City of Thieves

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Themes and Colors
Growing Up Theme Icon
Literature and Storytelling Theme Icon
Sexuality, Masculinity, and Power Theme Icon
Survival Theme Icon
Russia and World War II Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in City of Thieves, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Growing Up Theme Icon

City of Thieves follows the classic storyline of a coming of age novel, or bildungsroman. While many coming-of-age novels cover a longer time period as they portray the physical as well as psychological development of their protagonist, Lev's coming of age takes place over the course of one week and is primarily psychological.

The events of the novel transpire because Lev naïvely wanted to be a war hero, leading him to fight with his mother to stay in Leningrad rather than evacuate. However, Lev's great heroic dreams are quickly shattered, some even before the beginning of the novel, as he's faced with the simple difficulties of surviving the intense cold and hunger. Especially after Lev is arrested, he learns that he'll never be a "great Russian" in the way he once hoped. He finds the experience of being imprisoned too terrifying and comes to believe he's simply not cut out to do anything more than survive day-to-day challenges. Throughout the rest of the novel, Lev struggles to reconcile his desire to be a hyper-masculine hero with his existence as a fearful and weak-bodied teenager.

The reader is always kept very aware of Lev's youth through the contrast offered by Lev’s narration of the story as an old man, commenting on his youthful self with an old man's wisdom and maturity. While the youth of both Lev and Kolya is played for humor at times, it also serves as a constant reminder of their naiveté and stupidity in a brutal adult world that allows for neither. Further, Kolya himself exists in a space of not quite adult but definitely not a boy. While Lev has the privilege of growing up and coming of age, Kolya remains youthful forever in the stories and memories of Lev.

At the climax of the novel, Lev has to face all his fears in quick succession, and in doing so crosses the threshold from boy to man. Lev has to use his both his chess skills and meager physical fighting skills to kill the Nazi Abendroth, which fills him with thrilled pride after his success, especially as it seems to win the admiration of the girl sniper Vika. This glee, though, is soon shot down with Kolya's death. Lev is upfront about the fact that he fears nothing more than death, and facing the death of his best friend brings him back to earth after his earlier triumph and starts to build a sense of disillusionment with the war and his heroics. This disillusionment is confirmed when Lev delivers the eggs to Colonel Grechko, only to find that he's not even the hero of his own absurd journey, as Colonel Grechko had food airlifted into the city the night before. In response to Lev’s astonishment, Grechko counsels Lev to not speak, saying that staying quiet is the secret to living a long life. In other words, Grechko makes Lev understand that the Russian army, too, is corrupt in its way even as it fights the Nazis, and that Lev’s earlier dreams of heroism are impossible in such a world.

In a more overarching way, Lev's experiences that lead to his coming of age serve to support the idea that war does turn boys into men, but in doing so robs them of their innocence and idealistic dreams. Lev has to live his entire adult life with what he saw during the war, while Kolya pays the ultimate price for not having to grow up.

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Growing Up Quotes in City of Thieves

Below you will find the important quotes in City of Thieves related to the theme of Growing Up.
Chapter 1 Quotes

But I wasn't leaving Piter. I was a man, I would defend my city, I would be a Nevsky for the twentieth century.

Related Characters: Lev Beniov (speaker), Mother
Page Number: 8
Explanation and Analysis:

Lev is explaining how he conceptualized the war and his role in it at the beginning of the siege. Specifically, he fought his mother for the first time and elected to stay in the city rather than evacuate with her and his sister. This phrase is indicative of Lev's youth and works to provide a starting point from which he can grow throughout the novel. Nevsky refers to Alexander Nevsky, a 13th-century Russian prince who rose to mythical status due to important military victories, and who was later canonized as a saint in the Russian Orthodox Church. By idolizing Nevsky in this way, Lev illustrates the pull and tension he feels regarding his pride in being Russian. He very much wants to be a hero á la Nevsky, but he struggles with the knowledge that his country isn't always on the side of clear good after experiencing his father's arrest by the NKVD. In this sense, Lev's idealistic dreams here set him up to experience the disillusionment (with himself and his country) necessary to grow up and truly come of age.


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I'd like to say I missed them when they were gone, and some nights I was lonely, and always I missed my mother's cooking, but I had fantasized about being on my own since I was little. My favorite folktales featured resourceful orphans... I wouldn't say I was happy—we were all too hungry to be happy—but I believed that here at last was the Meaning.

Related Characters: Lev Beniov (speaker), Mother, Taisya
Page Number: 10
Explanation and Analysis:

Lev is describing for the reader how he lived during the siege after his mother and sister evacuated the city. Rather than lament their absence, Lev, at 17, finally gets the opportunity to live out his childhood fantasy of being a "resourceful orphan."

