Breaking Stalin’s Nose, set during Stalin’s great purge in the 1930s, is a great historical fiction conversation starter for discussing propaganda, witch hunts, ethics, and community.
How do we know what is right? That’s the question at the heart of this middle grades book, set in the early days of the Soviet Union. Joseph Stalin is the dictator of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and everybody loves him—loudly and frequently, so that their neighbors don’t suspect them of disloyalty to the state. Stalin is very sensitive to disloyalty. He takes it personally, and anyone suspected of disloyalty is tried publicly and dramatically before being shipped off to prison camps or executed. Everyone Stalin suspects always turns out to be guilty.
That’s not a problem for Sasha Zaichik, though. Nobody’s more loyal to Stalin than 10-year-old Sasha and his family. Sasha’s works for the State Security, helping Stalin track down and arrest the Soviets who aren’t loyal to their leader. Sasha couldn’t be prouder. And Sasha is counting down the days until he can join the communist youth group the Young Pioneers and pledge his official alliance to Stalin.
It only takes two days for everything that Sasha believes to shatter. First, he accidentally breaks a bust of the Dictator at his school, setting off an investigation in which State Security encourages the students to turn in the culprit, who must be a dangerous enemy of the state. Then, his beloved father is arrested in the middle of the night and taken away by the secret police, who tell Sasha that the only way he can become a Young Pioneer now is by denouncing his father as a traitor. Alone for the first time, Sasha begins to question his naive faith in Stalin’s Soviet Union, recognizing the hysteria and paranoia that make neighbors, friends, and family members turn on each other and realizing that not every person accused of and condemned for treason is necessarily guilty.
What makes it a great readaloud: Eugene Yelchin wanted to illuminate a piece of history that we don’t often get to read about in U.S. classrooms: the fear and horror that people in Stalin’s Soviet Union had to live with every day. Because Sasha’s only 10 years old, his understanding of what’s actually happening in his country develops along with the reader’s, and it’s a great book to launch discussions of propaganda, politics, and fake news.
But be aware: This is historical fiction set in a difficult, dangerous era, and you’re likely to finish the book feeling glad that Sasha understands more about the world he’s living in but also worried about what the future holds for him. Very sensitive kids may struggle with this and with the mostly-offstage violence of the Stalinist raids.
Quotable: “‘What The Nose so vividly demonstrates to us today,’ says Luzhko, ‘is that when we blindly believe in someone else’s idea of what is right or wrong for us as individuals, sooner or later our refusal to make our own choices could lead to the collapse of the entire political system. An entire country. The world, even.’
He looks at the class significantly and says, ‘Do you understand?’
Of course, they have no idea what he’s talking about. This Luzhko is suspicious. I always thought so. All teachers use words you hear on the radio, but he doesn’t. I don't know what’s wrong with him. I turn and walk away.”
Learn more: You may want to read up on Stalin and the Soviet Union before or after reading this book together. This BBC site gives a brief but informative overview of the political and social landscape of the 1930s Soviet Union.