In the Soviet Union in 1922, men who had been counts under the Tzar were either dead or in exile, with one exception. Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, who had returned to Russia from exile to participate in the 1918 revolution, was brought before a tribunal, and when his answers were found wanting, he was confined on penalty of death to the Metropol, Moscow’s largest hotel. Why was he spared the firing squad? A poem published under his name in 1913 gave him standing as a forerunner of the revolution. Thus, the story by Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow, published by Viking in 2016.
Count Rostov has little choice but to make the best of his situation. As it turns out, this gentleman displays¬¬ all of the attributes one would normally assign to that title, and thus accomplishes the necessary adjustment with relative ease. Even when he contemplates suicide, it takes no more effort than showing up for his weekly trim at the hotel’s barber, to push that thought aside.
The irony of a gentleman confined to a hotel during thirty-plus years of life in the Soviet Union offers Towles a large playing field that he exploits with entertaining side stories, many focused on food. The storyline that will win over many readers is how Rostov becomes the parent to a six-year-old, raising her to become a concert pianist. This situation is used to justify Rostov’s compliance with the request of a high level communist official to provide him insights based on his prior life in France, as later that official aids the count during a crisis in the life of his adopted daughter.
Yet to entertain the reader with Rostov’s survival story, Towles downplays the milieu in which his gentleman lives. Yes, his adopted daughter’s parents are sent to the Gulag and are never heard from again; yes, his friend, the poet Mishka, who it turns out was the real author of the poem that saved Rostov’s life, is similarly punished. But two cases don’t convey the horror and the death toll experienced by millions under communist rule.
For example, we don’t hear from Towles what happened to people who wished to practice their religions under communism. Rather we learn that people lined up for miles upon Stalin’s death, many of them crying. Why? Stalin, we are told, helped defeat Nazi Germany and converted a backward country into a world power. Stalin did those things––not the soldiers who died in the tens of thousands or the factory workers who were exploited worse than under the Tsar!
Missing from the story of the count’s life are references to his money and his religion. Towles doesn’t seem interested in the role religious belief played in the lives of Russians prior to the revolution, ignoring the role of the Greek Orthodox Church in Tsarist Russia and the plight of Jews and other religious minorities under communism. Nor do we learn how the count is able to pay his bills, although lack of currency is never a problem.
The ending? Rostov could escape the Soviet Union, but doesn’t. We are left to imagine that a gentleman can go to the village near his family’s estate and that his gentleman’s personality will dissuade locals from turning him in or making him join them in the fields.
A Gentleman in Moscow is an enchanting story as long as one is ignorant of the real history of the Soviet Union and is not foolish enough to try Towles’ technique for survival in places like Cuba, Argentina, or China.