Study Guide Excerpt: City of Thieves by David Benioff
Chapter One Summary
The first chapter begins on New Year's Eve 1941 in Leningrad, Russia - during the Siege of Leningrad. The narrator Lev Beniov, 17, sits on the roof of the Kirov - his apartment building. Lev is a firefighter and is looking out for German bombers. His mother and sister have evacuated to Vyazma, and he now lives alone. Lev told his mother that Leningrad needed him to defend it. He would be a “Nevsky” for the twentieth century. He patrols the roofs with his friend Vera Osipovna and twins Grisha and Oleg Antokolsky.
As they sit on the roof a man is seen falling from the sky. He appears to be a dead German parachutist. They run outside - six hours into curfew. The four of them begin to strip the German corpse of his belongings. Oleg takes his black leather gloves and wallet, Vera his scarf and goggles. Lev takes a weighted knife with a silver finger guard. Grisha opens the man's hip flask and raises it in salute.
They don't hear the GAZ as they are busy drinking the German liquor. As looting, abandoning a firefighting post and breaking curfew are illegal - punishable by summary execution - they run back to the building. But, Vera slips on ice. As Lev goes back to help her he is grabbed by the Russian police. They remark that Lev looks like “a good one for the colonel”. He and the German corpse are thrown into the back of the GAZ.
Chapter Two Summary
At the beginning of chapter two Lev shares with the reader of his fear of the Crosses prison, “a brutish, brooding warehouse of the lost”. He is taken by the police to an empty cell there. Whilst there Lev worries that he will never be a great Russian, as many great Russians endure time in prison, and after a few hours he was already “half broken”.
Lev hears footsteps and a key is turned in the lock of the cell door. A young uniformed soldier is thrown into the cell with him. Lev notes the “high Cossack cheekbones, the amused twist of the lips, the hay-blond hair, the eyes blue enough to please any Aryan bride”. The soldier introduces himself as Nikolai Alexandrovich Vlasov - his friends call him Kolya. Kolya says that he was accused of desertion but was actually defending his thesis - an interpretation of The Courtyard Hound by Ushakovo.
Lev fears that he and Kolya will be shot in the morning, but Kolya believes that the guards won’t preserve them for the night, just to shoot them tomorrow. Kolya thinks the Crosses is probably the safest place in Piter (the nickname for Leningrad) to spend the night and falls asleep. Lev tells the reader that he's envious of sleepers like that, as he's an insomniac. He spends the entire night awake.
Chapter Three Summary
An hour after dawn, Lev and Kolya are woken by two new guards. They are taken outside to a waiting GAZ. Kolya jumps into the backseat and cracks a joke. The guards laugh, but the driver of the car threatens Kolya. Eventually, the driver backs down and Lev joins Kolya in the backseat. The GAZ takes them to Kamenny Island and Kolya shares facts about the Dolgorukov family who lived in a mansion there.
The GAZ stops at the mansion and the soldiers take Lev and Kolya inside, where they see dozens of Soviet secret police officers - the NKVD. Lev says that the NKVD arrested 15 men from the Kirov. Some were returned, broken, some, like Lev's father, were not returned at all.
Lev and Kolya are taken to see the colonel. He instructs the guards to remove "the deserter and the looter's" cuffs. Kolya says that he's not a deserter. The colonel asks Lev if he stole anything other than food. Lev shows him the knife, but the colonel tells him, “keep it, you’ll need it”.
Moving to the French windows, the colonel asks Lev if his father was the poet. “He could write”, he said, “what happened was… unfortunate.” He takes Lev and Kolya outside where a girl is skating on the river. The girl is the colonel’s daughter and is due to get married next Friday. The colonel says she wants a “real wedding”. This means they need a cake. He says that they have all the ingredients except eggs and that he needs a couple of “thieves” to bring him some by sunrise Thursday. He writes a curfew waiver, hands them some money, and sends them on their way.
Analysis of Chapters One-Three
In the first three chapters, we are introduced to Lev and Kolya, the two main characters in the story. Lev is 17, pessimistic but proud. Kolya is older, charming and optimistic. It is the first week of 1942 in Leningrad, Russia - during the Siege of Leningrad. The pair are given a strange quest to find some eggs - in a city where there are none.
These early chapters also introduce some of the major themes in the story; coming-of-age, survival, friendship and loyalty. Lev has stayed behind in Leningrad, whilst his mother and sister evacuated to Vyazma. He wants to be a man, to defend his city and learn how to survive on his own. Lev is also loyal and caring. Whilst saving his friend Vera from the Russian police, he is captured. Vera, however, doesn’t look back. Loyalty is established as a baseline for friendship in the story.
These chapters also outline the harsh reality of the situation in the city. There are no pets, there is no wood. People are hungry, cold and scared. The intense cold is a threat to both the Germans and the Russians. While Lev, Vera and the twins are toasting the cold, they are also reminded that they are not immune to the fate of the German pilot. The importance of material things is also highlighted as they strip the German of his belongings. However, Lev also describes the siege as beautiful, introducing the motif of the strange and absurd beauty of the events happening around him.
We also learn that, despite the ruthlessness of the Germans, Russia, which is ruled by Stalin - a brutal dictator - has its own conflicts. Lev is loyal to Leningrad and Russia, but his feelings about the Soviet Union and its NKVD secret police are complicated. His father was arrested during the “Great Purge” before the war - a method for Stalin and his government to assert and maintain their political control. The colonel's daughter being well fed indicates that some people in Leningrad aren't suffering like others are. There is a hint of Soviet corruption and how being willing to go along with the government can provide perks and comfort. The Soviet government finds ways to make people complicit in its goals – to not just torture or punish, but also offer comfort and power in exchange for joining them.
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