A Gentleman in Moscow

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More than half a million readers have fallen in love with the New York Times bestseller A Gentleman in Moscow

“How delightful that in an era as crude as ours this finely composed novel stretches out with old-World elegance.” —The Washington Post

“‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ and ‘Eloise’ meets all the Bond villains.” —TheSkimm

“Irresistible . . . [an] elegant period piece . . . as lavishly filigreed as a Fabergé egg.” —O, The Oprah Magazine

He can’t leave his hotel. You won’t want to.

From the New York Times bestselling author of Rules of Civility—a transporting novel about a man who is ordered to spend the rest of his life inside a luxury hotel.

In 1922, Count Alexander Rostov is deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, and is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin. Rostov, an indomitable man of erudition and wit, has never worked a day in his life, and must now live in an attic room while some of the most tumultuous decades in Russian history are unfolding outside the hotel’s doors. Unexpectedly, his reduced circumstances provide him entry into a much larger world of emotional discovery.

Brimming with humor, a glittering cast of characters, and one beautifully rendered scene after another, this singular novel casts a spell as it relates the count’s endeavor to gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be a man of purpose.

“And the intrigue! . . . [A Gentleman in Moscow] is laced with sparkling threads (they will tie up) and tokens (they will matter): special keys, secret compartments, gold coins, vials of coveted liquid, old-fashioned pistols, duels and scars, hidden assignations (discreet and smoky), stolen passports, a ruby necklace, mysterious letters on elegant hotel stationery . . . a luscious stage set, backdrop for a downright Casablanca-like drama.” —The San Francisco Chronicle


1922

An Ambassador

At half past six on the twenty-first of June 1922, when Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov was escorted through the gates of the Kremlin onto Red Square, it was glorious and cool. Drawing his shoulders back without breaking stride, the Count inhaled the air like one fresh from a swim. The sky was the very blue that the cupolas of St. Basil’s had been painted for. Their pinks, greens, and golds shimmered as if it were the sole purpose of a religion to cheer its Divinity. Even the Bolshevik girls conversing before the windows of the State Department Store seemed dressed to celebrate the last days of spring.

“Hello, my good man,” the Count called to Fyodor, at the edge of the square. “I see the blackberries have come in early this year!”

Giving the startled fruit seller no time to reply, the Count walked briskly on, his waxed moustaches spread like the wings of a gull. Passing through Resurrection Gate, he turned his back on the lilacs of the Alexander Gardens and proceeded toward Theatre Square, where the Hotel Metropol stood in all its glory. When he reached the threshold, the Count gave a wink to Pavel, the afternoon doorman, and turned with a hand outstretched to the two soldiers trailing behind him.

 

“Thank you, gentlemen, for delivering me safely. I shall no longer be in need of your assistance.”

Though strapping lads, both of the soldiers had to look up from under their caps to return the Count’s gaze—for like ten generations of Rostov men, the Count stood an easy six foot three.

“On you go,” said the more thuggish of the two, his hand on the butt of his rifle. “We’re to see you to your rooms.”

In the lobby, the Count gave a wide wave with which to simultaneously greet the unflappable Arkady (who was manning the front desk) and sweet Valentina (who was dusting a statuette). Though the Count had greeted them in this manner a hundred times before, both responded with a wide-eyed stare. It was the sort of reception one might have expected when arriving for a dinner party having forgotten to don one’s pants.

Passing the young girl with the penchant for yellow who was reading a magazine in her favorite lobby chair, the Count came to an abrupt stop before the potted palms in order to address his escort.

“The lift or the stairs, gentlemen?”

The soldiers looked from one another to the Count and back again, apparently unable to make up their minds.

“The stairs,” he determined on their behalf, then vaulted the steps two at a time, as had been his habit since the academy.

On the third floor, the Count walked down the red-carpeted hallway toward his suite—an interconnected bedroom, bath, dining room, and grand salon with eight-foot windows overlooking the lindens of Theatre Square. And there the rudeness of the day awaited. For before the flung-open doors of his rooms stood a captain of the guards with Pasha and Petya, the hotel’s bellhops. The two young men met the Count’s gaze with looks of embarrassment, having clearly been conscripted into some duty they found distasteful. The Count addressed the officer.