Lev will consistently hearken back to the fairytales of his youth as he encounters the absurdity and inhumanity of the war and the siege. These fairytales are the only way to effectively make sense of everything, as the absurdity of reality is too great at times for the characters to be able to handle the truth. By engaging with events in relation to stories, Lev asserts the importance of fiction both as a way to handle life and consider the text as a whole.

Chapter 2 Quotes

... maybe they would miss on purpose because they knew I was a patriot and a defender of the city and I had snuck out of the Kirov only because a German had fallen five thousand meters onto my street, and what seventeen-year-old Russian boy would not sneak outside to peek at a dead Fascist?

Related Characters: Lev Beniov (speaker)
Page Number: 16
Explanation and Analysis:

Lev has just run back to help Vera escape a Russian Army patrol that found them looting a fallen German paratrooper. As Lev scales the gate to the Kirov, the army captures him, although Vera escapes.

This thought makes Lev's youth abundantly clear, especially since this is one of several phrases that obviously comes with the weight of adult Lev's wisdom. Lev characterizes himself as a normal 17-year-old boy whose world revolves around himself—he mentally implores the soldiers to look away from his blatant illegal activity, despite the fact that looting and being out past curfew are punishable by death. He also alludes to his youthful curiosity. It seems reasonable that Lev, while caught up very much in the Russian cause, has never seen a Nazi in the flesh, and would therefore be very interested to see if Russia's adversaries are all that different from himself.

Further, the style of narration here (where the thoughts seem to come from the adult Lev) reminds the reader that the story they're reading is one that was originally told to the “author” (David, Lev’s grandson). Whether the framing device is true or not, the reader is at least asked to remember it as a reminder of the power of stories and literature.

So many great Russians endured long stretches in prison. That night I learned I would never be a great Russian.

Related Characters: Lev Beniov (speaker)
Page Number: 20
Explanation and Analysis:

Despite being used to being alone and/or in the dark, Lev is struggling with the experience of spending a night in the Crosses prison. Throughout the first few chapters of the novel, it's made very clear that Lev wants to be a war hero. He wants to be an adult and essentially perform his idea of adulthood in such a way as to make himself into a hero and a "great Russian." However, while in prison Lev is confronted with the reality of the situation. He's a naturally fearful person and as he's faced with experiences that are scary, he begins to learn that his fear isn't going to diminish or disappear. This begins the process of disillusionment and coming of age for Lev, as part of his growing up is coming to terms with the fact that he will be an eternally fearful person.

Chapter 7 Quotes

Sonya was lovely and kind, but her pleasure was awful to listen to—I wanted to be the one who could transport a pretty girl away from the siege with my cock.

Related Characters: Lev Beniov (speaker), Kolya Vlasov, Sonya Ivanova
Page Number: 76
Explanation and Analysis:

Lev and Kolya are staying the night at Sonya's apartment. Lev is sleeping in the sitting room with a number of doctors and nurses, while Kolya and Sonya sleep together and have sex in the bedroom.

While sex is often used by one character to assert dominance over another or others, having Lev himself discuss it in this way primarily serves to further develop his youth and inexperience. He wishes he were in a position to escape the siege (and help someone else escape) emotionally through sex, which he's characterizing as being something adult, or at the very least something that indicates he's well on his way to adulthood. The fact that he's not the one currently experiencing sex is thus a painful reminder of his youth and frustration.

Chapter 10 Quotes

"Don't worry, my friend. I won't let you die."
I was seventeen and stupid and I believed him.

Related Characters: Lev Beniov (speaker), Kolya Vlasov (speaker)
Page Number: 99
Explanation and Analysis:

Lev has insisted that he and Kolya sit before departing on their journey for Mga, which is an old folk tradition. When Lev opens his eyes and sees Kolya watching him, Kolya tells him this.

Whenever Lev and Kolya are engaged in conversations about their own potential deaths, it's possible for the reader to take those statements as prophecy and foreshadowing for the future. That is the case particularly with this statement, as the reader knows from the beginning of the novel that Lev lives to tell his tale, thanks to the framing story. This statement is also very referential of the frame story, as these words are evidently coming from a Lev with many more years of experience, and who can call his 17-year-old self stupid.

Chapter 15 Quotes

This is all very strange, I thought. I am in the middle of a battle and I am aware of my own thoughts, I am worried about how stupid I look with a knife in my hand while everyone else came to fight with rifles and machine guns. I am aware that I am aware. Even now, with bullets buzzing through the air like angry hornets, I cannot escape the chatter of my brain.

Related Characters: Lev Beniov (speaker), Kolya Vlasov
Page Number: 140
Explanation and Analysis:

Lev and Kolya unexpectedly find themselves in the middle of a Partisan attack on German soldiers at the farmhouse. Rather than try to avoid what's happening, Lev is experiencing this intense sense of turning inwards and picking apart how exactly he's experiencing his fear—which is, in its way, another kind of detachment. This points back to the novel's engagement with literature, as the way that Lev describes his thoughts is as though he's writing it. In this way, the reader is reminded of the framing story and that we're essentially hearing the story from Lev as an adult.

