As a coming of age story, a good portion of Lev's development occurs as his naiveté about sex is challenged and he's confronted with the realities of what sex can be. Throughout the novel, sex and masculinity are developed as a way for male characters to obtain and exert power over others.
Sex is a major motivator for many of the characters, and the novel presents a broad range of desires and experiences. Lev is relegated to mere fantasizing about sex as a result of his youth, fear of women, and fear of sex itself. Kolya, on the other hand, is impossibly charming and upfront about his need for regular sex, a need which landed him in jail, accused of desertion, when he snuck out in search of sex and didn’t manage to get back before his absence was discovered. The difference in sexual experience between Lev and Kolya serve to further develop their difference in age and upbringing. While they're both fairly on par intellectually, their difference in sexual experience serves to illustrate just how much more grown-up Kolya is.
Sex is also depicted as a way for male characters to assert their power over others, both in subtle ways and in more overt displays of power and masculinity. While the reader is never given any indication that Kolya's sexual pursuits are non-consensual, the language he uses to describe his method of wooing women is rooted in ideas of power and manipulation. His concept of "calculated neglect" translates to a way for Kolya to manipulate women into going to bed with him, rather than acknowledge that consent and desire may have been mutual. Further, by referring to his former partners as "conquests," Kolya shifts the locus of control to himself exclusively, situating himself as overtly masculine and powerful to those around him, particularly Lev.
Abendroth makes this idea of sexual “conquest” more horrifyingly literal. He uses sexual domination of women as a way to demonstrate his rank and shows off his military victories by keeping beautiful teenage girls as sex slaves. The chilling account of what happened to Zoya, in which Abendroth mutilates and kills a young girl for trying to escape him, indicates that for Abendroth, the pleasure he experiences from sex stems from the control he has over the lives and bodies of his captives. The particulars of Zoya's torture indicate further that Abendroth also takes pleasure in performing this power for others. It wasn't enough for him to simply punish Zoya for running way; it was of the utmost importance that both his Nazi peers and the other girls witnessed and were complicit in Zoya's fate.
Lev’s relationship to Vika then stands in contrast to all of the various forms of sex as a form of masculine domination. Vika is herself an accomplished warrior, the best sniper among her band of partisans, as well as an NKVD agent. Her attraction and connection to Lev comes about as Lev demonstrates his own intelligence and bravery in defeating Abendroth at chess and then killing him. Lev never “tricks” or “woos” Vika into loving him—she comes to love him on her own. And when she appears at his door at the end of the novel, after the siege has ended, it is of her own choice. Lev and Vika’s relationship, then, is held forth as an example of what mutual love and sex can be – something both moral and fulfilling.
Sexuality, Masculinity, and Power ThemeTracker
Sexuality, Masculinity, and Power Quotes in City of Thieves
The secret to winning a woman is calculated neglect.
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.
"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."
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.