“What is the meaning of this, Captain?”

The captain, who seemed mildly surprised by the question, had the good training to maintain the evenness of his affect.

“I am here to show you to your quarters.”

“These are my quarters.”

Betraying the slightest suggestion of a smile, the captain replied, “No longer, I’m afraid.”

Leaving Pasha and Petya behind, the captain led the Count and his escort to a utility stair hidden behind an inconspicuous door in the core of the hotel. The ill-lit ascent turned a sharp corner every five steps in the manner of a belfry. Up they wound three flights to where a door opened on a narrow corridor servicing a bathroom and six bedrooms reminiscent of monastic cells. This attic was originally built to house the butlers and ladies’ maids of the Metropol’s guests; but when the practice of traveling with servants fell out of fashion, the unused rooms had been claimed by the caprices of casual urgency—thenceforth warehousing scraps of lumber, broken furniture, and other assorted debris.

Earlier that day, the room closest to the stairwell had been cleared of all but a cast-iron bed, a three-legged bureau, and a decade of dust. In the corner near the door was a small closet, rather like a telephone box, that had been dropped in the room as an afterthought. Reflecting the pitch of the roof, the ceiling sloped at a gradual incline as it moved away

from the door, such that at the room’s outer wall the only place where the Count could stand to his full height was where a dormer accommodated a window the size of a chessboard.

As the two guards looked on smugly from the hall, the good captain explained that he had summoned the bellhops to help the Count move what few belongings his new quarters would accommodate.

“And the rest?”

“Becomes the property of the People.”

So this is their game, thought the Count.

“Very well.”

Back down the belfry he skipped as the guards hurried behind him, their rifles clacking against the wall. On the third floor, he marched along the hallway and into his suite where the two bellhops looked up with woeful expressions.

“It’s all right, fellows,” the Count assured and then began pointing: “This. That. Those. All the books.”

Among the furnishings destined for his new quarters, the Count chose two high-back chairs, his grandmother’s oriental coffee table, and a favorite set of her porcelain plates. He chose the two table lamps fashioned from ebony elephants and the portrait of his sister, Helena, which Serov had painted during a brief stay at Idlehour in 1908. He did not forget the leather case that had been fashioned especially for him by Asprey in London and which his good friend Mishka had so appropriately christened the Ambassador.

Someone had shown the courtesy of having one of the Count’s traveling trunks brought to his bedroom. So, as the bellhops carried the aforementioned upward, the Count filled the trunk with clothes and personal effects. Noting that the guards were eyeing the two bottles of brandy on the console, the Count tossed them in as well. And once the trunk had been carried upstairs, he finally pointed to the desk.

The two bellhops, their bright blue uniforms already smudged from their efforts, took hold of it by the corners.

“But it weighs a ton,” said one to the other.

“A king fortifies himself with a castle,” observed the Count, “a gentleman with a desk.”

As the bellhops lugged it into the hall, the Rostovs’ grandfather clock, which was fated to be left behind, tolled a doleful eight. The captain had long since returned to his post and the guards, having swapped their belligerence for boredom, now leaned against the wall and let the ashes from their cigarettes fall on the parquet floor while into the grand salon poured the undiminished light of the Moscow summer solstice.

With a wistful eye, the Count approached the windows at the suite’s northwest corner. How many hours had he spent before them? How many mornings dressed in his robe with his coffee in hand had he observed the new arrivals from St. Petersburg disembarking from their cabs, worn and weary from the overnight train? On how many winter eves had he watched the snow slowly descending as some lone silhouette, stocky and short, passed under a street lamp? At that very instant, at the square’s northern extreme a young Red Army officer rushed up the steps of the Bolshoi, having missed the first half hour of the evening’s performance.

The Count smiled to remember his own youthful preference for arriving entr’acte. Having insisted at the English Club that he could only stay for one more drink, he stayed for three. Then leaping into the waiting carriage, he’d flash across the city, vault the fabled steps, and like this young fellow slip through the golden doors. As the ballerinas danced gracefully across the stage, the Count would be whispering his excusez-moi’s, making his

way to his usual seat in the twentieth row with its privileged view of the ladies in the loges.

