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.
Growing Up ThemeTracker
Growing Up Quotes in City of Thieves
But I wasn't leaving Piter. I was a man, I would defend my city, I would be a Nevsky for the twentieth century.
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.
... 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?
So many great Russians endured long stretches in prison. That night I learned I would never be a great Russian.
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.
"Don't worry, my friend. I won't let you die."
I was seventeen and stupid and I believed him.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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."