Study Guide

Breaking Stalin's Nose Themes

By Eugene Yelchin

  • Power

    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.

    Questions About Power

    1. What mechanisms for controlling people do we see in the novel? What are the physical methods? How about psychological ones? Are they really effective after all?
    2. Aside from their creepy black cars, why are those State Security agents so terrifying to the other characters in the book?
    3. Besides the "wreckers" (who try to blow things up and tear things down), what other types of dissent against the system do we see? Does it seem effective? Why or why not?
    4. Why do you think Sasha makes a point to tell us that the light in Stalin's office is on all night long, every night? What does that suggest?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Visions of the Soviet Union

    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.

    Questions About Visions of the Soviet Union

    1. There seem to be tons of people living in Moscow, and there are lots of images of overcrowding: Sasha's apartment (where some people don't even have rooms to sleep in), to people lining up for food, to citizens clinging to the streetcar like a pack of rats trying to stay on a sinking ship. Why does the city seem so overcrowded? Why might The Powers That Be want most of the population living in urban centers instead of spreading them out in the vast Russian landscape?
    2. What's Sasha's attitude toward Stukachov before his father is arrested? He definitely has some mixed feelings about him. What are the differences in living conditions between the two families? What might have motivated Stukachov to turn Sasha's dad in?
    3. What purpose do you think this parade fulfills? What are The Powers That Be trying to communicate to its citizens? Can you think of any festivals from your own country that it might be similar to? Do any modern-day countries put on pageants similar to the May Day parade that Sasha describes? If so, how is that country or countries similar to or different from the USSR?
    4. What's up with that "war preparedness" class that all the kids at Sasha's school take?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Coming of Age

    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.

    Questions About Coming of Age

    1. Vovka seems pretty fearless at times. He takes on Nina Petrovna and tries to bribe the principal. Why do you think he may have matured more quickly than Sasha? Than Four-Eyes?
    2. For a long time, Sasha is under the impression that his mother died from an unspecified illness in the hospital—just like his father told him. What does the funeral represent to Sasha, and why is it so important that he gets an answer from his father about it? (To get started, take a look at 30.16.)
    3. What do you imagine life is like for children growing up in the State-run orphanages for children of political criminals?
    4. Although Sasha's mom is American, we never really see Sasha wonder what life was like there for her. Why do you think this is? Do you think his mom instilled any American values in him? Where might we find hints of this in the text?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Admiration

    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.

    Questions About Admiration

    1. Sasha holds his dad up as a major hero. But are there any real heroes in the book? Who are they and why are they heroes?
    2. What do you think Sasha admires about Sergei Ivanych? What's the significance of Sasha being so surprised by the principal's short stature late in the book (27.1)?
    3. Nina Petrovna comes across as a thoroughly unpleasant human being, who really revels in being cruel to children. Does she have any redeeming admirable traits in her?
    4. In what ways is Sasha admirable? Where do we see him doing things that are to be commended? Where do we see him falter?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Justice

    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).

    Questions About Justice

    1. In this novel, you can get sent to prison for quite a range of crimes. What do you think is the purpose for prisons such as Lubyanka in the novel?
    2. How is the komunalka used as a form of surveillance of Soviet citizens?
    3. Four-Eyes Finkelstein questions Sasha about whether or not his mom was a spy. Sasha vehemently assures him that she was not, that she was a "good Communist." But, Four-Eyes tells him, his own parents were "good Communists," too, and now they're in the clink. What does Sasha learn about justice from this comment?
    4. What can you infer about the role that torture (or "enhanced interrogation") plays in the Soviet justice system that Yelchin shows?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Violence

    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.

    Questions About Violence

    1. Why do the children seem very unshocked when Vovka tries to strangle Nina Petrovna? What does that tell us about their daily lives?
    2. What compels Sasha to throw the snowball at Four-Eyes? Why does he later feel sorry?
    3. What can we assume about Sasha's dad's behavior by looking at the actions of the Senior Lieutenant who arrests him?
    4. What do you think really happened to Sasha's mom?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Community

    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.

    Questions About Community

    1. Which characters give Sasha anything even remotely resembling a sense of community in the novel?
    2. It's not really paranoia if they are really out to get you, right? So, with so many people willing to turn on each other at the drop of a hat (or the stomp of a jackboot), can we even locate a true community in Sasha's world? And how is Stalinist Russia defining community in the first place?
    3. What type of community do you think the Young Soviet Pioneers is? What do you think its average member is like?
    4. When you think of "communal housing," you probably think of people living together, cooperating, forming strong relationships, and genuinely enjoying each other's company. We don't see much of that in Sasha's komunalka, though. Can you think of places where we do see its residents showing true community spirit to each other?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Foreignness and the Other

    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.

    Questions About Foreignness and the Other

    1. What makes a good citizen in Sasha's world?
    2. In what ways does Nina Petrovna draw attention to the "otherness" of some of her students? How do the other children respond?
    3. What is the purpose of making people into outcasts in Sasha's society?
    4. Why do you think Sasha's mom came to the USSR, anyway?

    Chew on This

    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.