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. Lev Beniov is seventeen-years-old, a firefighter, and the narrator of the story. At the beginning of this first chapter Lev is sitting on the roof of his apartment building keeping an eye out for German bombers. His mother and sister have evacuated to Vyazma, and Lev now lives alone. He told his mother before she left for Vyazma that Leningrad needed him, “I was a man, I would defend my city, I would be a Nevsky for the twentieth century” (28). Lev patrols the buildings with three of his friends and neighbours, Vera Osipovna, Grisha Antokolsky, 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” (37). 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” (38). 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” (40).
Finally Lev hears the sound of several sets of boots 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” (40). The soldier introduces himself as Nikolai Alexandrovich Vlasov - his friends call him Kolya. Kolya tells Lev that he has been accused of desertion but that he is a student and he was defending his thesis, “an interpretation of Ushakovo’s The Courtyard Hound, through the lens of contemporary sociological analysis” (42).
Lev is worried that the guards will shoot him and Kolya in the morning. But Kolya doesn’t think so: “I doubt it. They’re not preserving us for the night just to shoot us tomorrow” (43). Kolya thinks the Crosses is probably the safest place in Piter (the nickname for Leningrad) to spend the night, and falls asleep. Lev speaks directly to the readers as he tells them that, as an insomniac, he is envious of sleepers like Kolya: “I’ve always envied people who sleep easily. Their brains must be cleaner, the floorboards of the skull well swept, all the little monsters closed up in a steamer trunk at the foot of the bed” (44). 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.
They pull up outside the mansion and Lev and Kolya are taken inside. Once in there they see the mansion is filled with Soviet secret police officers. Kolya tells Lev that they are NKVD. But Lev knows who they are: “I had learned to dread the sight of their Packards idling outside the gates of the Kirov, the Black Ravens, waiting to carry some unlucky citizen away from his home” (48).
Lev and Kolya are taken to see the colonel. He instructs the guards to remove "the deserter and the looter's" cuffs (49). Kolya says that he's not a deserter. The colonel asks Lev what he stole? When Lev shows him the knife, the colonel tells him, “keep it, you’ll need it” (52).
Moving to the French windows, the colonel asks Lev if his father was the poet. “He could write”, he said, “what happened was… unfortunate” (52). He shows Lev and Kolya outside to where a girl is skating on the river. She is the colonel’s daughter and is due to get married next Friday. The colonel says she wants a “real wedding” (54). This means they need a cake, and eggs. He instructs Lev and Kolya to bring him some by sunrise Thursday. He writes a curfew waiver, hands them some money, and sends them on their way.
Chapters One - Three Analysis
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. Lev and Kolya are asked to hunt down some eggs for a wedding cake.
Some of the major themes in the story are introduced in these first three chapters; 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, and the events happening around them, as strange but beautiful.
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.
In chapter three, the fact that the colonel's daughter is well fed and healthy demonstrates that not everybody in Leningrad is suffering. People who comply with the government are rewarded.