Read Breaking Stalin's Nose Online

Authors: Eugene Yelchin

Breaking Stalin's Nose

To my father,
who survived the Great Terror
MY DAD IS A HERO and a Communist and, more than anything, I want to be like him. I can never be like Comrade Stalin, of course. He's our great Leader and Teacher.
The voice on the radio says, “Soviet people, follow our great Leader and Teacher—the beloved Stalin—forward and ever forward to Communism! Stalin is our banner! Stalin is our future! Stalin is our happiness!” Then a song comes on, “A Bright Future Is Open to Us.” I know every word, and, singing along, I take out a pencil and paper and start writing.
Dear Comrade Stalin,
I want to thank you personally for my happy childhood. I am fortunate to live in the Soviet Union, the most democratic and progressive country in the world. I have read how hard the lives of children are in the capitalist countries and I feel pity for all those who do not live in the USSR. They will never see their dreams come true.
My greatest dream has always been to join the Young Soviet Pioneers—the most important step in becoming a real Communist like my dad. By the time I was one year old, my dad had taught me the Pioneers greeting. He would say, “Young Pioneer! Ready to fight for the cause of the Communist Party and Comrade Stalin?” In response, I would raise my hand in the Pioneers salute.
Of course, I couldn't reply “Always ready!” like the real Pioneers do; I couldn't talk yet. But I'm old enough now and my dream is becoming a reality. Tomorrow at my school's Pioneers rally, I will finally become a Pioneer.
It's not possible to be a true Pioneer without training one's character in the Stalinist spirit.
I solemnly promise to make myself strong from physical exercise
to forge my Communist character
and always to be vigilant
because our capitalist enemies are never asleep. I will not rest until I am truly useful to my beloved Soviet land and to you personally
dear Comrade Stalin. Thank you for giving me such a wonderful opportunity.
Forever yours
Sasha Zaichik
Moscow Elementary school #37
When I imagine Comrade Stalin reading my letter, I get so excited that I can't sit still. I rise up and march like a Pioneer around the room, then head to the kitchen to wait for my dad.
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 call
for short. We live here as one large, happy family: We are all equal; we have no secrets. We know who gets up at what time, who eats what for dinner, and who said what in their rooms. The walls are thin; some don't go up to the ceiling. We even have a room cleverly divided with shelves of books about Stalin that two families can share.
Stalin says that sharing our living space teaches us to think as Communist “WE” instead of capitalist “I.” We agree. In the morning, we often sing patriotic songs together when we line up for the toilet.
OUR NEIGHBOR Marfa Ivanovna gives me a treat—a carrot. I take the carrot to the kitchen window, climb a warm radiator, and look down into the courtyard to see if my dad is coming. Sometimes he doesn't come home till morning. That is because he works in the State Security on Lubyanka Square.
The State Security is our secret police, and their job is to unmask the disguised enemies infiltrating our borders. My dad is one of their best. Comrade Stalin personally pinned the order of the Red Banner on his chest and called him “an iron broom purging the vermin from our midst.”
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. But still, it's good to have something tasty to eat now and then. I wonder what it's like in the capitalist countries. I wouldn't be surprised if children there had never even tasted a carrot.
EVERYONE IN THE KITCHEN stops talking when my dad comes in. They look like they are afraid, but I know they are just respectful. Dad swoops me off the radiator and carries me through the kitchen, nodding at everybody. His overcoat is coarse and smells of snow. One neighbor, Stukachov, follows us down the corridor, smiling and bobbing his head, asking how many spies my dad has exposed today. Not that my dad would tell him—it's a state secret. But he catches enemies every day; that I know. He told me if I see a suspicious character on the street, I should follow him and observe his activities; he might be a spy. It's wise to be suspicious. The enemies are everywhere.
When we get to our room, Stukachov is still trailing after us. 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, stretching his neck and looking into our room when my dad closes the door on him.
“Don't talk to him,” says my dad. “He'll use it.”
I nod in agreement, but I'm not sure what he means. Use what? I'll have to think about it later.
Dad is pulling off his boots while I'm reading my letter to Stalin out loud. He smiles and tells me I wrote a good letter. He puts the letter into his briefcase and promises he'll deliver it. Then
he says, “Your principal, Sergei Ivanych, called me at work today.”
“Why? We don't have spies or enemies at school.”
He looks at me sternly, and right away I know I lack in vigilance. “Can you say this with absolute certainty?” he asks.
I can't think of anyone who could be a spy or an enemy at school, but I say, “No, I can't.”
He nods and hands me something wrapped in brown paper. “That's not why he called. Open it up.”
Scarlet bursts out as I unwrap the package. The scarf of a Young Pioneer! The triangle of simple red cloth that every Pioneer must wear, but how beautiful it is and how long I have wished for it. Tomorrow, when I become a Pioneer, I will wear it for the first time.
I spread the scarf on the table, smooth the wrinkles, and say, “The three tips of the Pioneers
scarf symbolize the union of three generations, mature Communists, the Communist Youth, and the Young Pioneers.”
“Tell me why it's red,” says my dad.
“The red color of the Pioneers scarf is the color of our Communist banner and represents blood spilled for the cause of the Communist Party!”
My dad nods and ties it around my neck just as the rule says—the right tip extending lower than the left—and says, “Young Pioneer! Ready to fight for the cause of the Communist Party and Comrade Stalin?”
I shoot my arm up in the Pioneers salute and reply, “Always ready!”
Here his face changes, and by the look he has now, I know what he's going to say.
“Your mother would be so proud,” he says.
I see myself reflected in his glasses; scarlet burns at my throat. My hand goes up to it. After tomorrow, I'll never take this scarf off. Just to wash and iron it every night.
“I'm going to tie your scarf tomorrow at the Pioneers rally. Not just yours. Your principal asked me to be a guest of honor,” he says.
I don't want to be disappointed, so I say, “You can't come, right? Too busy catching spies?”
He smiles. “I'll be there. Word of a Communist.”
I leap up and hug him, and he hugs me
back. He's so strong, my ribs are about to crack. Then he says quietly in my ear, “Anything ever happens to me, go to Aunt Larisa. She'll put you up.”
Just then, our neighbor Orlov starts singing and playing his accordion.
Be calm, our Leader, we're standing guard.
We won't give the enemy even a yard.
Wherever we go, the world's set anew.
Life's getting better and happier too!
Dad sets me down, knocks on the wall, and says, “Keep it down, comrade. It's no time for parties.”
Orlov stops right away; that is how much everybody respects my dad. He turns to me and says, “To bed, future Pioneer. Tomorrow's a big day.”

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