City of Thieves

City of Thieves Chapter 1 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The narrator changes from David to Lev, and it's New Year's Eve 1941 in Leningrad, Russia. Everyone is hungrier and colder than they ever thought they'd be. All surplus wood has been burned, all animals, from house pets to pigeons, have been eaten. Lev is skinny, with acne, dark hair, and a big nose, and his skinniness means he's better able to handle the deprivation. The Germans decided months ago that it would be impossible to rush Leningrad, so they settled for circling the city with the goal of starving and bombing the city to defeat.
The writing style here sets up from the very beginning how dire the situation is. There aren't any pets anymore in Leningrad, and any wood that isn't actively providing shelter is gone for fires. We also get a sense of how the Russians interpret the German intent. The Germans are set up as ruthless and cruel, willing to starve and bomb an entire city into defeat and/or oblivion.
Themes
Survival Theme Icon
Russia and World War II Theme Icon
On New Year's Eve, Lev sits on the roof of his apartment building, the Kirov, watching for German bombers. He's a firefighter, and since his mother and sister Taisya evacuated in September, he lives alone. Lev, at age 17, was insistent that Leningrad needed him to stay to defend it, which Mother declared idiotic. Lev doesn't really miss his mother or sister, as he loved stories of resourceful orphans as a child and believes wholeheartedly in defending Russia from the threat of Fascism. Lev guards the roofs with his friend Vera and the Antokolsky twins Grisha and Oleg. From the roof they can watch the strange beauty of the siege, including the fighting planes in the sky. They share ration bread and an onion, which is a feast.
As a teenager, Lev is getting to live out his childhood fantasy of being an orphan and simultaneously perform a very adult job as a firefighter. Logically, staying in the city was foolish given the danger, which underscores the extent of Lev's youth and youthful pride. That he sees himself as living like a plucky orphan from a storybook also indicates Lev’s naïvéte. By describing the siege as beautiful, Lev begins to introduce the motif of the strange and absurd beauty of the events happening around him, which consistently hold Lev's attention going forward, even amidst the horrors of war.
Themes
Growing Up Theme Icon
Literature and Storytelling Theme Icon
Survival Theme Icon
Russia and World War II Theme Icon
Vera then spots a German man falling from the sky. He appears to be dead already, and Vera, Lev, and the twins wonder if the Germans are finally starting a massive drop of paratroopers. When it becomes obvious that the Nazi is heading towards their street, the four run down to the dark and empty street, six hours into curfew (meaning they aren’t supposed to leave their building). They spot the paratrooper gliding down the street until his parachute deflates and he falls to the ground. Approaching the corpse, they begin to strip him of his belongings. Lev takes a knife from the corpse's ankle and straps it to his own, and Grisha opens the man's hip flask and begins passing it around the circle. Lev declares that the man froze to death, and Grisha raises a toast to the cold.
Winter in Leningrad often means that temperatures are around -40 degrees Fahrenheit. The intense cold is a threat to everyone, German and Russian alike, so while the twins, Lev, and Vera are toasting the cold, they're also reminded that they're not immune to the fate of this German pilot. The way they strip the Nazi of his belongings again indicates just how important material things are during this siege in the middle of winter. But at the same time their excitement suggests the way that Lev and his friends are like kids playing at being heroes.
Themes
Growing Up Theme Icon
Survival Theme Icon
Russia and World War II Theme Icon
Lev, Vera, Oleg, and Grisha don't hear the car coming until it has already turned onto their street. Being out after curfew, abandoning a firefighting post, and looting are illegal and punishable by summary execution, so the four run back to the Kirov. As Lev begins to scale the courtyard gate, he looks back and sees that Vera has fallen. Lev goes back for her and boosts her over the gate, but the soldiers grasp Lev before he reaches the top of the gate. Vera doesn't look back as the soldiers remark that Lev looks like a good one for the “colonel,” and shove Lev and the German corpse into the backseat.
The Russian authorities in the city set a curfew for reasons of defense against the Germans. Lev and his friends’ “adventure” here puts them in danger from the Russian police – from their own side, which is the first sign that the story will not simply be one of plain good (the Russians) against evil (the Germans). Note that it's Lev's heroics here that get him captured and that lead to his involvement in later events. This begins to develop Lev as a loyal and caring character to his friends. Lev was terrified, but was able to ignore his fear in order to save his friend. Vera, however, doesn't look back. This creates a great deal of resentment in Lev's feelings for her, which he will return to again and again throughout the novel, and also establishes loyalty as a kind of baseline for real friendships (or even capacity for friendship).
Themes
Growing Up Theme Icon
Survival Theme Icon
Russia and World War II Theme Icon
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