Arriving late, thought the Count with a sigh. What a delicacy of youth.

Then he turned on his heels and began to walk his rooms. First, he admired the salon’s grand dimensions and its two chandeliers. He admired the painted panels of the little dining room and the elaborate brass mechanics that allowed one to secure the double doors of the bedroom. In short, he reviewed the interior much as would a potential buyer who was seeing the rooms for the very first time. Once in the bedroom, the Count paused before the marble-topped table on which lay an assortment of curios. From among them, he picked up a pair of scissors that had been prized by his sister. Fashioned in the shape of an egret with the long silver blades representing the bird’s beak and the small golden screw at the pivot representing its eye, the scissors were so delicate he could barely fit his thumb and finger through the rings.

Looking from one end of the apartment to the other, the Count took a quick inventory of all that would be left behind. What personal possessions, furnishings, and objets d’art he had brought to this suite four years before were already the product of a great winnowing. For when word had reached the Count of the Tsar’s execution, he had set out from Paris at once. Over twenty days, he had made his way across six nations and skirted eight battalions fighting under five different flags, finally arriving at Idlehour on the seventh of August 1918, with nothing but a rucksack on his back. Though he found the countryside on the verge of upheaval and the household in a state of distress, his grandmother, the Countess, was characteristically composed.

“Sasha,” she said without rising from her chair, “how good of you to come. You must be famished. Join me for tea.”

When he explained the necessity of her leaving the country and described the arrangements he had made for her passage, the Countess understood that there was no alternative. She understood that although every servant in her employ was ready to accompany her, she must travel with two. She also understood why her grandson and only heir, whom she had raised from the age of ten, would not be coming with her.

When the Count was just seven, he was defeated so soundly by a neighboring boy in a game of draughts that, apparently, a tear was shed, a curse was uttered, and the game pieces were scattered across the floor. This lack of sportsmanship led to a stiff reprimand from the Count’s father and a trip to bed without supper. But as the young Count was gripping his blanket in misery, he was visited by his grandmother. Taking a seat at the foot of the bed, the Countess expressed a measure of sympathy: “There is nothing pleasant to be said about losing,” she began, “and the Obolensky boy is a pill. But, Sasha, my dear, why on earth would you give him the satisfaction?” It was in this spirit that he and his grandmother parted without tears on the docks in Peterhof. Then the Count returned to the family estate in order to administer its shuttering.

In quick succession came the sweeping of chimneys, the clearing of pantries, and the shrouding of furniture. It was just as if the family were returning to St. Petersburg for the season, except that the dogs were released from their kennels, the horses from their stables, and the servants from their duties. Then, having filled a single wagon with some of the finest of the Rostovs’ furniture, the Count bolted the doors and set out for Moscow.

’Tis a funny thing, reflected the Count as he stood ready to abandon his suite. From the earliest age, we must learn to say good-bye to friends and family.

We see our parents and siblings off at the station; we visit cousins, attend schools, join the regiment; we marry, or travel abroad. It is part of the human experience that we are constantly gripping a good fellow  by the shoulders and wishing him well, taking comfort from the notion that we will hear word of him soon enough.

But experience is less likely to teach us how to bid our dearest possessions adieu. And if it were to? We wouldn’t welcome the education. For eventually, we come to hold our dearest possessions more closely than we hold our friends. We carry them from place to place, often at considerable expense and inconvenience; we dust and polish their surfaces and reprimand children for playing too roughly in their vicinity—all the while, allowing memories to invest them with greater and greater importance. This armoire, we are prone to recall, is the very one in which we hid as a boy; and it was these silver candelabra that lined our table on Christmas Eve; and it was with this handkerchief that she once dried her tears, et cetera, et cetera. Until we imagine that these carefully preserved possessions might give us genuine solace in the face of a lost companion.

But, of course, a thing is just a thing.

And so, slipping his sister’s scissors into his pocket, the Count looked once more at what heirlooms remained and then expunged them from his heartache forever.

One hour later, as the Count bounced twice on his new mattress to identify the key of the bedsprings (G-sharp), he surveyed the furniture that had been stacked around him and reminded himself how, as a youth, he had longed for trips to France by steamship and Moscow by the overnight train.

