradise of the 1950s Soviet Union, and his dad is a Hero and a good Communist. Sasha, himself, is about to be made a Young Soviet Pioneer, which means that he, too, is a good Communist. What more could he want? (Well, okay—maybe another carrot.) This opening section basically gives us some snapshots of life in the Soviet Union, and where Sasha and his dad fit into all of it.
Hold onto your hats, though, because before the story even gets going, Sasha's dad is arrested for being an enemy of the people. This is a total surprise for young Sasha, since his dad is an agent with the State Security (the Soviet secret police). It's gotta be a huge mistake, right? Sasha now has to figure out where he'll live and how he'll get by—and how in the world he'll get his dad out of prison (if that's even possible).
Sasha has been chosen for a great honor: he gets to carry the banner of the Young Soviet Pioneers in the school's ceremony. This is major, people. There's that one problem hanging over his head, though—his dad's arrest.
And this whole situation is soon complicated bigtime when Sasha accidentally breaks the nose off of a plaster statue of Stalin in his school's multi-purpose hall. This is a huge no-no, and suddenly Sasha fears he'll be branded a terrorist and enemy of the people. If that's not a complication, well we don't know what is.
After everyone finds out about the broken statue, the school officials get right on it to find out who did this dastardly deed. Fingers are pointed everywhere—especially at anyone who is considered an outsider. So it's crisis time for Sasha who wavers on whether or not to confess. But that decision is soon taken out of his hands, and he's off the hook (thanks to Four-Eyes Finkelstein).
You'd think that's a good thing, right? Wrong. Sasha soon finds out some bad stuff about his dad from the State Security senior lieutenant, and realizes that his dad hasn't been quite as heroic as he previously thought. This is a huge moment for Sasha, and he realizes that most of what he's believed in has been dead wrong. Literally.
After finding out the news about his father, Sasha tries his best to hang onto his beliefs. He makes a deal with the State Security senior lieutenant to spy on others at the school and to turn them in when they commit treasonous acts (a.k.a. breathing wrong). In exchange, he'll be allowed to become a Pioneer, and can still carry the banner in the ceremony. But Sasha ends up deciding the price (his integrity) would be just too high, and quits. He walks out of the school, not wanting to play their reindeer games anymore.
After rejecting a spot in the Pioneers (and keeping his conscience clean!) Sasha goes to Lubyanka prison, where his father is being held. There, he gets into the longest of all long lines (making the line for Pirates of the Caribbean at Disney World look like the Express Checkout at 7-11) to wait for a visit with his dad. While in line, he meets a nice lady who gives him some food and invites him to live with her, but who tells Sasha that they will be waiting a long time.
If we're being honest, we've gotta say that there's really not too much resolution to this plot. We're kept waiting right along with Sasha and his new friend.