Tuesday, January 27, 2009

City of Thieves

The Second World War's terrible 900 day Siege of Leningrad ended 65 years ago on this day. The siege began September 9, 1941 when German troops surrounded the city as part of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in "Operation Barbarossa". Around 3 million people lived in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) at the start of the siege. By the time the siege was lifted it is estimated that a million people died, mostly due to starvation. (Pictured at left, a Russian soldier stands by an eternal flame marking the 65th anniversary, from BBC News)
Faced with invasion, even opponents of the Soviet regime threw themselves into the defense of "the city of Peter, the city of Lenin, the city of Pushkin, of Dostoevsky and Blok, the city of great culture and great achievement". These last lines are from a radio broadcast in 1941 by a Leningrad resident, one of Stalin's political enemies - the famed Russian poet, Anna Akhmatova. She vowed, "I, like all of you now, live with one unconquerable belief - that Leningrad will never be Fascist." You can read about Akhmatova's interesting life in Elaine Feinstein's book, Anna of All the Russias: The Life of Anna Akhmatova. (Portrait by Nathan Altman, 1914, from the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg)

Akhmatova, like some other high-profile citizens such as composer Dmitri Shostakovich, was evacuated from Leningrad in October. From her exile in Tashkent she wrote the poem "Courage":
We know what trembles on the scales,
and what we must steel ourselves to face.
The bravest hour strikes on our clocks:
may courage not abandon us!
Let bullets kill us - we are not afraid,

nor are we bitter, though our rooftops fall.
We will preserve you, Russian speech,
from servitude in foreign chains,
keep you alive, great Russian word,
fit fo
r the songs of our children's children,
pure on their tongues, and free.
American writer Debra Dean's novel, The Madonnas of Leningrad (2006) focuses on the life of one of the Leningraders, a young woman working at the famed Hermitage Museum. The novel begins with the woman, now an elderly Russian emigré in present-day Seattle, preparing for a family wedding. Fighting Alzheimer's, she has trouble remembering day-to-day basics, but is able to think back to her youth, especially to the days of the siege.

One of the buzz books of 2008 was David Benioff's excellent thriller, City of Thieves, set in Leningrad during the siege. Benioff is the author of the also-excellent thrill
er, The 25th Hour (2003) which became one of Spike Lee's best films, with the screenplay by Benioff. After The 25th Hour Benioff wrote screenplays for the films, Troy, Stay and The Kite Runner, and is working on an adaptation of George R.R. Martin's fantasy series A Song of Fire and Ice. And he married actress Amanda Peet in his spare time! (Benioff and Peet pictured at right, from Men's Vogue)

In City of
Thieves, Benioff tells a thrilling and darkly humorous story of two men faced with an impossible task during the Siege of Leningrad. 17-year-old Lev Beniov is caught looting a German paratrooper's corpse. Kolya is a young Russian army deserter. Both men face execution for their misdeeds. But Soviet Colonel Grechko decides to spares them both if they can manage to find a dozen eggs for the colonel's daughter's wedding cake in the starving city. The impossible mission takes them around Leningrad and behind enemy lines to the Russian countryside. An intriguing premise and setting and engaging characters make this a superb novel.

4 Comments:

Blogger Dale Jacobs said...

I really liked City of Thieves -- it was a very engaging read. Do you recommend The Madonnas of Leningrad? It's hard to tell from your post.

6:10 PM  
Blogger Libarbarian said...

They are both well-written books of course, but "City of Thieves" is more my kind of book, with a strong narrative pull. "Madonnas of Leningrad" is a memory book, full of lovely descriptive writing, but with less of a plot. Both good books worth a read but "Madonnas" is not for plot junkies. Or to put it in an exceedingly non-PC manner, "Thieves" is a boy book, "Madonnas" a girl book!

12:49 PM  
Blogger Beini said...

I like how Libarbarian put it: Thieves is a boy book, Madonnas a girl book! :)

3:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm a "girl" and I preferred City of Thieves. so much so It was my pick for book club.

6:34 PM  

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