Further, Lev's youth is made very apparent, as he's the only man without a gun. This sets him apart from the others and is in some ways humorous, but in others a simple reminder that Lev is in the process of growing up.

Chapter 17 Quotes

Kolya considered himself a bit of a bohemian, a free thinker, but in his own way he was as much a true believer as any Young Pioneer. The worst part about it was that I didn't think he was wrong.

Related Characters: Lev Beniov (speaker), Kolya Vlasov
Page Number: 161
Explanation and Analysis:

Lev and Kolya are preparing to follow the partisans, and Kolya has declared that while he and Lev are still looking for eggs, they're also going to kill Einsatz because it's the right thing to do. Lev is experiencing discomfort as he grapples with the intersections of being Russian (and therefore anti-Nazi), being wary of the NKVD and the Soviet government in general after his father's arrest, but also seeing that in this situation, the side of Russia is the side of good triumphing over evil, despite the evil it might partake in itself.

This emotional struggle that Lev undertakes is one of the ways he grows and comes of age. He moves from a childish understanding of the world in black and white to a more mature and adult view that not everything is entirely good or evil.

Chapter 23 Quotes

I have never been much of a patriot. My father would not have allowed such a thing while he lived, and his death insured that his wish was carried out. Piter commanded far more affection and loyalty from me than the nation as a whole. But that night, running across the unplowed fields of winter wheat, with the Fascist invaders behind us and the dark Russian woods before us, I felt a surge of pure love for my country.

Related Characters: Lev Beniov (speaker), Kolya Vlasov, Vika, Abendroth, Abraham Beniov (Lev’s Father)
Page Number: 233
Explanation and Analysis:

Lev, Kolya, and Vika are running towards the woods after killing Abendroth. Killing Abendroth was the catalyst for several changes in Lev. First, while he was still very afraid at the time, he conquered his fear and accomplished what he set out to do. This allowed him to become a man for all intents and purposes, as much of Lev's development over the course of the novel is psychological, and killing Abendroth represents the culmination of this development. Finally, as Lev states here, killing Abendroth allowed him to experience love for his country like he had not previously been able to. Lev's relationship to the Soviet Union was made complicated after his father's arrest, as Lev sees the government and the country as responsible for taking his father unjustly, but this experience with the Nazis allows Lev to at least momentarily move past his qualms and consider Russia as a whole, and see it as his true and beloved homeland—a place of beautiful fields and dark woods that hide him from wicked foreign invaders. Lev essentially gets to become the great Russian hero he dreamed of being.

Chapter 25 Quotes

Kolya had no faith in the divine or the afterlife; he didn't think he was going to a better place, or any place at all. No angels waited to collect him. He smiled because he knew how terrified I was of dying. This is what I believe. He knew I was terrified and he wanted to make it a little easier for me.

Related Characters: Lev Beniov (speaker), Kolya Vlasov
Page Number: 251
Explanation and Analysis:

Kolya is in the backseat of a Red Army car after being shot in the buttock by a Red Army soldier, and it's becoming apparent that he's going to die. Lev is extremely upfront throughout the novel that while he dreams of being a hero, he's hobbled by fear and specifically by his fear of death and dying. By the end of the novel when Kolya dies, Kolya has been made very aware of this fear in Lev. Their friendship and affection for each other has grown significantly over the course of their journey, and managing Lev's fear is Kolya's last act of caring for Lev. Kolya promised to keep Lev alive, and he did, but as he now faces his own death, Kolya also performs this last act of protection for Lev.

Chapter 26 Quotes

"Those words you want to say right now? Don't say them." He smiled and cuffed my cheek with something close to real affection. "And that, my friend, is the secret to living a long life."

Related Characters: Colonel Grechko (speaker), Lev Beniov, Kolya Vlasov
Page Number: 254
Explanation and Analysis:

Lev has just delivered the dozen eggs to Colonel Grechko and found out that the colonel already has three dozen eggs. Lev is realizing with intense clarity that his and Kolya's journey was an absurd wild goose chase. While it seemed to mean something once, and seemed very important at the start, in the end Lev and Kolya went through everything they did, and Kolya died, for little more than a pat on the back. This turn of events cements Lev's coming of age as it's what truly illustrates to him that he's not going to be a hero—he's denied even the small victory of being the one who made a wedding cake possible. Essentially, it cements Lev's disillusionment with the adult world and the war, making it very clear that it is all truly absurd and tragic.

Additionally, we can tell from the prologue that Lev took Colonel Grechko's advice to heart, as David notes that his grandfather doesn't like to speak much around anyone other than Vika. This, compared with how Kolya conducted himself, allows us to take Grechko's words as foreshadowing, as the colonel predicted Kolya's death and Lev evidently lived a very long, prosperous, and silent life.