The Wende Museum Launched Eugene Yelchin’s Debut Novel “Breaking Stalin’s Nose”

Friday, October 21, 2011
The Wende Museum

6:00 pm
Reception and Exhibition Opening

7:00 pm
Staged Reading and Q&A
Book signing and vault tours

The Wende Museum launched Breaking Stalin’s Nose, the debut novel by Eugene Yelchin, St. Petersburg-born and Los Angeles-based artist and author. The Museum also presented an exhibition of the artist’s dramatic graphite illustrations for the book.

This novel, written for young audiences, tackles the difficult topic of growing up in the atmosphere of fear and oppression in Stalinist Russia. The violent regime suspected millions, young people included, of noncompliance or crimes against the state, leading to forced false confessions, imprisonment and executions. The lucky ones were marginalized for years as enemies of the people. The story, written in the first-person voice, centers on ten-year-old Sasha Zaichik and the moral choices he has to make. In a little more than 24 hours, Breaking Stalin’s Nose unfolds with great narrative momentum in a dark and snowy Moscow at the height of the Great Purges of the late 1930s. Stalin, in efforts to consolidate his power, orchestrated a series of campaigns of political repression and persecution of the Party and government officials, peasants and other unaffiliated persons.

Brainwashed like many of his fellow pupils by a cruel system which adulated the Soviet leader, Sasha single-mindedly dreams about becoming a Young Pioneer. But the night before he is finally to fulfill that singular dream, Sasha’s father, a high-standing member of Stalin’s Secret Police, is arrested on a tip from a neighbor vying for more living space in their communal apartment building. The next day at school, he has to make a choice--to follow his dream, walk away or admit his own mistakes. The boy’s exaltation about joining the Young Pioneers and his admiration for Stalin are sardonically matched by a series of catastrophic events. Motherless at the start of this novel, Sasha is not only without father midway through this novel but also finds himself homeless by the end.  In a satirical nod to a classic of Russian 19th century literature, Gogol’s short story “The Nose” about Major Kovalev’s anguished pursuit of his runaway proboscis, Yelchin makes his young hero accidentally break the nose off Stalin’s bust as the school prepares its pupils for the solemn acceptance into the very same organization that his entire young life was built around. The ensuing moral dilemma that Sasha faces at the school is a clear reference to the so-called Moscow show trials of the era. The story raises questions about what it meant to be a good communist, a good pioneer, a good neighbor and a good friend in a society that was built on fear and the tyranny of group thinking and behavior.

The book, published by Henry Holt and Company, is dedicated to Yelchin’s father, who, according to the artist, was lucky to survive the Stalin’s Great Terror of the 1930s. Yelchin notes that to him the book is about this young boy’s path to knowledge, which is “really about making a personal choice when the only choice available is the one dictated by the government."

Eugene Yelchin studied art and theater design at the Leningrad Institute of Theater Arts. He worked as a set, costume and poster designer completing more than twenty major stage productions in Russia and Eastern Europe before leaving the former Soviet Union and emigrating to the United States. Yelchin moved to Los Angeles to attend the graduate film program at the University of Southern California and subsequently has worked extensively in the entertainment and advertising industries. His films have received awards at festivals in Edinburgh, London, Paris, Berlin and Clermont Ferrand.

Yelchin’s first painting exhibition in the United States was held in 1994, followed by a series of solo and group shows in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Boston and Denver, among others. His work is in public and private collections in the United States, Europe, Australia and Japan. Yelchin’s book illustrations received the Tomie DePaola Award in 2006 and the National Jewish Book Award in 2010.

For more on Breaking Stalin's Nose, please visit its webpage.