A young writer goes to visit his grandparents, who have migrated to Florida by way of Brooklyn, with the intent of recording their experiences in Leningrad during World War II. His grandmother has no desire to share her feelings. The writer then turns to his grandfather, Lev, who reluctantly tells him a story from his personal experience. Upon being asked for more details, Lev tells his grandson, “You’re a writer. Make it up.” Thus begins City of Thieves, a semi-autobiographical novel about David Benioff’s grandfather, Lev Beniov, and his extraordinary WWII experiences.
All the young writer knows about his grandfather’s experiences in WWII Leningrad is that he was a knife fighter who killed two Germans before he turned 18. As Lev’s story begins, we find him at age 17 - though he looks younger - a small, smart and insecure young man who is part of a handful too young for military service and left behind in the city of Leningrad in 1942. Leningrad is under siege, and the remaining community members and inhabitants of Lev’s housing complex are in constant fear of the Nazi’s continued trek through Russia in their attempts to conquer their country.
They know that if Leningrad falls, Russia will fall, and Fascism will conquer the world. Lev and his housemates spend the night looking to the sky and pointing out the different German planes that fly overhead, all the time praying one does not drop a bomb on them. One night, a German paratrooper is seen landing just outside Lev’s apartment complex, and he and his friends go to investigate.
The Nazi paratrooper is dead on arrival, probably from the cold air, and Lev believes this landing was an isolated incident and not the start of the air-raid blitz he has heard rumor of. As Lev and his comrades proceed with looting the German officer’s body, Lev claims a trophy for himself: a German knife that he proceeds to hide in his boot. Since Leningrad is under constant threat of siege, there is a curfew in effect for the remaining residents strictly enforced by the Russian military police (NKVD). When they come upon Lev and his group, they chase them, and in their pursuit they apprehend him and take him to jail. Lev is sure that this is the end for him and that execution is inevitable.
Lev is thrown into a cell with another young man, a charismatic blond twenty-year-old soldier named Kolya who has himself been apprehended with the charge of deserting his military unit. Kolya and Lev both expect to face execution the following day.
Something completely unexpected happens instead. Kolya and Lev are taken to a manor
house in the Russian countryside that has been taken over by the military. The commander, a powerful Soviet colonel, is planning to utilize the location for his daughter’s wedding. There is only one thing missing in the wedding plans: a dozen eggs necessary to make the wedding cake. With food rationed and the surrounding towns severely depleted by looting, eggs are a rare commodity. The colonel tasks Kolya and Lev with the job of locating a dozen eggs and successfully producing them in less than a week, just in time for his daughter’s wedding celebration. As he puts it to them: “You bring me a dozen eggs by Thursday, I give you your lives back.” The mission will shape Lev’s coming of age out of youth and into adulthood.
As Lev gets to know his travel companion better, he realizes he is in the presence of one of the most outspoken and grandiose characters he has ever met. Lev is quite well-read and a master at chess, but Kolya seems to excel in all areas from arts to literature to lovemaking. Kolya shares tales of his numerous conquests of women and his well-versed knowledge of literature, music and art. Even though Lev’s father was a semi-famous poet, Lev does not possess Kolya’s alleged reading prowess. Specifically, Kolya claims to be a college student and not a military deserter whose primary work is a thesis on the novel The Courtyard Hound, featuring the exploits of a character named Radchenko. Lev is not familiar with this work that Kolya continues to cite throughout their journey.
Kolya and Lev’s mission is not without threat. They face towns ravaged by deprivation that has driven some inhabitants to acts of cannibalism. They are constantly in fear of running into a band of Nazi soldiers. Being a Russian Jew, Lev is particularly susceptible as he is well aware of what the Nazis feel about him. Even worse, the Nazi purpose is to wipe out the Jewish population as well as the Russian Bolsheviks. As one German soldier states, “Bolshevism is simply the most radical expression of the eternal Jewish quest for world domination.” The very title of the novel comes from a speech made by Adolf Hitler whereby he claimed: “the birthplace of Bolshevism, that city of thieves and maggots.” Lev must hide his Jewish heritage and focus on the mission at hand - finding the dozen eggs and getting them to the Soviet colonel.
The relationship between Kolya and Lev is remarkably engaging, and David Benioff has created two classic characters as interesting and colorful as any in literary history - sort of like a Russian Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. Kolya’s stories are always entertaining, and the knowledge and wisdom he imparts to young Lev is better than anything Lev would learn in school. As expected, the two eventually run into the Nazis and also join up with a wayward band of Russian extremists that includes a young female sniper who catches Lev’s eye. Benioff does a fine job mixing humor with tragedy, and there are several tense moments. The highlight of the story is when Lev faces off against a hated Nazi soldier in a game of chess where more is at stake than merely a dozen eggs.
David Benioff has had success as both a novelist and a screenwriter. His first novel, The 25th Hour, was made into a Spike Lee film that starred Edward Norton and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. More recently, Benioff penned the script for the Wolverine: Origins film starring Hugh Jackman. One can only hope that Benioff will bring City of Thieves to the big screen, as any reader of this thoroughly engaging novel will long to see these complex characters brought to life. He has scored a real winner with this book; City of Thieves can definitely stand tall among the recent glut of WWII-themed novels and films.