Day 1125: A Gentleman in Moscow

Cover for A Gentleman in MoscowFor some time after I began reading A Gentleman in Moscow, I was bothered by the idea that I was reading Aftermath of the Russian Revolution Lite. Still, I enjoyed the novel and finally decided that the historical background was not really the point.

Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov is living in the Metropol Hotel in Moscow in 1922 when he is summoned to a tribunal. Although he has committed no crime except perhaps one of attitude, the people have no use for aristocrats anymore. He might have been imprisoned or executed except that he is considered one of the heroes of the revolution because of a poem he wrote. So, the Count is sentenced to live in the Metropol. He is not allowed to leave, or he will be shot. Further, when he returns to his luxurious rooms, he finds he is to be relegated to a small room in the belfry.

The Count makes himself as comfortable as he can and continues to live a more restricted version of the life he led before, socializing in the lobby, reading, and meeting with friends. But he begins to be bored. We follow the Count as he slowly changes the purpose of his life, beginning with his friendship with a nine-year-old girl, Nina Kulikova.

This tale of more than 30 years of life in the Metropol, I finally decided, is not meant to be realistic but is a gentle story about the effects of the Count’s gentility on other people and of the Count’s own personal development. There is a villain in the form of a character the Count calls the Bishop, a bad waiter who uses his contacts to become manager of the hotel. Life in the hotel is thus not always roses, but its employees and residents are subject more to inconvenience than to misfortune.

This is not to say that nothing bad happens. Friends are exiled to Siberia or disappear, and a famous poet commits suicide. Still, we are detached by the novel’s playful writing style from anything happening outside the Metropol and even from most of the things happening inside the hotel.

Overall, I was captured by the charm of the novel, but I don’t think it consitutes a very accurate reflection of its time and place. Horrible things were happening in Russia through these years, but to this novel, events are just footnotes and parentheses. And, by the way, the Russians executed lots of heroes of the revolution.

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14 thoughts on “Day 1125: A Gentleman in Moscow

  1. Lory @ Emerald City Book Review September 7, 2017 / 12:06 pm

    I did not think the premise was very realistic either — It was fun to read about the life in the hotel, but I couldn’t buy that they would have actually let him survive for that long. I read it for a book club and everyone else was raving about it so i didn’t feel like I could say much.

    • whatmeread September 7, 2017 / 1:10 pm

      Nope, and in fact things even in the hotel would have been a lot rougher and more precarious. Plus, I think that in Soviet times the fancy hotels were reserved for foreigners.

  2. Naomi September 7, 2017 / 12:11 pm

    This book sounds like more fun than I thought – I assumed it was quite serious.

    I can’t imagine living in a hotel for 30 years. We lived in one for almost 3 months when we had a 2-year-old and a baby. For a few days it felt like vacation, since I didn’t have to do any housework, but it quickly went downhill!

  3. whatmeread September 7, 2017 / 1:07 pm

    I can imagine! No, it’s not very serious at all, in fact, it teeters on the edge of being a “feel-good” novel, and you know how I feel about those!

  4. TJ @ MyBookStrings September 8, 2017 / 8:46 am

    Though I have read a number of very positive reviews of this book, I never felt the pull to read it, and after what you have said, I still don’t feel like reading it. I would want more emphasis on the the historical aspect, and I would want it to be accurate.

  5. whatmeread September 8, 2017 / 11:43 am

    Yes, I found myself enjoying it despite the lightweight and probably inaccurate historical background, but I could see why anyone might choose not to read it.

  6. Annie September 10, 2017 / 2:19 pm

    I agree that one has to not think too hard about what’s going on outside the hotel in order to really enjoy this story–which makes me wonder why Towles chose it at all? I think this premise would work and be more realistic almost anywhere else. Why not set it in a hotel in a country that is declaring independence from a European power?

    • whatmeread September 10, 2017 / 3:34 pm

      Good point. Perhaps the implicit threat, slight though it is in the novel?

      • Annie September 20, 2017 / 5:42 pm

        I didn’t really buy the level of threat in A Gentleman in Moscow because it was a lot more slight than I know to be historically accurate.

      • whatmeread September 21, 2017 / 10:58 am

        Exactly

  7. Davida Chazan September 23, 2017 / 1:30 am

    Too bad this is a disappointment. We so seldom get good historical fiction about Russia and this era.

    • whatmeread September 23, 2017 / 11:30 am

      Yeah, I wouldn’t say that this book made was a good reflection at all of what it was like in the country then. I had someone comment that it was better than under the Czar, but I don’t really think it was. Too many people were terrified of doing something that would get them in trouble.

  8. Sue Boulais February 11, 2019 / 7:52 am

    Our book club just finished this book (January 2018) and I was the only one who felt as you did. In fact, so “transported” was the rest of the group that they decided this was the kind of book that should be used to teach history in schools. Not one of them had researched what really happened to the aristocracy during the Russian Revolution. They were all agog at the picture of “grace under pressure”–never mind that the count had money, a place to live, and three squares a day. I grant that the language was wonderful, but I would have been much more comfortable if the book had been set in a less recognizably historical era/place.

    Most other reviews of the book also place it in “elegantly bygone era”—what are they thinking? Just goes to show you the power of the printed word–and the result of ignorance.

    Thanks for letting me contribute (rant). The entire experience really upset me, particularly when we had just finished another historical novel about the Japanese internment camps in the US–and people thought the Japanese didn’t “have it so bad.” Glad I found this site.

    • whatmeread February 11, 2019 / 10:36 am

      Oh my god. Well, thanks for your comments. It sounds like you were even more upset than I was.

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