I heard the whine of airplane engines and looked up to see four Messerschmitts racing toward Leningrad, so high above us they seemed harmless as fruit flies. I wondered what buildings they would flatten, or if they would be shot down by our boys on the ground, or our pilots in the air. It seemed wonderfully abstract to me, somebody else’s war. Whenever they dropped their bombs, it wouldn’t be on me. When I realized that thought was my own, I felt a surge of guilt. What a selfish shit I had become.
(from City of Thieves, page 113).
The Siege of Leningrad lasted more than two years during World War II, from September 8, 1941, to January 27, 1944. The Germans surrounded the city, but they were never able to capture it. Although the Soviets emerged victorious, millions of soldiers and civilians perished from hunger, the cold, and sickness. The streets weren’t safe — residents had to worry about the NKVD and even cannibals — but their homes weren’t safe either when the German bombs fell at night. Those who survived subsisted on ration bread that was mostly sawdust, or they used what little money and valuables they had to buy what little food was left in the city. They became creative, even boiling down the glue from book bindings to create “library candy,” which tasted like wax but contained some protein.
In City of Thieves, David Benioff shows what it might have been like to live in Piter (what the residents called their beloved city; short for St. Petersburg, which is what it was called prior to 1914 and what it is called today) during the siege. The novel is narrated by 17-year-old Lev Beniov, whose father was a well-known Jewish poet taken away by the NKVD. His mother and sister evacuated months before, and now he lives alone in the apartment building he has called home since he was a child, escaping to the roof each night with his friends as part of a firefighting brigade and constantly finding ways to fight the endless hunger.
Lev is arrested one night after he and his friends are caught out after curfew looting the body of a German who parachuted into the city. He expects to be executed immediately, but the next day, he and his cell mate, Kolya, a Red Army soldier accused of desertion, are taken to an NKVD colonel and sent on an impossible mission. The pair are given five days to scrounge up a dozen eggs so that a wedding cake can be made for the colonel’s daughter. How they are expected to find fresh eggs in a city that’s cut off from supplies is anyone’s guess, but Lev and Kolya are dead either way.
Benioff chronicles their adventures around the city and behind enemy lines and allows readers to really get to know the young men along the way. Kolya is a bit of a ladies’ man and a lover of literature, and Lev is insecure about his inexperience with women, angry about his father’s murder, and always trying to prove that even though he is young and small, he is more than capable. I loved their bantering as they walked about in search of the eggs. At times, it seemed like they were just two guys out for a leisurely stroll, chatting about girls and books as if the Nazis weren’t up ahead waiting to kill them. Kolya, in particular, was such a loveable character. He was brazen and charming and downright captivating; you knew there would be entertainment when he was in the scene.
But that doesn’t mean City of Thieves was light reading. As expected in war novels (especially those featuring sinister Nazis), there are some gory scenes and some heartbreaking scenes. Benioff brilliantly balances the lightness with action and suspense so that even when you’re chuckling or shaking your head at Kolya, you never once forget that they are on a dangerous and futile mission. He took me on an emotional roller coaster for sure, and I was unable to put the book down for fear I’d miss something and then I was reading through my tears. Benioff masterfully paints a picture of a city under siege, giving glimpses of people who go to different lengths to survive but who all are cold, hungry, scared, and mostly resilient.
I can’t wait for our book club discussion of City of Thieves this weekend! I hope everyone loved it as much as I did. It’s definitely one of the best books I’ve read this year.
Disclosure: City of Thieves is from my personal library.
© 2012 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.