The novel begins four months into the Siege of Leningrad, which lasted 900 days and spanned four brutal Russian winters during World War II. City of Thieves portrays a brutal physical and emotional landscape in which extreme measures must be taken in order to survive the intense rationing, cold, and the violence of the war.
When the Germans began the siege in September 1941, Leningrad began rationing food immediately. As Lev notes, residents began to have to eat house pets, rats, and pigeons as the situation quickly became dire. As flour grew rare, bread was made from anything that could approximate flour and was often made from cottonseed, cellulose, and sawdust. By the winter of late 1941 and early 1942, when the novel begins, the death toll in the city was around 1,600 people per day, and it's estimated that Leningrad's residents were only consuming 10% of the calories needed to survive the cold, which was regularly as low as -40 degrees Fahrenheit.
The Russian characters dance a very delicate dance with the cold dark winters. They remark many times that it's the winter that will defeat the Nazis, but given the situation, the difficulties that winter poses stand a good chance of killing the Russians themselves too. To this end, Benioff pays a great deal of attention to the physical items necessary for staying alive, namely boots and warm clothing. Boots are a chilling indicator of the fortunate and the unfortunate have-nots. Red Army soldiers as well as Nazis have state-issued boots to keep them warm in the snow, while others suffer in a variety of inadequate footwear or none at all. The boots also serve as a reminder of who didn't survive, as the living are quick to remove and steal boots from the dead, either for themselves or for resale on the black market. Lev also takes note of the blood on some of the boots for sale in the Haymarket, which further reinforces the fact that the individuals who are alive are at least in some way alive at the expense of the dead.
The novel also explores many different but intersecting definitions for survival, asking the reader to consider what is truly necessary to survive. Lev and the other residents of Leningrad need the true basics to survive: food, shelter, and something to burn to keep warm. But Lev and Kolya are shocked when they realize that Colonel Grechko's idea of basic necessities far exceed their own. Grechko places a great deal of importance on providing a "proper wedding" for his daughter as a way to remain human and Russian. As Lev and Kolya are roped into the quest for eggs, they're forced to comply with the questionable wisdom and morality of supplying luxury items in exchange for getting back their own ration cards, which are the only surefire way they have to obtain food. However, as they encounter cannibals and some of the shocking brutality of the war, they realize that staying alive can come at the expense of one's humanity. Put another way, the lengths a person needs to go to survive can result in that person losing what made them human in the first place.
To this end, everyone involved in the war must protect themselves mentally and emotionally in order to continue functioning after witnessing the violence, horror, and brutality of the war and the siege. This fact primarily ties back to how the novel deals with storytelling as a method of self-preservation. By either choosing to believe a happier version of events, or refusing to engage with a story altogether, characters can preserve some sense of wellbeing in the face of intense violence and life’s absurdity, and what it forces them to do and encounter in order to survive.
Survival 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.
... Contrary to popular belief, the experience of terror does not make you braver. Perhaps, though, it is easier to hide your fear when you're afraid all the time.
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.
I'm not bringing them out here. Everyone's starving and everyone's got a gun.
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.
"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.
And there was the excellent possibility of death. I never understood people who said their greatest fear was public speaking, or spiders, or any of the other minor terrors. How could you fear anything more than death?
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 seemed fearless, but everyone has fear in them somewhere; fear is part of our inheritance... Cannibals and Nazis didn't make Kolya nervous, but the threat of embarrassment did—the possibility that a stranger might laugh at the lines he'd written.
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."