Welcome to Stories of Communism, the podcast where we discuss what life is really like for those unfortunate enough to live under communist or socialist governments. Recording from the suburbs of Wichita, Kansas, this is Erik Seligman, your host, with co-host Manuel Castaneda dialing in from Oregon.
Today we’re going to talk about an unusual children’s book, targeted for a middle-school audience: “Breaking Stalin’s Nose”, by Eugene Yelchin. I was happy to see that such a book exists— it seems that these days, most books in U.S. schools are coming from the opposite end of the political spectrum. It tells the story of two eventful days in the life of a young boy in Stalin’s Soviet Union of the early 1950s. A historical novel, it is based on memories retold to Yelchin by friends and family during his own childhood, just a few years after the period featured in the book. Zaichik is a young boy who lives with his father, a minor functionary who works for the secret police, in a communal apartment. He is excited that he is only a day away from being inducted in the Young Pioneers, a scout-like organization that only accepts loyal Communist children into their ranks, and has been selected to lead the parade and carry the school’s banner.
As we hear in nearly every episode of this podcast, material poverty is inherent to the system, as we see when Zaichik discusses his living situation.
It’s dinnertime, so the kitchen is crowded. Forty-eight hardworking, honest Soviet citizens share the kitchen and single small toilet in our communal apartment… We live here as one large, happy family; we have no secrets. We know who gets up at what time, who eats what for dinner, and who said what in their rooms… Stalin says that sharing our living spaces teaches us to think as Communist “We” instead of capitalist “I”. We agree.
I take small bites of the carrot to make it last; the carrot is delicious. When hunger gnaws inside my belly, I tell myself that a future Pioneer has to repress cravings for such unimportant matters as food. Communism is just over the horizon; soon there will be plenty of food for everyone…. I wonder what it’s like in the capitalist countries. I wouldn’t be surprised if children there had never even tasted a carrot.
As you might expect, this kind of deprivation leads to jealousy and resentment among those who see their neighbors slightly better-off than they are. While Zaichik and his father are not exactly living in luxury, many others have it much worse. In particular, there is major tension between his father and neighbor Stukachov.
I wish he would leave us alone and go to his own room, even though I know how crammed it is in there with his wife, three little kids, and mother. My dad and I have a large room for the two of us. I’m so embarrassed we live in luxury that I don’t look at Stukachov, but I know he’s there.
Then, suddenly, Zaichik’s life is turned upside down when his father is arrested. It turns out that this is the doing of Stukachov, who was next in line for their room— he doesn’t even give the boy enough time to remove his belongings, immediately claiming his new residence after the father is taken.
In the corridor stands our neighbor Stukachov. “It’s me, Stuckachov. I made the report,” he says, smiling and bobbing his head at the passing uniforms.
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…
Maybe I don’t need a room…. Maria Ivanova doesn’t have a room. She lives in a cubbyhole next to the toilet. Semenov sleeps behind the curtain in the corridor, and nobody’s complaining. I feel better already. I’m staying in the kitchen until my dad returns.
He attempts to go to his uncle and aunt for help, but they have little interest in taking care of another child, especially one with the stigma of being the son of an “enemy of the people”. Zaichik reminisces with them about the death of his mother, but it’s pretty clear that some information is being withheld. Later we learn that his father actually turned her in to the secret police for disloyalty, gaining prestige for himself at the expense of her life.
The next day, Zaichik attempts to go to school as normal, still hoping he can march with the banner and become a Young Pioneer. On the way in, he has a minor scuffle with a classmate, “Four-Eyes” Finklestein, who ends up being late as a result. Everyone in the class feels free to mock and torment Finklestein, since it is well-known that his parents were arrested. When he arrives late to class, the teacher instructs the students to vote on whether to send him to the principal.
…remember, children, the Soviet classroom is the most democratic in the world. You will decide his fate. You will vote. Those in favor of sending Finkelstein to the principal, raise your hands.”
Feeling a bit guilty, Zaichik refuses at first to vote for punishing Finklestein. But the teacher quickly corrects him.
We don’t allow those who vote against the majority to handle the sacred banner. You’re a smart boy, Zaichik; you understand.”… I raise my hand.
Then, further disaster strikes. As Zaichik is walking down the hallway, fetching the sacred banner for the parade later, he bumps against the school’s statue of Stalin— and accidentally knocks off the nose.
