A Gentleman in Moscow

A Gentleman in Moscow

Amor Towles

For Stokley and Esmé

How well I remember

When it came as a visitor on foot

And dwelt a while amongst us

A melody in the semblance of a mountain cat.

Well, where is our purpose now?

Like so many questions

I answer this one

With the eye-averted peeling of a pear.

With a bow I bid goodnight

And pass through terrace doors

Into the simple splendors

Of another temperate spring;

But this much I know:

It is not lost among the autumn leaves on Peter’s Square.

It is not among the ashes in the Athenaeum ash cans.

It is not inside the blue pagodas of your fine Chinoiserie.

It is not in Vronsky’s saddlebags;

Not in Sonnet XXX, stanza one;

Not on twenty-seven red . . .

Where Is It Now? (Lines 1–19) Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov


21 June 1922



Presiding: Comrades V. A. Ignatov, M. S. Zakovsky, A. N. Kosarev

Prosecuting: A. Y. Vyshinsky

* * *

Prosecutor Vyshinsky: State your name.

Rostov: Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, recipient of the Order of Saint Andrew, member of the Jockey Club, Master of the Hunt.

Vyshinsky: You may have your titles; they are of no use to anyone else. But for the record, are you not Alexander Rostov, born in St. Petersburg, 24 October 1889?

Rostov: I am he.

Vyshinsky: Before we begin, I must say, I do not think that I have ever seen a jacket festooned with so many buttons.

Rostov: Thank you.

Vyshinsky: It was not meant as a compliment.

Rostov: In that case, I demand satisfaction on the field of honor.


Secretary Ignatov: Silence in the gallery.

Vyshinsky: What is your current address?

Rostov: Suite 317 at the Hotel Metropol, Moscow.

Vyshinsky: How long have you lived there?

Rostov: I have been in residence since the fifth of September 1918. Just under four years.

Vyshinsky: And your occupation?

Rostov: It is not the business of gentlemen to have occupations.

Vyshinsky: Very well then. How do you spend your time?

Rostov: Dining, discussing. Reading, reflecting. The usual rigmarole.

Vyshinsky: And you write poetry?

Rostov: I have been known to fence with a quill.

Vyshinsky: [Holding up a pamphlet] Are you the author of this long poem of 1913: Where Is It Now?

Rostov: It has been attributed to me.

Vyshinsky: Why did you write the poem?

Rostov: It demanded to be written. I simply happened to be sitting at the particular desk on the particular morning when it chose to make its demands.

Vyshinsky: And where was that exactly?

Rostov: In the south parlor at Idlehour.

Vyshinsky: Idlehour?

Rostov: The Rostov estate in Nizhny Novgorod.

Vyshinsky: Ah, yes. Of course. How apt. But let us return our attention to your poem. Coming as it did—in the more subdued years after the failed revolt of 1905—many considered it a call to action. Would you agree with that assessment?

Rostov: All poetry is a call to action.

Vyshinsky: [Checking notes] And it was in the spring of the following year that you left Russia for Paris . . . ?

Rostov: I seem to remember blossoms on the apple trees. So, yes, in all likelihood it was spring.

Vyshinsky: May 16 to be precise. Now, we understand the reasons for your self-imposed exile; and we even have some sympathy with the actions that prompted your flight. What concerns us here is your return in 1918. One wonders if you came back with the intention of taking up arms and, if so, whether for or against the Revolution.

Rostov: By that point, I’m afraid that my days of taking up arms were behind me.

Vyshinsky: Why then did you come back?

Rostov: I missed the climate.


Vyshinsky: Count Rostov, you do not seem to appreciate the gravity of your position. Nor do you show the respect that is due the men convened before you.

Rostov: The Tsarina had the same complaints about me in her day.

Ignatov: Prosecutor Vyshinsky. If I may . . .

Vyshinsky: Secretary Ignatov.

Ignatov: I have no doubt, Count Rostov, that many in the gallery are surprised to find you so charming; but I, for one, am not surprised in the least. History has shown charm to be the final ambition of the leisure class. What I do find surprising is that the author of the poem in question could have become a man so obviously without purpose.

Rostov: I have lived under the impression that a man’s purpose is known only to God.

Ignatov: Indeed. How convenient that must have been for you.

[The Committee recesses for twelve minutes.]

Ignatov: Alexander Ilyich Rostov, taking into full account your own testimony, we can only assume that the clear-eyed spirit who wrote the poem Where Is It Now? has succumbed irrevocably to the corruptions of his class—and now poses a threat to the very ideals he once espoused. On that basis, our inclination would be to have you taken from this chamber and put against the wall. But there are those within the senior ranks of the Party who count you among the heroes of the prerevolutionary cause. Thus, it is the opinion of this committee that you should be returned to that hotel of which you are so fond. But make no mistake: should you ever set foot outside of the Metropol again, you will be shot. Next matter.

Bearing the signatures of

V. A. Ignatov

M. S. Zakovsky

A. N. Kosarev



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.”

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