It seems like the frame for a lot of stories about the Siege of Leningrad is “survivors who don’t want to talk about it” but since the stories within are so different I suppose it’s just a historically accurate note about the character of person who made it through. David Benioff’s City of Thieves moves from grandparents who have never opened up about their experiences to the author/narrator’s account of the grandfather’s story.
Lev Beniov (the grandfather in question) is a 17-year-old who stayed behind when his mother and sister evacuated Leningrad–which he, and the other characters–persist in calling Piter even though the Soviets wanted to wipe out references to the tsarist name St. Petersburg. Caught looting a dead German paratrooper’s corpse, Lev assumes he will be shot, but instead he and a charismatic army deserter are given a strange quest: find a dozen eggs for a Soviet colonel’s daughter’s wedding cake and they will be allowed to live. In the middle of a frozen, starving city under siege. Obviously this directive presents some challenges.
However, glad to be spared execution, the two head out to find eggs. Over the course of the next several days the boy and soldier become friends, scout the desperation of the city, get involved in an insurgent attack on occupying Germans, and ultimately win their freedom but at a terrible cost.
I found the story fast-paced, gripping, and historically accurate, with great detail bringing life to the terrible realities of the siege. This part of history is one that you almost have to read about through fiction, because otherwise your brain won’t want to grasp the significance of the statistics. This novel does a great job of capturing the spirit and incredible fortitude of the people, while not romanticizing the inhabitants or glossing over the arbitrary nature of Soviet policies that made the siege so much worse and a metaphor for life in Soviet Russia in general.
If you like history, action, adventure, coming of age stories, war stories, or just stories with great pacing and plot lines, I’d recommend City of Thieves.
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