Gentlemen in Moscow

Moscow, Russia – October, 7, 2016: view of the Metropol Hotel in Moscow, Russia

It’s October! This month, our ‘Travel Europe Through Books’ online book club will be traveling to Moscow by way of the popular novel, A Gentleman in Moscow (2016) by Amor Towles.

A Metropolitan Novel

The first stop on our trip to Russia is Moscow, and more specifically the Metropol Hotel, pictured above. Just across the street from the famous Bolshoi Theater and a few blocks from Red Square, this monumental site sets the scene for A Gentleman in Moscow. Towles stayed in this hotel for some time while writing the novel. You can read more about his inspiration and experiences writing it HERE.

The novel’s main character, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, is a Russian aristocrat who is forced into exile within this hotel in 1922.

The novel’s main character, Count Rostov, is a Russian aristocrat who is forced into exile within this hotel in 1922, just a few years after the Russian or ‘Bolshevik’ Revolution in 1917. The urbane Rostov quickly learns how to be comfortable enough in his new life, though he is definitely faced with ‘inconveniences’ that ultimately change him through his 30 years of exile. The novel gives a unique perspective on Russia’s past: from the early Leninist Days, through the second World War, to the years of Stalin. It’s soft and thoughtful rather than gruesome. The novel’s clever, intimate and yet heart-rending view into the lives of the Russians of the early 20th century will captivate you. A series based on the book, starring Kenneth Branagh, is scheduled to air sometime in the future.

The Metropol Hotel

The setting–the fabulous Metropol Hotel–is a formidable character in itself. A 5-star hotel, this vestige from the Tsarist days still boasts marble pillars and inlaid floors, crystal chandeliers, grand staircases, and a gigantic stained-glass domed ceiling. It also has some great restaurants, including the Shalyapin Bar (which even serves a drink inspired by the novel), and the Metropol Hall (‘the Piazza’), the one with the domed glass ceiling. The opulent Boyarsky Restaurant, where Count Rostov becomes a waiter, is also still here, though a bit harder to find. It’s to be found on the fourth floor in all its eastern lordly splendor. Public figures such as Tolstoy, Lenin, Bernard Shaw, John Steinbeck, David Bowie, e. e. cummings, and Michael Jackson have all stayed here. The dedicated fan of A Gentleman in Moscow will surely want to explore the premises.

A five ruble change token from the year 1900, bearing the name of the Metropol Hotel. Count Rostov might have spent a few of these for his beloved mille feuilles.

A Second Man

A Gentleman in Moscow deals with themes such as mastering one’s circumstances, the development of character and relationships under stress, the interplay of individuality and equality within social class, and national identity. Towles explores these themes with masterful craft, striking a great balance between the story line and background detail.

V M Karren’s award-winning novel, The Deceit of Riches (2017), is also set in Russia, between Nizhny Novgorod and Moscow. This fascinating novel, based loosely on Karren’s own experiences, follows the physical and intellectual journey of the young student Peter Turner into the heart of Russia of the 1990s by way of its economy. You can learn more about Karren’s experiences and inspiration for it HERE. Though a grippingly suspenseful thriller, many parts of it read like a thoughtful literary or historical novel. It, too, deals with themes similar to those in Towles’ novel, and it’s interesting to compare these two books.

Two Perspectives

A Gentleman in Moscow shows us the perspective of an aristocrat; The Deceit of Riches, that of a young American student living in Russia. The first looks at Russian life beginning with the earliest years of Communism. The second regards it in retrospect, just as the Soviet Union has crumbled and people are grasping for new ways of living and doing business. Still, the books together give us a composite view of what Communism meant for millions of Russians.

Both novels show the desperate efforts of Russians to survive, and the absurd ironies of living in a society that is both idealistic and horrific. While A Gentleman in Moscow is a solid literary novel, and The Deceit of Riches is more correctly an historical thriller, both have a spy story woven into the web. Both also contain beautiful descriptions and poignant insights which draw from the arts, culture and philosophy of the rich Russian past. So we see, as is often the case, some genre overlap.

Of course, witnessing these events through the eyes of a fictional character usually gives us, as readers, a more emotionally relatable and rewarding experience than reading straight history. We can go under cover as an aristocrat or a student for a week or two, and come out with greater understanding of that place and time.

The books together give us a composite view of what Communism meant for Russia in many aspects of life.

Literary Travel in Moscow

The settings of these two books converge at Red Square in Central Moscow. If you ever decide to travel to Moscow, start at the Kazanskiy Station, where Peter Turner of The Deceit of Riches blended into the crowd to lose his FSB pursuers. Then stroll past Red Square and the Kremlin, visible from the Metropol, where the crowds moving toward Lenin’s tomb were seen by Count Rostov, and where Peter made his hasty detour through the city. The Metropol is just a few blocks away, so impersonate the Count there by spending a night, or at least having a drink in the Shalyapin bar. Then, don’t miss the Tretyakov Gallery across the river, which sets the scene for the climax in The Deceit of Riches. It’s filled with wonderful art and, unless you are researching local corruption, will be a much safer and enjoyable experience for you than it was for Peter.

Incidentally, A Gentleman in Moscow has met with such widespread success that readers who travel have made it a point to visit the Metropol in Moscow and walk in the fictional footsteps of Count Rostov. A ‘Gentleman in Moscow Tour’ is even a thing, including drinks and dishes mentioned in the novel. You could take all your favorite Moscow-inspired books–in ebook form of course–to the city of both the aristocrat and the worker, the student and the gangster, and read your favorite excerpts on Red Square. A fun way to travel, nyet?

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