Lev Beniov is a grandfather who recounts for his grandson his memories of enduring World War II in Russia, but within the culmination of Beniov’s experiences, there was one week in 1942 that stands above all others. Leningrad is under siege, and like the rest of the city’s residents, seventeen year old Beniov is starving due to the German blockade. One evening he violates the curfew, is arrested and taken to the Crosses where he awaits execution with a young soldier named Kolya, who has been charged with desertion. Rather than a death sentence, they receive an interesting assignment from a powerful colonel in the Russian army. His daughter is getting married and his wife wants to make a real wedding cake, which means she needs eggs, a nonexistent commodity in the war ravaged city. If Beniov and Kolya can find a dozen eggs for the colonel, they will be set free and their crimes forgotten. Thus begins the real adventures of the two young men as they travel through a city and countryside replete with cannibalistic city dwellers, guerrilla partisans, and Einsatzgruppen (Nazi death squads).
While the story belongs to the timid and retiring Beniov, it is Kolya who steals the show with his bravura that alternately terrifies and exhilarates young Beniov. Kolya is frightened of nothing and has never encountered a foe that did not bend either to his charm, his cunning or his terms of endearment. He fearlessly sweeps Beniov along from one adventure to the next with barely a pause until both Beniov and the reader have no choice but to fall in love with him and his feral ways. A friendship is formed and forged through the horror of war as they go behind German lines where they eventually comprehend the ultimate price of freedom.
Benioff’s characters are so endearing and their trials so real I alternatively laughed out loud and wept for their tribulations. I can’t recall the last time I read a book where I was so moved. Their pain was so real I actually caught myself touching the pages in an effort to console the characters. Beautifully written and wonderfully told, City of Thieves was well worth my time.