City of Thieves, by David Benioff

City of Thieves, by David Benioff

City of Thieves, by David Benioff. A Plume Book, 2008.

City of Thieves, by David Benioff. A Plume Book, 2008.

About the Siege of Leningrad

This siege is an event so horrific that it stands out even in the context of World War II. City of Thieves is the first book about it that I read – growing up in the Soviet Union, I had learned enough in school and from the experiences of family and others to believe I knew all there was to know on the topic.

The author bases the book on the memories of his grandfather who lived through the siege as a youth. He tells the story from the viewpoint of Lev, a teenager who refused to evacuate with his mother and sister and whose father had disappeared in a Stalin’s purge.

Lev’s life is in danger when an army patrol detains him for looting. But he gets a reprieve. A colonel dispatches him and another prisoner, Kolya, an army deserter, on an expedition to locate and bring a dozen eggs for his daughter’s wedding cake. They have four days to succeed or lose their lives.

In a city pounded by Nazi air raids and isolated like an island where some restore to cannibalism and thousands die of hunger every day, a full-fledged wedding is an incomprehensible idea. A wedding complete with a cake makes the idea bizarre and insulting.

Lev and Kolya face deathly encounters, cross into Nazi-occupied territory and connect with partisans. On the way back, Kolya gets killed. Lev delivers the eggs only to discover that the colonel had managed to procure them elsewhere and had forgotten about his messengers.

About the Siege of Leningrad?

The plot moves fast, filled with acute observations and self-deprecating reflections. The war is, however, merely the surface of the plot. It brings to the fore the Soviet social ills.  The title may as well have been “Country of Thieves.”

The author who never lived in the Soviet Union could not know what Soviets digested with their mothers’ milk. Toasted bread or “snug compartments” in egg packaging did not exist. Evacuation from the Nazi was not on foot or by hitchhiking. The end-of-siege salute would only display red color, if any, not red-white-and-blue. And most importantly, Lev would reside in a communal, not private, apartment. Neither would he have roommates because the obligatory propiska in Leningrad was unattainable and because the communal neighbors would report illegal tenants.

These details aside, that much is obvious to a former Soviet: Benioff is steeped in family stories. Proof positive is this description: “’For Mother Russia!’ He downed the wood alcohol with a gulp, slammed the glass down on the table, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and gagged.”

Not about the siege of Leningrad!

Benioff shows an innate understanding of the climate and mentality brought on by the infamous 1930’s Stalin’s Purges and the hypocrisy, corruption, bigotry, and constant fear that permeated Soviet everyday life.

Lev’s thoughts are always on the fact that he is Jewish and on his father’s fate. His father, taken by NKVD (later known as KGB) from his office four years earlier, never returned. He “had the misfortune of being a Jew and a poet” who publicly referred to Leningrad by its nickname Piter (Peter) forbidden because it reminded of a Tsar.

Lev tries to visualize what happened to his father next. “They had no torture scheduled, no teeth to wrench, no nails to pluck from a screaming man’s nail beds,” he says about his smiling jail guards who might have been his father’s torturers. He is bitter that no one outside family mentions his father.

He knows exactly how many men were arrested from the building where he lived—fifteen. The few that came back, “their heads shaved and their faces pale and lifeless,” avoided Lev’s eyes. They knew that his family had not been so lucky. “If he was buried, there is no marker; if he was burned, there is no urn.”

“The secret to living a long life”

Small, shy, and awkward around girls, Lev dislikes his stereotypically Jewish features. Like any Soviet Jew, he has developed an expectation of trouble lurking everywhere. His Gentile counterparts feel entitled to scorn, distrust, threaten, or poke fun at a Jew with impunity.

He doesn’t forget for a moment that Kolya, his partner on their death-defying errand, originates from pogrom-loving Cossacks. And Kolya is surprised that Lev does not prefer Mahler, a Jew, to Shostakovich, a Gentile.

An instinct tells Lev that the colonel who saved his life did not lose his teeth to a disease or busted his knuckles in a fight. “They had brought him in during one purge or another… pried the teeth from his mouth, and beaten him till his eyes bled, till he pissed blood and shat blood.” Lev knows why the purge spared the colonel and did not spare his father: “An intelligence officer might hold future value for the state but a decadent poet did not.”

The colonel and Lev don’t have to talk to understand the reality of their lives. “Those words you want to say right now? Don’t say them.” … “And that, my friend, is the secret to living a long life.”

These are the last words of this story that is not about the siege.

Miscellaneous facts

800,000 civilians lost their lives during the siege of Leningrad that lasted from September 1941 to January 1944.

The Russian vocabulary acquired a new word, blokadnik, a person who survived the siege of Leningrad (from blokada that means blockade).

In 1948, Stalin who did not like people feeling they were heroes closed the Siege Museum that opened after the siege. The museum reopened in 1989.

In the 1970’s when the media, speeches, and textbooks assured the population of the abundance it enjoyed, a joke surfaced: “If we survived the siege we’ll survive the abundance.”

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