City of Thieves

City of Thieves Chapter 5 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Lev describes the Haymarket as the poor man's Nevsky Prospekt before the war. Though the shops on the Prospekt closed when the siege began, the Haymarket continued to thrive. Lev and Kolya walk through, taking in the stalls full of boots, pistols, grenades, and jars of dirt that came from under a bombed food warehouse, supposedly full of melted sugar.
The boots here are taken from the dead, alluding to the idea that those who are still alive are alive thanks to the ultimate sacrifices made by the dead. The desperation created by the siege is also hammered home by the detail that people are selling, and presumably buying, jars of dirt and sugar as food.
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Kolya stops at the stall of an old man selling what he claims is vodka, but what Kolya insists is wood alcohol. Lev tries to steer Kolya away but Kolya ignores him, telling the man the dangers of wood alcohol. The man insists the alcohol is safe after being poured through seven layers of linen, and Kolya strikes a bet with the man if the man agrees to drink some of the alcohol. Kolya offers his handkerchief and the man pours the liquid through and takes a sip. Kolya downs the rest of the glass and pretends to be in the throes of death, and then makes a show of discovering that Lev has no money to pay the man.
Wood alcohol (methanol) is extremely poisonous and is almost certainly still unsafe even after being poured through cloth. Remember, though, that many of the products used to make other alcohols (grains or potatoes) aren't available due to the siege, and the presence of dangerous wood alcohol for sale in the market further works to create the sense of deep desperation for basic supplies or pleasures. Kolya, meanwhile, continues to show off his bravado and savvy.
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The man and Kolya face off, and Lev shares with the reader that danger made Kolya calm. He says for Kolya, the war seemed like someone else's ridiculous story that he'd become trapped in and couldn't escape.
Kolya conceptualizes himself as the hero of this story, although he's trapped in it, and this idea that he'll eventually triumph influences his actions throughout.
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The man growls at Kolya and Lev to move on. Lev and Kolya continue through the market, asking for eggs. An old woman selling patties of meat says there are none in Piter, and other people share theories and rumors, the most promising of which is of a man keeping chickens in a rooftop coop. It seems an absurd story, but the boy telling it insists it's true and tells Kolya how to get there. Kolya shares that it's been nine days since his last shit, and continues to banter with the boy, but Lev moves on, wanting to go home and sleep.
The slightly gruesome look of the meat here foreshadows what Lev and Kolya will encounter shortly. Consider here the purpose of these siege stories. True or not, they provide a sense of hope that there's food somewhere, and presumably, not all of the stories are untrue – the colonel and his daughter are proof that some people in the city are eating.
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Lev hears a voice asking him if he's looking for eggs, and turns to see a huge bearded giant. Lev runs back to get Kolya, who hands Lev a bar of "library candy" he bought from the boy. They reach the giant and the giant tells them to follow him to his apartment, saying that he keeps everything inside for safekeeping. The man doesn't believe Kolya when he says they're on an actual mission for eggs. Meanwhile, Lev notices a dead woman in the canal, and watches her hair blow across her face.
The library candy is made from boiled down book bindings, the glue from which contains animal products and therefore some protein and calories. Again that people are eating such things emphasizes the despair of the siege and how ridiculous it is that the boys are on a mission to try to find eggs. The giant’s disbelief that they are actually looking for eggs furthers that sense. The dead woman is another indicator of the horror of the siege. There's nobody to bury her or care about her loss.
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Lev, Kolya, and the giant approach a five-story brick building. The giant unlocks the door and beckons Lev and Kolya inside. Lev asks the giant to bring the eggs down, saying he doesn't do business in strangers' apartments. The giant refuses, and says he doesn't do business in the street. Kolya asks the giant to name his price. Lev laughs when the giant says 1000 rubles, and the giant, already angry, looks even angrier when Kolya makes a joke about the futility of haggling with his "little Jewish friend."
Not being a practicing Jew doesn't protect Lev from anti-Semitism – it's a burden he has to bear no matter what he actually believes. Lev has a bad feeling already about the giant, and the discovery that Lev is Jewish has potentially made the situation even more dangerous. That Kolya is still cracking jokes and seems unaware of the danger seems on the one hand naïve, but on the other also suggests that Kolya himself isn’t anti-Semitic. He seems to see anti-Semitism as being a ridiculous joke.
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The giant says that "everyone's starving and everyone's got a gun," which Kolya teases him about. The giant gestures to the canal and says there's a man out there who died because his skull was smashed with a brick. Kolya, cheerful, steps into the apartment building and Lev, terrified, follows, thinking that their small amount of money and ration cards, which the giant doesn't know they don't have, are enough to get killed over.
Again, the residents of Leningrad are desperate and hungry enough that ration cards (cards granted by the government for people to be able to receive food) are more than enough to kill someone over, and the giant here essentially admits to having murdered someone. Kolya remains cheerful and joking in light of the situation, which further attests to his bravery while also supporting the idea that he's engaging with the war as though it's a story.
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The giant leads Lev and Kolya up the stairs, and Lev quietly puts his knife in his pocket. The giant raps on the door of a fourth floor apartment, saying he has customers. A woman in a bloody butcher's apron looks perplexed as Kolya asks how they keep the eggs from freezing, and the giant ushers them in. A sheet hanging in the room billows as the door closes, exposing slabs of meat hanging from hooks. Lev realizes the meat is human, and, screaming, he pulls the knife out and slashes at the giant. Kolya punches the giant's wife, knocking her to the ground, and tells Lev to run.
The revelation that the giant and his wife are cannibals calls the unsavory-looking meat in the Haymarket into question. Was it, too, human? It seems possible given the scarcity of other options. Once again Kolya shows his bravery. Note the contrast between Kolya’s actions here and those of Lev’s “friend” Vera’s at the beginning of the novel. Kolya doesn’t abandon Lev; he puts himself in danger and tells Lev to run. Kolya’s actions reveal him to be a true friend to Lev.
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Lev runs to the landing on the floor below and listens to the fight taking place upstairs. He tries to talk himself into going back upstairs to help Kolya, but is too afraid. Suddenly, Kolya shoots out of the apartment and yells again for Lev to run. The two run out of the building and down the street for blocks until they spot an army car. They jump in front of the car and inform the soldiers that there are cannibals, but the soldiers won't take Kolya seriously until he offers them the letter from Colonel Grechko. Finally they ask Kolya and Lev to lead them back to the building, but the giant and his wife have already fled. The officer says they'll put their names on the list, and the soldiers look away from the hanging meat.
Lev's fear keeps him from doing what he feels he needs to do (help Kolya). This will be a challenge for Lev throughout the rest of the novel as he grapples with his fear on one side and his loyalty and sense of what’s right on the other. While Colonel Grechko was obviously an important person in the NKVD, we see here just how important he is for his letter to be able to command the attention of a group of soldiers. The soldiers’ disgust at the hanging “meat” strongly emphasizes the despair of the siege. These soldiers, being soldiers, have seen death. But even they are horrified by the things that the besieged people of Leningrad have been pushed to do.
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