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					City of Thieves reading guide
About the book

When a writer, David, visits his grandparents in Florida he hopes to find out about their
experiences of the war. His grandmother won’t talk, but gradually and reluctantly his
grandfather consents. Over the next weeks he speaks of his childhood, of the war, but mostly
he talks about one week in 1942, the first week of the year, the week he made his best friend,
met his wife and killed two Germans . . .

Four months into the siege of Leningrad, the city is starving. Skinny, awkward seventeen-
year-old Lev Beniov is in the notorious Crosses prison, arrested for looting the body of a dead
German paratrooper. His cellmate, Kolya, is handsome, charismatic and surprisingly unafraid
for a soldier on desertion charges; the punishment for both men, as they well know, is death.
But dawn brings, instead of the firing squad, an impossible challenge. Colonel Grechko needs
a dozen eggs for his daughter’s wedding cake. Lev and Kolya can find them and be spared,
or fail and be shot. In the depths of the coldest winter in history, through a city cut off from all
supplies and suffering appalling deprivation, man and boy embark on an absurd hunt through
desolate, lawless Leningrad and the devastated countryside surrounding it. Along the way
they meet cannibals, antitank dogs, captive Russian girls, a Nazi death squad, resistance
vigilantes and a complete dearth of eggs. Until, that is, Kolya engineers an even more daring
plan, a chess match between Lev and Abendroth, the thoroughly evil commander of the local
occupying German forces. The prize if Lev wins: their freedom and a dozen eggs. The
penalty if he fails: death. Here, finally, Lev must find the courage that has always eluded him
and return to Leningrad with his beloved friend – and a dozen eggs – intact.


About the author

Born and raised in New York City, David Benioff now lives in Los Angeles, an acclaimed
screenwriter for films including Troy and The Kite Runner. David Benioff has published
articles and stories in GQ, Seventeen and Zoetrope and is the author of two novels, The 25th
Hour and When the Nines Roll Over.


Background information

The Siege of Leningrad

The capture of Leningrad – former capital of Russia, symbolic home of the Revolution and a
major naval and industrial base – was one of three strategic goals in Hitler’s plans for
defeating Russia. From August 1941 when the Wehrmacht and Finnish troops reached the
outskirts of Leningrad to January 1944, operations to take the city dominated OKH (German
Army High Command) strategy, and so confident was Hitler of his own success in 1941 that
he distributed formal invitations to a victory reception ball at the Leningrad’s Hotel Astoria for
New Year’s Eve 1942. Although Hitler's plan failed, the 900-day siege caused phenomenal
destruction and loss of life. Leningrad was systematically bombed from August 1941 to 1943,
and on Hitler's explicit orders most of the palaces of the Tsars and other historic landmarks
were looted and then destroyed, along with the city’s airport, factories, schools, hospitals and
transport infrastructure. Despite attempts by the British and Americans to smuggle food and
material supplies into the city, it is estimated that the siege of Leningrad resulted in the deaths
of about 1.5 million civilians, and the evacuation of 1.4 million more, mainly women and
children, many of whom died due to starvation and bombardment. Economic destruction and
human losses in Leningrad on both sides exceeded those of the Battle of Stalingrad, or the
Battle of Moscow, or the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The battle for
Leningrad is listed among the most lethal sieges in world history, now often referred to as
‘genocide’, representative of the German war of extermination against the entire civilian
population of the Soviet Union.
Russian Literature

Prior to the nineteenth century Russia produced very little, if any, internationally read
literature, but from around the 1830's Russian literature underwent an astounding romantic
golden age, beginning with the poet Aleksandr Pushkin and culminating in two of the greatest
novelists in world literature, Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky, and the playwright Anton
Chekhov. Russia’s artistic renaissance continued into the twentieth century and the first few
years of Soviet rule after 1917 oversaw an atmosphere of great optimism and opportunity.
This was the period during which the Russian Avant-Garde reached its height, developing the
radical new styles of Constructivism, Futurism and Suprematism. But the period of relative
prosperity and freedom did not last long. After Lenin’s death in 1924 Stalin placed art and
literature under much tighter control, and the radical energy of the Avant-Garde was replaced
by the solemn grandeur of Soviet realism. By the end of the 1930s, the Soviet Union had
become a country in which life was more strictly regulated than ever before. Experimentation
had ended, and discipline was the rule of the day, leaving writers such as Mikhail Bulgakov,
Boris Pasternak and Andrei Platonov continuing the classical tradition of Russian literature in
secret, with no hope of publishing their works until after their deaths.


