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January 2024

Book Review: A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

“We and the Americans will lead the rest of this century because we are the only nations who have learned to brush the past aside instead of bowing before it.”

I am always purposeful in the first book I read when a new year starts. Not really out of any superstition that it will set the tone or the events of the upcoming year. More because I know I will create a strong connection between the cold, dark, January days and the book I picked, so I want it to be a memorable one.

Gentleman in moscowThis January, on the recommendations of not two but three Internet friends, none of whom are connected to the others in any way, I decided I’d finally read A Gentleman in Moscow. I read it through the few snowstorms we got in January, through the burgeoning stress of changes at work. Some unexpected medical issues leading to some unpleasant procedures and a vague diagnosis that’s left me unsettled. A massive sifting of my fabric stash. Cold outdoor running and hiking.

Those experiences will always, now, be connected with Count Rostov’s unfolding life in the Metropol. (As I am likely the last literary person in the United States who hadn’t read the book, I’m assuming you have and thus sparing you the summary.) But more than gadolinium, the unexpectedly inexpensive raspberries in January, visiting an estate sale for the first time, and a glut of teaching nightmares, the strongest connection this book has left me with is its ties to contemporary American politics.

Two small scenes in particular:

The first one happens early in the story. When the Count is looking down at the Assembly in the ballroom, crouching with Nina on the tiny balcony, he realizes “that, despite the Revolution, the room had barely changed at all.” Whatever the ambitious goals of the Revolution to take power away from the Czars, eliminate capitalism, and create equality between peasants and laborers (a very brief outline of a time in history I don’t know a lot about)—to get rid of wasteful things like elegance and beauty, extravagant clothes and the silliness of social posturing—the Count realizes that nothing has really changed. The details have shifted: “Of course, there is now more canvas than cashmere in the room, more gray than gold. But is the patch on the elbow really that much different from the epaulette on the shoulder?”

But the concept is the same: humans always seek out power, and what good is power if you don’t show you have it?

Or, to use the Count’ words again: “Pomp is a tenacious force.”

When I started reading this book, I quickly realized that my knowledge of Russian in the first half of the twentieth century was woefully dismal, so I did a bit of reading. Some internet searches, a middle-grade nonfiction about the time period, a rereading of a few Chekhov stories just to get inside the Russian psyche a bit. That was fresh in my mind as I worked on the book’s beginning (like the Count reading Montaigne, the start of this book was not pleasant for me, but a very slow sludge; I had to get into the unwinding rhythm and I was about to give up until Nina appeared), and then I read that bit about the tenacity of pomp.

Which really is just a statement about how hard it is to change human nature.

It made me think about the origins of the United States. Since the rise of extreme conservatism in this country, I have come to understand just how much I thought of as “learning about history” was actually “ingesting propaganda.” We hold ourselves up as the best country in the world, and yet we are a nation founded on racism (whatever Nikki Haley says) that has done terrible things throughout the world. At the same time, though, we did change something. At least, I think we did. Some of us—like Mishka with his belief that there is a pure poetry that expresses what is real—really did believe we had a country that valued equality and freedom, even if we were still working it out, because we valued equality and freedom. But maybe it was all the same? Cashmere or canvas but still covering the actual human body, or in this case the deepest, oldest thing about America: it looks like we value those things but really we value the same things humans always have, which are wealth and power and the pleasure of using those to subvert and control whoever doesn’t think like we do. (I mean: we hold up the pilgrims as examples of people who sought out religious freedom, but do you think they actually wanted a place where everyone had that? Or simply a place where they would be able to practice THEIR religion without persecution?)

The second small scene that will stay with me happens near the book’s end. The Count manages the dinner of state where Krushchev takes the head of the table. That night, the lights are exterminated throughout Moscow, only to be turned on again when the new nuclear power plant takes over. Later, we learn the significance of this, and it’s the thing that hit me the hardest. Malenkov was another politician at the dinner; he was a more progressive thinker who was worried that the nuclear arms race with America would be an apocalyptic disaster, the opposite of Krushchev’s position. Again, the Count’s explanation gets to the heart of it: “Krushchev had performed the perfect sleight of hand—switching out the threat of nuclear Armageddon for the uplifting sight of a city sparkling with nuclear power. In a stroke, the conservative hawk had cast himself as a man of the future and his progressive opponent as a reactionary.”

Conservative thinking is what created contemporary Russia.

What I took from A Gentleman in Moscow—well, I took several things from it. One was a remembering of the pleasure of reading a novel with a slow, wandering plot. I haven’t read one in a long time, and I’ve forgotten how luxurious it is: a cast of vibrant characters experiencing life itself. Even though it was the first book I started this year, I didn’t finish it until the middle of February, because I would just dip in and out of it. By the time some actual plot tension came along at the end, I almost couldn’t bear reading it, the worry was so acute. Another was a tiny feeling of hope, because even though he loses almost everything, the Count still takes courage and moves ahead, and finds that there are other experiences and people, different beauty and surprises. That little spark made me see how much I have just put my head down and tried to submerge myself in acceptance that the years of my life which were FULL of people who loved me (or, people I thought loved me) are past, and that relationships will continue to dwindle. The Count’s experiences and relationships helped me lift my head up in the smallest bit of hope. And of course, I gained and understanding. In essence, A Gentleman in Moscow is a novel that explains why Russia is the way Russia is.

But the most unexpected knowledge is that it also helped me understand why America is the way it is. However we dress and whatever our ballrooms look like, we’ve always had that mean, conservative, Puritanical part of our social DNA. We have not learned to brush aside the past but continue to bring it with us while blithely proclaiming No, it didn’t happen like that. We cover it up in different ways, we try to change it, but it’s always been there. And right now, the conservative hawks seem to be winning. I didn’t put the book down with a sense of hope that that will stop any time soon. But those two crucial bits at least helped me understand it a bit better.