The novel begins with the first nineteen lines of “Where Is It Now?”—a 1913 poem attributed to Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov. The poem’s central question asks, “where is our purpose now?”, describing how purpose had once “dwelt a while amongst us.” The poem then explains where purpose cannot be found: not lost among the autumn leaves on Peter’s Square, not in the ashes of Greek trash cans, or in Chinese buildings. It is not in “Vronsky’s saddlebags” or “Sonnet XXX.”
The opening poem serves as a critique of the upper class, asking what the purpose of the nobility is, and whether it is outdated. The poem is written in 1913, prior to the official dissolution of the nobility, and so it becomes an example of “prerevolutionary rebellion.” The Count is able to publish the poem under his name because, as an aristocrat, it is safer for him to do so (under the Tsar’s rule) than it would be for a member of the lower classes. This inequality between the classes regarding freedom of speech became one the reasons for the Revolution in the first place. “Vronsky” is a reference to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, while “Sonnet XXX” refers to Shakespeare.
The novel then shifts to a transcript format. The date is June 21, 1922. The Count is on trial in front of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, which conducts police work for the Bolsheviks. The Count states his name and titles, but the prosecutor says he has no more use for the Count’s titles. He also comments on the large number of buttons on the Count’s jacket, clarifying that he doesn’t mean it as a compliment. The Count jokes about dueling the prosecutor in response, which gets a laugh out of the gallery.
At the beginning of the novel, in 1922, the Count is still entrenched in the ways of the nobility, despite the fact that the nobility was abolished in 1917 after the October Revolution. The prosecutor here takes issue with the Count’s titles and the large number of buttons on the Count’s jacket, viewing both as emblems of an old regime that is more concerned with tradition than progress.
The prosecutor asks the Count about his upbringing and his current living situation. The Count explains that he has lived in the Metropol Hotel for four years and does not have a job. The prosecutor continues his questions, asking if the Count is the author of the poem “Where Is It Now?” The Count says that it “has been attributed to” him and explains that it was written at his family’s estate, called Idlehour.
The Count’s phrasing about the poem being “attributed to” him foreshadows that he is not the actual author of the poem. He had published it under his own name to protect Mishka, his friend and the actual author of the poem. This offer of protection shows their strong bond even when he and the Count were both young.
The prosecutor explains to the gallery that the Count had left Russia for Paris in the spring of 1913, but then had returned in 1918. He asks if the Count returned to fight for or against the revolution. The Count jokes that he did not want to fight, but simply missed the climate.
Though the Count’s decision not to fight for either side in the revolution was due to a bad experience with a duel, as he explains later, his unwillingness to fight could also have had to do with his political leanings. Though the Count is very much entrenched in his noble upbringing, there are still parts of his entitlement that he criticizes.
One of the Secretaries presiding over the trial scolds the Count for not taking the proceedings seriously. He states that many in the gallery might find him charming, but that “history has shown charm to be the final ambition of the leisure class.” He tells the Count that he seems like a man without purpose.
The Committee takes a short recess, and upon returning they give the Count’s sentence. They believe that the Count has obviously become loyal to the nobility once again. However, the Committee also notes that some people view the Count as a “prerevolutionary hero” for writing the Poem, and so they decide to sentence the Count to lifelong house arrest in the Metropol Hotel instead of executing him. If he sets foot outside the hotel’s confines, however, he will be shot.
The sentence that the Bolsheviks pass drastically changes the Count’s life, as he will spend the next thirty-two years under house arrest. It is worth noting that the poem was originally attributed to the Count to save Mishka’s life from the Tsarist nobility. That attribution, in a fortunate turn of events, has also saved the Count’s life from the Bolsheviks.