The narrator concedes that the early thirties in Russia were “unkind.” In addition to the famine, there was overcrowding, shortages of goods, constraints on artistic freedom, and the razing of churches.
The narrator sets up the landscape of some of the fallout from the famines and other hardships plaguing Russia in order to then explain how individuals like Nina and Mishka are unable to adapt.
But at the same time, the direction of the Party veered. Given the unqualified success of the Revolution, many believed that it was time to support a little more glamour, luxury, and laughter. Girls were encouraged to look less like peasants and more like Parisians. The Central Universal Department Store, which had long only served foreigners and Party officials, became open to citizens in ’36, as long as the young women could pay for their skirts in foreign money, silver, or gold.
Even while Russia endures hardships, one can see how the Bolsheviks and the country as a whole are staring to bring back some of the pomp and hierarchical structure of the aristocracy, as the Count had predicted when discovering the silver service in the hotel. Yet again, the fact that department store goods can only be paid for with foreign money closes them off to most of the population, creating a sense of inequality that the Party claims to want to rid itself of.
The Count sees these skirts as a sign that spring is ending, and he says this to Vasily in the lobby, because it is so warm out even at seven o’clock at night. Nina then arrives unexpectedly, now twenty-five years old. She quickly explains that her husband had been arrested when they were attending a conference on agricultural planning. She then discovered that he had been sent to Siberia, but she needs someone to watch her five-year-old daughter Sofia for a month or two while she gets herself settled. She tells him that she has no one else to turn to.
The chance of being in the lobby when Nina appears and requests for the Count to watch her daughter is, as he says later, how he was meant to fulfill life’s purpose. Nina’s explanation of her and her husband’s situation also demonstrates how, unable to accept the hardships they have seen (which the narrator explained in the prior chapter) and having broken with the Party, they have been completely ousted from it.
The Count and Nina cross the lobby to where Sofia is sitting. Nina introduces Sofia to the Count and tells her that she will be staying with the Count for a few weeks while Nina goes to prepare their new home. Sofia tries to match her mother’s strength, but begins to cry. Nina leaves the Count with a knapsack of her daughter’s things and a photograph of her and her husband. She kisses Sofia goodbye and exits the hotel.
Even though the Count has never been a father, Nina trusts him without question to take care of her five-year-old daughter, perhaps because she knows how he was able to be such a good friend to her when she herself was a little girl.
The Count begins to consider the scope of what he has agreed to in taking care of a five-year-old, but knows that he would have agreed to it no matter what, because his friendship with Nina has been so valuable to him. The Count takes Sofia upstairs to the attic. Once there, he plans to make her a small bed on the floor beside his own. When he returns with a blanket, however, she has already climbed under his covers and fallen asleep.
Like Nina, the Count does not truly question whether he will be able to take care of Sofia because, regardless of his lack of experience as a father, he was so much of a father figure to Nina years earlier. Learning how to take care of Sofia is a difficult challenge, but one that gives him his greatest sense of purpose in life.