108 pages 3 hours read

Amor Towles

A Gentleman in Moscow

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2016

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Summary and Study Guide


Published in 2016, A Gentleman in Moscow, by American author Amor Towles, is the story of Count Alexander Rostov, a Russian nobleman who, after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, is sentenced to lifelong imprisonment in Moscow’s Metropol Hotel. The Count must adjust not only to his new circumstances in a small room in the hotel’s belfry but also to the knowledge that his way of life is disappearing under the Bolshevik regime. As the years pass, the Count witnesses his Country changing outside his window, and he must learn to reconcile these changes with the past he holds dear. However, his time in the hotel teaches him lessons he would not have learned otherwise. As the Count befriends people of different nationalities and classes, he finds that “the inconveniences […] have mattered to [him] most” (352). A Gentleman in Moscow explores personal growth, the inevitability of change, and the nature of government and power. The novel illustrates how people’s lives are intertwined and how the present can be informed but not mired by the past.

On June 21, 1922, five years after the Bolshevik Revolution that led to the execution of Tsar Nicholas II, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov appears before the Emergency Committee of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs and is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol Hotel, where he lives in a luxurious suite. He is told he would have been executed had it not been for a poem he wrote years before that seemed sympathetic to the Bolshevik cause. When the Count returns to the hotel, he is brought to a small room in a sixth-floor belfry that once housed servants. Despite the hardships, the Count decides to take the advice of his godfather, Grand Duke Demidov, and to “master his circumstances” (18).

One day not long after his house arrest begins, he is served at the hotel’s Piazza restaurant by an incompetent new waiter, whom he nicknames the Bishop. As he eats, a little girl, Nina, approaches his table and surprises him by asking him personal questions and expressing bold points of view. In the time that follows, the Count meets with Nina frequently. He is struck by her intelligence, lack of intimidation, and seriousness.

Nina explores the hotel with a passkey. She takes the Count on her adventures, and together they visit the boiler room, storage rooms, and other secret rooms that make the hotel run. The Count kicks out the wall of his closet to discover it connects with another room, which he makes his secret study.

One day in September, the Count is visited by his best friend, Mishka. Mishka, a gifted poet and supporter of the Bolshevik Party, has always been out of step with the times; however, the Count is delighted to find that Mishka has become a member of the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers. On Christmas, Nina gives the Count her passkey before leaving to spend the holiday at home with her father.

On the one-year anniversary of his house arrest, the Count is in the lobby when a glamorous woman loses control of her two dogs; he and the woman engage in a short, charged conversation. Later, the Count meets Mishka in the Shalyapin bar, where Mishka hints at a new romance with a poet named Katerina. Later, the woman from the lobby, actress Anna Urbanova, invites him to her room. After dinner and conversation, she surprises him by kissing him and leading him to her bedroom. He angers her by taking it upon himself to hang up her blouse, and the two do not speak for three years.

In the year that follows, Nina grows more and more studious, and the Count sees Mishka less frequently. One night in the Boyarsky, the hotel’s formal restaurant, he is dismayed to find the Bishop is his waiter. A conversation with Andrey, the maître d’, reveals that the Bishop had complained that expensive wines are elitist and go against the Party’s ideals. As a result, all the labels were removed.

June 21, 1926 is the ten-year anniversary of the death of the Count’s sister, Helena. Pondering changing times, the Count attempts to take his life by jumping from the roof of the Metropol; before he can do so, however, a chance encounter with a handyman he’s befriended renews his hopefulness.

By 1930, the Count is the headwaiter at the Boyarsky. He meets daily with Emile, the brilliant but irascible chef, and Andrey, forming a “Triumvirate.” The three defy the strictness of the Bolsheviks by secretly planning to cook a meal using ingredients that are difficult to procure. One day he sees Nina, now 17, and several other young Bolsheviks in the lobby. Nina tells him they are going to help with collectivization, or the confiscation of farmland from wealthy kulaks. Later that evening, the Count has a rendezvous with Anna, with whom he has reconnected.

A Party officer named Osip Glebnikov requests that the Count serve him in a private room. He tells the Count that given Russia’s inevitable position on the world stage, he would like the Count to help him learn about French and English cultures. The two begin a long friendship in which they meet once a month to discuss culture, books, and American movies.

In 1938, Nina approaches him in the lobby and tells him her husband has been arrested and sentenced to five years of hard labor. She begs the Count to take care of her young daughter, Sofia, for a month while she finds a place to live. Over the next couple of days, the Count feels awkward, incompetent, and unable to occupy the time. However, as the Count labors to prepare a bed for her and play games with her, the two warm to each other. Despite the Count’s efforts to communicate with Nina, she is never heard from again.

In 1946, the Count is visited by a haggard Mishka, whom he has not seen since 1938, when Mishka was sent to Siberia for speaking out against censorship. He tells the Count he is working on a special project. In the Shalyapin, the Count meets an American aide-de-camp named Richard Vanderwhile, with whom he engages in a serious conversation about Russia, America, and posterity. That evening, Sofia falls on the staircase and is knocked unconscious. The Count rushes her to the hospital, where Osip helps her receive care and arranges for the Count to return to the hotel in secret. Over the years, Richard, now working for the State Department, continues to see the Count when he visits Moscow.

In 1950, the Count discovers that Sofia is a gifted piano player and that she has been receiving lessons from the Piazza orchestra conductor, Viktor Stepanovich. Richard Vanderwhile talks with the Count about Stalin’s impending death and the importance of their respective Countries remaining friendly. He says he is going to Paris and would like the Count to listen for any interesting news to pass on to him. Anna and the Count continue to see each other when she is in town.

In 1954, Sofia is invited to play piano in Paris with the All-Union Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries. Meanwhile, the Bishop is now the hotel manager, and he annoys the Triumvirate by attending their daily meetings. The Count begins making mysterious arrangements, stealing guests’ clothing and mapping out routes in Paris.

The night before Sofia leaves for Paris, he reveals his plan with her, leaving her little choice to follow it, despite her fears. Sofia and the Count have an emotional parting. Shortly after she leaves, as he makes his final preparations, he encounters the Bishop, who has discovered his plan. After a tense altercation, the Count locks the Bishop in the basement storeroom.

After her performance in Paris, Sofia dons a carefully-planned disguise and weaves her way toward the embassy in Paris, where Richard Vanderwhile is expecting her. Hidden in her backpack is sensitive information the Count obtained during a dinner with the Council of Ministers. Once the Count, also disguised, receives the signal that Sofia is safe, he himself escapes the Metropol, having written letters of thanks to his friends and enlisted the help of Viktor Stepanovich, who creates a false trail suggesting the Count has gone to Finland. However, with Sofia safely on her way to America, the Count has gone to the Countryside, to the town in which he grew up, where he meets Anna Urbanova in an inn.

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