And why had he longed for those particular journeys?

Because their berths had been so small!

What a marvel it had been to discover the table that folded away without a trace; and the drawers built into the base of the bed; and the wall-mounted lamps just large enough to illuminate a page. This efficiency of design was music to the young mind. It attested to a precision of purpose and the promise of adventure. For such would have been the quarters of Captain Nemo when he journeyed twenty thousand leagues beneath the sea. And wouldn’t any young boy with the slightest gumption gladly trade a hundred nights in a palace for one aboard the Nautilus?

Well. At long last, here he was.

Besides, with half the rooms on the second floor temporarily commandeered by the Bolsheviks for the tireless typing of directives, at least on the sixth floor a man could hear himself think.*

The Count stood and banged his head on the slope of the ceiling.

“Just so,” he replied.

Easing one of the high-back chairs aside and moving the elephant lamps to the bed, the Count opened his trunk. First, he took out the photograph of the Delegation and placed it on the desk where it belonged. Then he took out the two bottles of brandy and his father’s twice-tolling clock. But when he took out his grandmother’s opera glasses and placed them on the desk, a fluttering drew his attention toward the dormer. Though the window was only the size of a dinner invitation, the Count could see that a pigeon had landed outside on the copper stripping of the ledge.

“Why, hello,” said the Count. “How kind of you to stop by.”

The pigeon looked back with a decidedly proprietary air. Then it scuffed the flashing with its claws and thrust its beak at the window several times in quick succession.

“Ah, yes,” conceded the Count. “There is something in what you say.”

He was about to explain to his new neighbor the cause of his unexpected arrival, when from the hallway came the delicate clearing of a throat. Without turning, the Count could tell that this was Andrey, the maître d’ of the Boyarsky, for it was his trademark interruption.

Nodding once to the pigeon to indicate that they would resume their discussion anon, the Count rebuttoned his jacket and turned to find that it was not Andrey alone who had paid a visit: three members of the hotel’s staff were crowded in the doorway.

There was Andrey with his perfect poise and long judicious hands; Vasily, the hotel’s inimitable concierge; and Marina, the shy delight with the wandering eye who had recently been promoted from chambermaid to seamstress. The three of them exhibited the same bewildered gaze that the Count had noticed on the faces of Arkady and Valentina a few hours before, and finally it struck him: When he had been carted off that morning, they had all assumed that he would never return. He had emerged from behind the walls of the Kremlin like an aviator from the wreckage of a crash.

“My dear friends,” said the Count, “no doubt you are curious as to the day’s events. As you may know, I was invited to the Kremlin for a tête-à-tête. There, several duly goateed officers of the current regime determined that for the crime of being born an aristocrat, I should be sentenced to spend the rest of my days . . . in this hotel.”

In response to the cheers, the Count shook hands with his guests one by one, expressing to each his appreciation for their fellowship and his heartfelt thanks.

“Come in, come in,” he said.

Together, the three staff members squeezed their way between the teetering towers of furniture.

“If you would be so kind,” said the Count, handing Andrey one of the bottles of brandy. Then he kneeled before the Ambassador, threw the clasps, and opened it like a giant book. Carefully secured inside were fifty-two glasses—or more precisely, twenty-six pairs of glasses—each shaped to its purpose, from the grand embrace of the Burgundy glass down to those charming little vessels designed for the brightly colored liqueurs of southern Europe. In the spirit of the hour, the Count picked four glasses at random and passed them around as Andrey, having plucked the cork from the bottle, performed the honors.

Once his guests had their brandy in hand, the Count raised his own on high.

“To the Metropol,” he said.

“To the Metropol!” they replied.

The Count was something of a natural-born host and in the hour that ensued, as he topped a glass here and sparked a conversation there, he had an instinctive awareness of all the temperaments in the room. Despite the formality appropriate to his position, tonight Andrey exhibited a ready smile and an occasional wink. Vasily, who spoke with such pointed accuracy when providing directions to the city’s sights, suddenly had the lilt of one who may or may not remember tomorrow what he had said today. And at every jest, the shy Marina allowed herself to giggle without placing a hand in front of her lips.


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Author

Amor Towles