“You have never been so hungry; you have never been so cold” – and so starts the story of Lev, a seventeen year old in the middle of Nazi-besieged St. Petersburg. Stalin called it Leningrad but its inhabitants affectionately called it Piter. The rest of Lev’s family has fled, but the boy has stayed behind.
When the book starts, Lev embarks on a week-long adventure that is both funny and tearful. It is during this fateful week that he meets Kolya, a supposed deserter. Kolya is spruce, dapper, and cavalier: they make an unlikely pair, with Lev new to everything, while Kolya constantly flaunts his expertise in everything from fighting to relationships. They miraculously escape death many times, overcoming hunger, cannibalism, bullets, Nazis and, of course, the cold that helped the Russians to drive the enemy finally out.
As a Russian, I truly appreciated this novel about World War II, in which both of my grandfathers fought. Twenty million Russians died in that war. But, as we hear in one snippet of a rallying speech in City of Thieves: “Leningrad is not afraid of death. Death is afraid of Leningrad.” Kolya tells Lev: “But we’re like two of Piter’s bricks. You can’t burn a brick. You can’t starve a brick.”
For Lev it is exceptionally dangerous, as his father is Jewish. The Nazis have started purging the Russian countryside of Bolsheviks, Jews, and “undesirables,” and their Einsatz troops are closing in with the Nazis on Lev and Kolya’s beloved Piter.
There is also a love story in the midst of this fast-paced page-turner. Lev meets the author’s grandmother, as the introduction promises, and when we meet her, she is larger than life, courageous, intrepid and badass.
The book is also filled with poetry, from the imagistic description of a landscape to its poet characters, such as Lev’s father. There is also a heartbreaking description of Piter’s dogs.
Basically, I couldn’t part with this book, it was so good. I would recommend it to history lovers, fiction lovers, and book lovers in general. This is history that needs to be known and fiction that needs to be read!