Magazine article The Spectator

Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction

Magazine article The Spectator

Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction

Article excerpt

CITY OF THIEVES by David Benioff

Sceptre, £12.99, pp. 258, ISBN 9780340822302 10.39 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655


John Murray, £20, pp. 324, ISBN 9780719569227 £16 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

The siege of Leningrad is the ultimate nightmare: what happens when you push humanity to its utmost limits. The German armies advanced on Leningrad and besieged it in September, 1941. The siege lasted for almost 900 days, but the first winter was the worst.

Bread, water, power, fuel all ran out. As the icy winter temperatures fell below minus 30 Celsius, people died of starvation at a rate of 20,000 a day.

The streets were piled high with corpses: people were too weak to move their dead, and the ground was too frozen to bury them.

Michael Jones, in his historical account of the siege, explores the moment when humanity changed. At first, the Leningraders were altruistic and tried to help each other. But after months of German bombardment, sawdust bread and starvation, it became a dogeat-dog struggle for survival. Cannibalism was rife. Bodies of the newly dead hung like carcases in a butcher's shop. Few could resist hacking off breasts and buttocks to cook a human Stroganoff.

David Benioff's novel takes place in a single week -- the first week of January 1942.

This was the tipping-point, the moment when the siege turned from heroic survival to meltdown of human nature. Benioff is a successful scriptwriter (his last success was The Kite Runner) and in this novel he gives the siege the Hollywood treatment.

The plot is simple. It's the tale of Lev, a 17-year-old Russian Jew, who stays behind in the city when his family leave. Locked up for the night in prison, he meets a character called Kolya, a loud-mouthed deserter from the Russian army, who turns out to be a novelist. Together these two are sent by the commandant to find eggs to bake a wedding cake for his daughter.

The horror of the siege was that the city rulers got fat while the people starved.

Russian troops had built, at huge cost, an ice road across Lake Ladoga which was behind Russian lines, and by January 1942 food convoys were getting through to the city. But the food was not reaching the people; instead the fat pigs in the city authority were stockpiling and eating it themselves. …

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