The NKVD

The NKVD or ‘People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs’ was the leading secret police
organisation of the Soviet Union that was responsible for political repression during the
Stalinist era. It conducted mass extrajudicial executions, ran the Gulag system of forced
labour, suppressed underground resistance, conducted mass deportations to unpopulated
regions of the country, guarded state borders, conducted espionage and political
assassinations abroad and enforced Stalinist policy within Communist movements in other
countries. The NKVD was also known for its Main Directorate for State Security (GUGB),
which eventually became the Committee for State Security (KGB). In implementing Soviet
internal policy, hundreds of thousands of ‘enemies of the people’ were executed by the
NKVD. Formally, most were convicted by NKVD troika — special court martial — but
standards were evidently very low; a tip-off by an anonymous informer was considered
sufficient grounds for arrest, the use of torture was sanctioned by a special decree of the
state and mass extrajudicial executions were carried out according to secret regional quotas.
Hundreds of NKVD mass graves were later discovered throughout the country. Purges were
conducted against religious activists, engineers, medics, military, and entire non-Russian
populations, but ethnic Russians still formed the majority of NKVD victims. During World War
II, NKVD units were used for rear area security, targeting deserters and collaborators with
Germany and non-Communist resistance movements such as the Polish Armia Krajowa.
NKVD agents became not only executioners, but also one of the largest groups of victims
when hundreds of thousands of 1930s agency staff, including all commanders, were
executed in one of Stalin’s purges.


For discussion

David Benioff is an acclaimed scriptwriter with Troy and The Kite Runner among his film
credits. Can you tell? Did you identify any filmic qualities in City of Thieves? Would the novel
transfer well to the big screen?

Would you describe this book as a coming-of-age story? How does Lev develop over the
course of the novel? What, if anything, causes him to change? Do any of the other characters
change?

What does City of Thieves have to say about masculinity and femininity during times of war?
How do the book’s characters conform to and subvert traditional gender roles? Why do they?
Is David Benioff successful at melding fact and fiction? What techniques does he employ to
communicate the facts of the siege without it reading like a history lesson? Does he get the
balance right?

Why do you think David Banioff included the introductory chapter narrated by Lev’s
grandson? What is the effect of this passage on the rest of the book? Did it affect your
interpretation of the subsequent action, and if so, how?

‘Kolya was a braggart, a know-it-all, a Jew-baiting Cossak, but his confidence was so pure
and complete it no longer seemed like arrogance, just the mark of a man who had accepted
his own heroic destiny’ (p.116). Is Kolya a hero? Did you succumb to his charms? Do you
think he may have been judged differently if he had survived the siege?

‘[The Germans] think they’re the only culture in Europe? They really want to match Goethe
and Heine against Pushkin and Tolstoy? I’ll give them music . . . and philosophy. But
literature? No, I think not’ (p.232). Why is culture so important to Kolya and other characters
in the novel? What is the relevance of The Courtyard Hound story (p.288)?

‘Fucking Moscow . . . the porcine bureaucrats in the capital would probably surrender . . . if
they couldn’t get their weekly ration of sturgeon’ (p.104). Where do the characters’ loyalties lie
in this book? To Russia, to Leningrad, to Communism, or to the government? Or what? Who
are the ‘baddies’?

What does City of Thieves have to say about courage?

‘I had met [Kolya] on Friday night and didn’t even like him until Monday, and now, Tuesday
afternoon, seeing him alive again made me want to cry with happiness’ (p.215). Why do Lev
and Kolya forge such a strong bond? Would their friendship have been viable in peaceful
circumstances?

‘ “David”, he said. “You’re a writer. Make it up” ’ (p.6). What did you think of Lev encouraging
David to ‘make up’ his story? How seriously are we to take the biographical element of this
book? Does it matter if the facts are not strictly accurate?

What is the relevance of Lev and Kolya’s mission to find eggs? Is it merely a plot device or
does it represent something more profound about the nature of war?

‘This was the way we decided to talk, free and easy . . . You couldn’t let too much truth seep
into your conversation, you couldn’t admit with your mouth what your eyes had seen’ (p.74).
How do Lev and Kolya communicate with each other? How do they cope with their traumatic
experiences? Do they differ in their approach?

‘I had become a phantom. There was no one left in the city who knew my full name’ (p.82).
What does the war do to individuals and their sense of identity?

‘ “How did you become a sniper?”
“I started shooting people.” ’ (p.244)
How would you describe the humour in this book? Were you surprised by it? Is it appropriate
in a war novel?


Also by David Benioff

When the Nines Roll Over
The 25th Hour


Suggestions for further study

The People’s Act of Love by James Meek
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
The Siege by Helen Dunmore
Stalingrad by Antony Beevor
Enemy at the Gates (2001)

				
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