By Norman Knight
Sometimes a book takes hold and won’t let me be. During the day when I am in the midst of my tasks and obligations, I am anticipating that moment when I can sit in my chair and go back inside the story which has me possessed. I just finished such a book.
The setting of the novel “A Gentleman in Moscow” takes place in Russia just after that country fell under the rule of the Bolsheviks. The Russian Revolution exploded onto the world scene in 1917, and its world-shaking reverberations are still being felt today, 100 years later. Author Amor Towles paints a picture of everyday life in the repressive Soviet system and how one man, a gentleman, negotiates his life through it.
During the first years of the Communist takeover of Russia, enemies of the state were often shot. Those who avoided that fate were sent into exile or to the forced labor camps known as gulags. Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov was sentenced to a slightly different punishment.
Although the Count was a member of the aristocracy which in itself was essentially a crime, the cause of his arrest and conviction was a poem deemed subversive by the authorities and attributed to him. But because someone in the senior ranks of the party considered his earlier contributions to the revolution to be worth considering, his sentence was modified.
He was to be taken to the Metropol Hotel in central Moscow where he resided and was confined for the rest of his life. “Should you ever set foot outside of the Metropol again,” he was assured by a member of the Emergency Committee of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, “you will be shot.”
We follow Rostov’s life from 1922 to the early 1960s. We see how he learns to cope, to accept and when possible to resist life in this brave new Soviet world of strict party rules and arbitrary regulations, of bitter resentment toward the former upper classes and frenzied celebration of the dismantlement of the old order.
And all the while we are reminded that even in such intense and turbulent political times, life is more than governments and the people who administer them. Members of the hotel staff, old friends from the outside and recurring guests become Rostov’s true family.
It is fascinating to observe the incremental changes that Rostov endures as the years go on. His dwellings go from sumptuous apartments (a party official commandeered them for his own use) to ever smaller spaces.
The hotel staff is ordered to stop referring to him as “Count” as it carries a whiff of Czarist days. He assumes a role as a staff member of the hotel restaurant. He discerns the ever changing position of what we now call the politically correct thinking. He is denied the simple pleasures of moving about in the beautiful city he loves.
Count Rostov made it through those 40-plus years because he had been bred to be gracious and polite, to be thoughtful for the feelings and comfort of others. He was well-read, educated and experienced enough to understand the good and the evil, the split personality of the human heart.
He stoically accepted adversity when necessary and always carried within him the anchors of integrity and honor. He was in control of himself. What more can anyone ask of a person? Alexander Ilyich Rostov was a gentleman.
As I was reading, I found myself wondering about these qualities and to what degree they still are valued in our current culture.
Then I found myself considering these qualities in myself, always a good place to start the examination. You know, one could do worse than to be called a gentleman.
Norman Knight, a retired Clark-Pleasant Middle School teacher, writes this weekly column for the Daily Journal. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.