City of Thieves takes place during World War II, four months after Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 that began the war on the Eastern Front. Historical accounts state that Stalin ignored or brushed off intelligence from multiple sources that indicated the German forces were planning an attack on the Soviet Union. As a result, Soviet forces were woefully underprepared to defend against the German advances. By September, the Germans had successfully surrounded Leningrad, beginning the siege of the city, and were stationed about 30 kilometers outside Moscow, the Soviet Union's capital city. By the end of 1941, when the novel begins, Soviet military casualties totaled around 4.3 million. The brutal siege was lifted almost three years later, in January 1944. The Germans surrendered to the Allies (USA, Britain, and Soviet Union) in April of that year, the day after Hitler committed suicide.
The novel shows many faces of the war, ranging from Leningrad's citizens, Red Army soldiers, Soviet NKVD (secret police), to Nazis. Lev, an ordinary citizen, remains in the city rather than evacuate. He insists on staying less because of Russian pride, but more due to the pride he feels towards Piter (Leningrad) specifically as his hometown. This pride in the city is woven throughout the novel, as the conflict is spoken of more in terms of the Nazis versus Leningrad than in terms of the Nazis versus the Soviet Union as a whole.
Alongside the development of the different "types" of people in their different roles, Lev is confronted with the difficulty that arises when the conflict isn't simply a matter of good versus evil, or Russia versus Nazis. While Lev falls madly in love with Vika nearly immediately, he struggles with the fact that she's a member of the NKVD, which arrested his father years before and never returned him. Lev essentially has to grapple with the fact that while the NKVD is undeniably on the side of Russia and Leningrad, it is also responsible for destroying his family, making it difficult to consider them as entirely good or evil. Lev also recognizes this dissonance in Colonel Grechko, when he understands that he too was at one point taken by the NKVD, but was returned and now exists in a place of power, working for the same organization that once imprisoned him.
The situation in Leningrad is dire enough to turn citizens and neighbors against each other, alluding to the idea that even though the Nazis are the true "bad guys," there are also Russian people in Leningrad who very much want their fellow countrymen dead. As Lev and Kolya encounter individuals like the cannibals and Vadim's grandfather, who died protecting chickens, Lev begins to understand that there perhaps isn't a side of true good, as even his fellow Russians are willing to kill him for little more than a ration card or a pair of boots, and his government is willing to send him into danger to try to find a dozen eggs to make a wedding cake. In this way, much of Lev's growing up stems from the realizations he makes about his own place within the conflict of World War II, and what he learns about good and evil as he's confronted with both existing on the same side of the conflict.
Russia and World War II ThemeTracker
Russia and World War II 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.
She wants a real wedding, a proper wedding. This is good, life must continue, we're fighting barbarians but we must remain human, Russian. So we will have music, dancing... a cake.
None of them got out. If you want to tell yourself something sweet to help you sleep, go ahead, but it's a lie.
Everything about the war was ridiculous: The Germans' barbarity, the Party's propaganda, the crossfire of incendiary bullets that lit the nighttime sky. It all seemed to him like someone else's story, an amazingly detailed story that he had stumbled into and now could not escape.
You couldn't let too much truth seep into your conversation, you couldn't admit with your mouth what your eyes had seen. If you opened the door even a centimeter, you would smell the rot outside and hear the screams. You did not open the door. You kept your mind on the tasks of the day, the hunt for food and water and something to burn, and you saved the rest for the end of the war.
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.
Kolya stared into the distance, contemplating the lieutenant's words. He must have thought they were profound. To me they sounded manufactured, the kind of line my father always hated, fake dialogue invented by some Party-approved journalist for one of those "Heroes at the Front!" articles Truth for Young Pioneers always ran.
I was cursed with the pessimism of both the Russians and the Jews, two of the gloomiest tribes in the world. Still, if there wasn't greatness in me, maybe I had the talent to recognize it in others, even the most irritating of others.
"Don't worry, my friend. I won't let you die."
I was seventeen and stupid and I believed him.
It seemed wonderfully abstract to me, somebody else's war. Wherever they dropped their bombs, it wouldn't be on me.
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.
At a distance it seemed beautiful, and I thought it was strange that powerful violence is often so pleasing to the eye, like tracer bullets at night.
"We're pawns and he's a rook, that's what you're saying."
"We're less than pawns. Pawns have value."
"If we can take a rook, we have value, too."
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.