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Story of a lifetime: A Russian aristocrat after the 1917 revolution

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A tumultuous civil war followed the cataclysmic Russian Revolution in 1917.

Amor Towles’ much-praised novel “A Gentleman in Moscow” presents Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, who has been living above the fray in the Metropole, a grand hotel mere blocks from the Bolshoi Theatre, the Kremlin and the infamous Lubyanka prison.

Then in 1922, a Bolshevik court orders Rostov to spend his life in the Metropole. But he must give up his suite for a small attic room. It’s a kind of “house arrest.” Rostov, to the manor born, is able to make the Metropole his manor.

When the prosecutor asks Rostov his occupation, the count replies matter-of-factly, “It is not the business of gentlemen to have occupations.” (However, work eventually finds him.)

How does the tribunal let the count off so easy?

Amor Towles

Towles said in a phone interview, “Rostov has friends in the upper ranks of the (Communist) party. He’s spared for specific reasons. That was more common than not.”

People were constantly spared for one reason or another. It was not solely a world defined by its worst elements.

“The other thing,” the author said, “is most Americans don’t realize that one-third of the Russian nobility survived the revolution, stayed in Russia and led their lives. In many cases, they were permitted to live in the family mansion, often relegated to a single room. The rest of the house was divided up by citizens and party members.”

The absorbing novel tracks 30 years in the count’s life at the Metropole, a life that Rostov displays with an aristocratic refinement and good manners. The worldly nobleman is just at ease chatting with staff as he is with diverse hotel visitors. There’s an ongoing intimate relationship with an actress.

Rostov is also fond of conversing with 9-year-old Nina, the precocious daughter of a widowed Ukrainian bureaucrat. Nina might remind one of Eloise, the children’s book series character who lived in the “tippy-top floor” of New York City’s Plaza Hotel.

A recurring four-legged character in Towles’ novel is the omniscient one-eyed cat, a Russian blue, that makes its home in the hotel lobby.

Rostov knowingly comments on the menu and on the chef’s food preparation. A bowl of chilled soup draws this commentary: “A tad too much salt, a tad too little kvass, but a perfect expression of dill.” Kvass is a fermented beverage.

Rostov exudes an elegance matched by Towles’ own elegant writing style, a style that extends to the author providing important political events in Russia that segue into this story.

A footnote: The Bolshevik prosecutor, who makes an early, single cameo appearance, is identified as A.Y. Vyshinsky. In the 1930s, the real A.Y. Vyshinsky was a jurist at infamous Soviet show trials and in the ’40s rose to become the Soviet Union’s foreign minister.

Towles also wrote the New York Times best-selling “Rules of Civility,” his debut novel about a 25-year-old secretary in 1938 New York whose chance encounter with a handsome banker alters her life.