This is the central premise of Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow, a novel in which a Russian aristocrat is sentenced to house arrest in 1922. My university students selected Towles’s novel as the final text in our course on Favorite Books, unaware that we would be replicating the protagonist’s experience at the end of the semester.
Towles’s novel imagines how an individual finds purpose and freedom within the nightmare created by Stalin’s government. It offers valuable lessons as we face government prohibitions that have had devastating consequences.
“The World’s Crusoes”: Master Your Circumstances.
The novel opens with a poem foregrounding the theme of purpose and the transcript of a trial of Towles’s protagonist, Count Alexander Rostov. The charge? Not what he has done, but what he was born: an aristocrat.
Identity politics, it seems, is nothing new. Nor are government orders for confinement. In Towles’s novel, the “guilty” Count (now a “Former Person”), is sentenced by the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs to house arrest in the Metropol Hotel, where he must vacate his luxury suite for a tiny room in the attic.
Surveying his new quarters, the Count adopts his godfather’s advice: “if a man does not master his circumstances then he is bound to be mastered by them.” The Count takes Robinson Crusoe as his model. Rather than cry or die, “the world’s Crusoes” learn new skills. They study their surroundings, looking for opportunities.
The Count finds them in the company of a precocious nine-year-old, Nina. As they explore the hotel, he realizes that the building he thought he knew is full of unexpected possibilities. He kicks a hole through the back of his closet into the next room, which he transforms into a study.
The effect is profound: a room under the governance of others seems small, but the room that is secret is “as vast as one cares to imagine.” To master one’s circumstances, one must start with the mind.
“Hail, Comrade!” A Government Focused on Equality Erases Individuality
The Count’s mental refinement, like his birth and former wealth, inspires loathing among the Communists. They seek to eliminate not only economic inequality but individual difference.
The Count’s expertise in wine, for instance, provokes a jealous waiter at the Boyarsky Restaurant to file a complaint with the Commissar of Food, objecting that “the existence of our wine list runs counter to the ideals of the Revolution” because it is “a monument to the privilege of the nobility.”
To paraphrase a modern revolutionary politician, do we really need a choice of 23 kinds of wine when children are starving?
All labels for the restaurant’s hundred thousand wine bottles are removed. The waiter triumphantly tells the Count that there are now only two wine selections: “red or white.” Never mind the differences among the wines: as in people, they can be ignored as long as we pretend they are the same.
That equality is signaled by the new, universal form of address: “Comrade.” The word is used in greetings and in partings, for friends and for foes. “And thanks to the word’s versatility, the Russian people had finally been able to dispense with tired formalities, antiquated titles, bothersome idioms—even names!” the Count reflects.
The Conceit Has Always Been Fatal
The Count’s contemporaries greet the ideal of equality with enthusiasm. His friend Miskha, a writer, anticipates the universal end of ignorance and oppression. Nina, now older, joins the “shock workers” in collectivizing the Kado District for “the common good.” Within a decade, they changed their minds.
The problem? Central planning. Like many modern politicians, Joseph Stalin and his committee Gosplan had a plan for everything. The first plan, 1928-1932, was intended not only to make the nation an industrial leader but to improve agricultural efficiency through collectivization. Instead millions died from starvation.
Such tragedies provide ample evidence of the “fatal conceit,” F. A. Hayek’s term for politicians’ assumption that they can know enough centrally to plan economies. This conceit drove Stalin and inspires many of our leaders today in everything from creating new programs to responding to COVID-19.
A Government That Begins by Restricting Some Will Eventually Restrict All
While Nina and Mishka initially support the Communist programs, they ultimately experience its terrors. Miskha, editing Anton Chekhov’s letters for publication, is informed that he must omit a passage in which Chekhov praises the bread in Berlin. Offended by the censorship and its effect on writers, Mishka rebels—and is sent to Siberia.
Nina sees her husband arrested, sentenced to five years of corrective labor, and sent to Sevvostlag. She follows her husband, asking the Count to care for her daughter, Sofia, for a month until she is settled. She never returns.
Towles’s novel reflects the reality that in the end, Communist Russia trapped everyone. Russia began restricting emigration after the Revolution in 1917, and tightened control over time.
While our current situation in lockdown may be temporary, we should be leery of ever-expanding restrictions on travel and work and purchases, especially ones that seem like “arbitrary nonsense.”
“A Man of Intent”: Find Your Purpose.
In the end, Mishka found his truth in creating a book titled Bread and Salt (the Russian symbol of hospitality). It consists of a series of quotations from famous texts with BREAD capitalized and boldfaced. The last one is from Chekhov’s letter.
The Count also finds his purpose in caring for Nina’s daughter, Sofia, who becomes a pianist. When she has the opportunity to travel to Paris for a performance, the Count becomes “a Man of Intent.” Rather than see her trapped in Moscow for the rest of her life, he orchestrates her escape and his own.
As my students wrote in their final papers, the Count models the purpose and resilience we all need now. His final choice also demonstrates what is at stake: not just his own freedom, but the freedom of future generations. As he tells Sofia, urging her to go, “One does not fulfill one’s potential by listening to Scheherazade in a gilded hall, or by reading the Odyssey in one’s den. One does so by setting forth into the vast unknown.”