The plaster dust sparkles in the muted window light before landing on the floor around the nose. I look at the broken nose. I look at the banner, spread nearby. Then I look up at Stalin, now without a nose. It doesn’t take much to know what will happen next…
the guards will arrive to arrest me. It won’t be a mistake like with my dad, I should be arrested… I have become an enemy of the people, a wrecker…. who’s going to believe me? Nobody saw how it happened.
He quickly moves past the statue and hopes that nobody saw him, but a few minutes later the broken nose is spotted in the hallway. The school authorities see this as an anti-Soviet act, though they don’t know who is responsible. The teacher starts pressuring the students to inform on each other in order to find the culprit.
“I’ll make it easy for you. Write down the names of the pupils who you’re sure didn’t do it… Just make sure you are right. You know what will happen if even one name on your list turns out to be unreliable?”… “You, yourself, will be suspected… We’ll know that Zina Krivko is covering for the enemies of the people.”…
Zaichik is saved when, inexplicably, Finkelstein confesses for the act. It soon dawns on him that his classmate is hoping to be sent to the prison where his parents are, foolishly believing they can be together again as a family. Of course, the teacher sees this as confirmation that no son of enemies of the people can be trusted.
“We should have known better than to permit Finkelstein to remain in our ranks after his parents were arrested. We have failed, class, slackened in our vigilance. But this will not happen again.”
Nina Petrovna rises, walks to where the group photograph of our class hangs on the wall, and blackens Four-Eyes’s face with her ink pen. That’s what we always do to pictures of enemies of the people, and it usually feels good, but not this time. Four-Eyes is not an enemy. He just wanted to see his parents.
Zaichik is soon summoned to the principal’s office anyway, as the news has arrived that his father was arrested. He reflects on what has happened to another classmate, Vovka, who also had a father arrested. The principal then rubs salt in the wounds by lecturing Zaichik on how he should have acted after the arrest.
When Vovka and I were friends, I went to his apartment hundreds of times. I liked his dad. He was a good Soviet citizen, modest, a devoted Communist. How could he be a wrecker?… It’s just too confusing. Then I remember what my dad used to say; “There’s no smoke without a fire.” If someone is arrested and executed, there must be a good reason for it… What about my dad then?
“You, Zaichik. Your father has been arrested and locked up… You think I didn’t know?”… “So why not come to me and say, ‘Sergei Ivanych, I want to purify myself from the rotten influence of my father. I want to march with my school…’ “ … “Had you done that,” Sergei Ivanych says, “I would have let you denounce your father at today’s Pioneers rally… But no, you chose to pretend that you are still one of us.”
Upset, the boy flees from the principal’s office and hides in an unused part of the school. Out of fear and exhaustion, he faints, and has a bizarre hallucinatory conversation with the statue’s severed nose. Among other topics, it retells a dark joke that was popular in Stalin’s day, though few could dare to tell it aloud:
“Once, I received a delegation of workers from the provinces. When they left, I looked for my pipe but did not see it. I called the chairman of the State Security…. ‘Yes, Comrade Stalin, I’ll immediately take the proper measures.’ Ten minutes later, I pulled out a drawer in my desk and saw my pipe. I dialed the State Security again. ‘Nikolai Ivanych, my pipe’s been found.’ ‘What a shame,’ he said. ‘All of the workers have already confessed.’”
Finally, in the end, Zaichik runs away from the school, and decides to get in line at the prison to try and see his father. It will be a long time until that happens, as he sees a gigantic queue in front of the prison doors, thousands of people lined up for multiple blocks. But on that line, for the first time, he sees genuine human warmth and camaraderie not tainted by obsequiousness to authorities or constant fear.
After a while, a woman in front of me turns around. “You must be cold”, she says… She stares at me for a moment, then digs into her bag and pulls out a woolen scarf. “I made this for my son,” she says. “Wrap it around. I’ll take it back when we get to the door.”… She doesn’t even ask if I’m hungry, just takes out something wrapped in a cloth and hands it to me. I unwrap it— a baked potato, still hot…. “Now that my son’s cot is empty, you’re welcome to it if you want.”
<closing conversation with Manuel>
If you liked these excerpts and have a young reader in your life, be sure to get them a copy of “Breaking Stalin’s Nose” by Eugene Yelchin, linked in the show notes at storiesofcommunism.com .
And this has been your Story of Communism for today.