I read this book purely out of Newbery-guilt—I’d never even heard of the title before it won a 2012 Newbery Honor. And now that I’ve finished, I’m going to push this book on everyone I know, because it’s brilliant, stunning and fully deserves the shiny sticker on its jacket.
Yelchin captures the terror of Stalin’s Russia in a mere 160 pages (the paranoia and brainwashing make The Crucible look benign). We witness two days in the life of Sasha Zaichik, the 10-year-old boy at the center of the tale. On day one he’s a proud Communist eager to join the Soviet Young Pioneers. Then his father disappears, and forty-eight hours later, Sasha has become someone quite different. The transformation happens slowly, and it’s utterly believable. There aren’t many children’s books about Stalin’s reign—Between Shades of Gray is last year’s standout from the YA genre. Breaking Stalin’s Nose is squarely middle grade, but Yelchin doesn’t shy away from the violence. He hides the darkness under a seemingly calm tone that makes it even creepier. Consider Sasha’s reaction when he finds himself homeless and alone on a snowy night:
The Stukachovs are sleeping warm and cozy in our room. Tomorrow they’ll throw away our broken things. That doesn’t matter, of course. My dad and I oppose personal property on principle. Personal property will disappear when Communism comes. But still.
This book will hit you hard. And once you’re done, if you can’t get Sasha out of your head, check out Yelchin’s website for historical photos and artifacts—chilling reminders of the real history behind Sasha’s tale.