If you've ever read 1984, or seen V for Vendetta, Soviet-style totalitarianism should look familiar (minus the slick, super-cool costumes and the balletic choreographed fight scenes). It's all about control, control, and more control (did we mention control?).
And what's better for the system maintaining this level of control over its citizens than abject fear, a healthy dose of paranoia, and a willingness to turn on your friends and loved ones (not to mention random strangers on the street) in a heartbeat? Sasha's story in Breaking Stalin's Nose shows us the price that's exacted for living in such a system. Spoiler alert: it's high.
Under the super-paranoid system of Soviet totalitarianism, Sasha can't really trust anyone, and no one can be considered his true friend.
Sasha's dad can be excused for the things he has done (like turning in his own wife as an enemy of the State); he's just trying to survive by any means necessary within this harsh system, and to take care of his son.
In Yelchin's Soviet Union, people live in crowded communal apartments (2.1), queue up for food rations in the freezing cold (11.2), and everywhere face the steely stare of Joseph Stalin as they go about their day. Breaking Stalin's Nose gives us a brief glimpse into what it was like to live under Stalin in Moscow in the 1950s. And it's not prettied up by any number of smart scarlet Pioneer scarves or fancy May Day parades.
Communal living can never be a functional, effective way to live, because you sacrifice too much to the group (such as privacy).
Yelchin doesn't give us any positive images of the family unit in this novel, but rather shows us the limits of family loyalty under the Soviet system.
If you think growing up in America is hard right now, what with worrying about grades, dates, and Facebook/Twitter updates, well, we dare you to walk a mile in Sasha's shoes. His dad's been arrested, his mom is dead, and he's left alone and homeless. But there's a bright patch behind all these clouds in Breaking Stalin's Nose: Sasha seems to be maturing, and as the novel progresses, he moves from being a naive idealist who blindly believes what he's told, to becoming a stronger kid who challenges the system and questions his own beliefs—even if it's only in a small way. At least for now.
Vovka has had to grow up much more quickly than has Sasha, which is why he knows how to game the system more effectively.
Sasha doesn't really have any positive adult mentors to help him grow and mature. The State has basically assumed that role.
There seems to be a chronic shortage of good people for Sasha to admire or use as role models in Breaking Stalin's Nose. His two main heroes are his dad and Joseph Stalin. It takes him a long time to get over his fanboy worship of Stalin, and along the way he starts to question everyone that he initially admired: his dad, Nina Petrovna, and the school's principal, Sergei Ivanych. That's because admiration in the novel comes as blind ideology (basically, what you've been taught to believe) rather than any individual judgment of people's good qualities. Questioning this and seeing how his own dad falls short is a hard lesson to learn, but Sasha starts to get it by the end of the book.
There are no true heroes in his book. Everyone is just out for themselves and trying to survive, which is basically the opposite of "heroic."
Out of all the book's characters, Vovka and Finkelstein come closest to being heroes, since they both put themselves in clear danger for the good of others.
Or maybe we should say "lack thereof." Midnight raids with black boots kicking doors in? Hapless prisoners being frog-marched into sinister black automobiles in the middle of the night? Forced confessions? Countless people arrested and executed? We see all of these things happen in Breaking Stalin's Nose. The justice system here is one based on accusation, guilt by association, and widespread fear. Looked at that way, there really doesn't seem to be a justice system at all. As the author himself points out: "During his reign, from 1923 to 1953, Joseph Stalin ensured his absolute power by waging war against the Russian people. Stalin's State Security executed, imprisoned, or exiled over twenty million people. Not a single person, be it a government official, war hero, worker, teacher, or homemaker, could be certain he or she would not be arrested" (Author's Note).
Fear in the Soviet society Yelchin shows serves as the real justice system, since once an accusation is made, you don't get a chance to defend yourself.
Even though Nina Petrovna isn't the one who breaks the nose off of the statue of Stalin, a kindasorta form of justice is served with her being arrested.
So, you're the dictator of a large, extremely diverse country, and you want everyone to pretty much believe the same thing, act the same way, and obey you without question. What are the methods in your bag of tricks to get all your peeps to toe your party line? Besides constant surveillance, violence is probably right up there at the top of your list. And we certainly see lots of that in Breaking Stalin's Nose. From the petty, casual cruelty of teachers to State-sanctioned killings, violence is an institutionalized part of the oppressive political system in Sasha's world.
War preparedness class and the snowball fights are ways that the children are systematically desensitized to violence.
Sasha doesn't seem to have suffered much violence in his life, which is something that separates him from the rest of society.
What do you think of when you hear the word "community"? Probably the various groups you belong to and all those things that make you feel like you're part of something bigger than yourself, right? But in Breaking Stalin's Nose, community is pretty much the opposite. Even though people live jammed right up in each other's faces (forty-eight to an apartment!), there's no sense that these people share any common interests (except staying alive) or even really like each other. The only time we really see any kind of real community is at the very end of the book, when the nice lady in line at the prison offers Sasha a place to stay.
Stalin's "Communist 'WE'" is merely groupthink. According to Yelchin, there's no sense of individualism at all within those who subscribe to it.
Despite the paranoia and danger, we do see some people forming communities that have the potential to subtly stand against the totalitarian system.
In Yelchin's depiction of the USSR under Stalin, it's all about fitting in—or else. Anyone who does not strictly conform to the expected political purity is held suspect. That means even if you were a natural-born citizen of the Soviet Union, you're probably still only minutes away from being accused of something by somebody. Just like how quick Stukachov is to sell out Sasha's dad. But if you're an outcast in another way, you're doubly suspect in Breaking Stalin's Nose. So, people like Four-Eyes Finkelstein and Sasha's mom don't stand a chance, since they're foreign and set apart already.
The definition for "enemy of the people" seems to change throughout the book, which adds to the people's paranoia.
Even though Sasha doesn't seem to know it, he's an "other" from the very beginning of the novel.