On June 21, 1922, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov is sentenced to a life of house arrest in Moscow’s Metropol Hotel. The sentence is handed down by a Bolshevik tribunal because the Count had written a poem in 1913 with revolutionary undertones. He is a member of the Russian nobility, which is quickly being dissolved in favor of a Communist government structure, and so when he returns to the hotel following his hearing, most of his possessions are confiscated, and he is moved from his luxurious suite on the third floor to a single room on the sixth floor.
In the first few weeks and months, the Count has a difficult time coping with his new life. He feels restless and purposeless as he spends his days reading, visiting the barber, dining in the Metropol’s two restaurants (the Boyarsky and the Piazza), and drinking in the hotel bar, the Shalyapin.
His boredom is alleviated a little when he befriends a young girl named Nina, who is precocious, stubborn, and most importantly, adventurous. Her single father is temporarily posted to Moscow on state business, but as he did not enroll her in school, she spends most of her time exploring the hotel. Nina has acquired a passkey for all of the hotel’s doors, and she shows the Count its various rooms and passageways. She then gifts him the key as a Christmas present.
One year into the Count’s imprisonment, he receives a visit from his old friend Mishka, a poet who is eager for the changes occurring in Russian society. He is excited to see how Communism will allow a new form of poetry to take shape. That same day, the Count meets Anna Urbanova, a famous film actress who arrives at the hotel. The night they meet, she invites him back to her suite and seduces him. Though he enjoys being with her, he begins to feel even more invisible, and as if he is losing control of his life’s path.
The Count also sees that his way of life is being forgotten, since the aristocracy is no longer valued. He is frustrated to see a man whom he sarcastically calls the Bishop rise through the ranks of the hotel’s restaurants and management, because he feels that the Bishop has no tact or experience when it comes to good service. When the Bishop—who feels that wines encourage snobbery and individuality—files a complaint to have all of the wine labels on the hotel’s bottles removed, the Count sees this as an attack on his own values because he had prided himself on knowing exactly which wine to pair with a meal.
In despair, the Count attempts to kill himself in 1926, on the tenth anniversary of his sister Helena’s death, by throwing himself off of the hotel roof. Fortunately, he is stopped by one of the hotel’s handymen, Abram, who is also an amateur beekeeper and who shares honey with the Count. The taste of the honey has a hint of apples and reminds the Count of his home province, which is known for its orchards.
After this experience on the roof, the Count decides to take more control of his life and gets a job in the Boyarsky as a waiter. Though he has never held a job before, he finds that some of the manners and etiquette he learned as a part of his upbringing are helpful in preparing him for the role, and he rises quickly through the ranks to Headwaiter. He befriends the maître d’ of the restaurant, Andrey, and the head chef, Emile.
As the 1930s progress, hardship hits Russia. Nina, now a young woman, travels to the provinces to aid in farm collectivization. Many Russian peasants are resistant to this idea, and as a result, most of them are exiled and unskilled labor is hired to run the farms. This skilled labor shortage, combined with poor weather, creates a massive famine across Russia’s farming provinces, and Nina’s faith in the Communist party is tested. Mishka is also worried about the party’s rigid censorship of artists, and is distressed that one of his favorite poets has killed himself.
Not everyone’s path has taken a downward turn, however: after a few years of falling out of fame, Anna’s career makes a comeback when she starts to play roles of hardworking women who persevere in pursuit of the common good. She and the Count periodically rekindle their romance whenever she stays in the Metropol. The Count still works in the Boyarsky, and now that Russia has opened some of its foreign relations again, an officer of the Party named Osip asks him to tutor him in French and English language and society.
In 1938, Nina returns to the Metropol, now with a five-year-old daughter, Sofia. She explains to the Count that her husband has been arrested and sent to Siberia, and she needs someone to watch Sofia for a few months while she attempts to find him. The Count agrees to look after Sofia, but he struggles at first while juggling his job in the Boyarsky. After a few days, and with the help of the seamstress who works in the hotel, Marina, the Count starts to adjust to living with a child.
Meanwhile, Mishka’s editor, Shalamov, asks him to cut out a passage in the anthology of Chekhov’s letters that he is working on. In the passage, Chekhov praises German bread, and Shalamov views Chekhov’s statements as too anti-Russian. Mishka has an outburst, railing against Shalamov and the notion of censorship, and he is sent off to Siberia. The narrator states that Nina will also not return to the Metropol, and despite the Count’s attempts to find her, he never hears from her again.
In 1946, Russia is reeling from its involvement in World War II. Sofia has grown into a gracious thirteen-year-old, though she also has a playful streak. She plays a game with the Count in which he leaves her sitting in one of the hotel’s rooms, and by the time he arrives at a new location within the hotel, she is already sitting there. In one attempt at playing this game, however, Sofia falls on the stairs and cracks her head open. Without a thought, the Count rushes out into the night in order to take her to the hospital, despite the fact that he could be shot for leaving the hotel. She undergoes surgery and recovers without a problem. With the help of Osip, the Count is able to go back to the hotel unnoticed.
In 1950, Sofia has grown into a beautiful young woman and a talented pianist, thanks to lessons from the conductor of the hotel band, Viktor Stepanovich. The Count worries for Sofia’s future, however, and does not want her to be limited by a life in Communist Russia. He also receives a visit from Katerina, Mishka’s lover, who informs the Count that Mishka has died. Katerina gives the Count Mishka’s final project, which is a compilation of quotes from famous works of literature that have to do with bread—ending with the lines he was asked to censor from Chekhov’s letters. The Count then reveals to Katerina that it was in fact Mishka who had written the poem for which the Count was imprisoned. They had published the poem in 1913 under the Count’s name so that Mishka wouldn’t be killed for it, knowing that the Count would likely only be imprisoned. Looking back, the Count sees the irony: that this action had actually saved his own life, because as a member of the nobility he would have been shot or exiled in 1922.
Hearing about the death of his friend, the Count resolves to take action and escape the hotel. When Sofia is invited on a tour to Paris with a music conservatory in 1953, the Count sees an opportunity for both of them to escape. Over the course of the next several months, he plans every detail. He steals clothes from an Italian guest, a bottle of hair dye from the barber, and a hat and jacket from an American journalist. He finds travel guide books for Paris and draws a path for Sofia to follow on a map.
The night that Sofia leaves for her tour, she and the Count share a final dinner together. Afterward, the entire hotel staff sees her off. Four days later, the night before the Count plans to escape, he steals the last item he needs: a passport from a Finnish guest. When the Count returns to his room, he finds the Bishop (who has become the hotel manager) sitting at his desk. Having discovered one of the Count’s maps and figured out that Sofia plans to run away from the tour, the Bishop then walks down to his office, intending to inform the authorities. When he arrives at his office, the Count is already sitting there with pistols in hand. He had found the pistols years earlier behind a wall panel in the manager’s office on one of Nina’s excursions in the hotel. The Count holds the Bishop at gunpoint and locks him in one of the store rooms using Nina’s passkey.
The next evening, Sofia performs at the Salle Pleyel. After she plays, she puts on the Italian clothes, cuts and dyes her hair, and runs to the American embassy. At the embassy, a friend of the Count’s named Richard Vanderwhile helps her seek asylum and make a new life in America. Richard also helps the Count escape, dialing thirty phones in the Metropol at exactly midnight to confirm that Sofia made it safely. In the pandemonium of the ringing phones, the Count quietly dons the American’s hat and jacket and walks out of the hotel. He then meets Stepanovich at a train station, and Stepanovich takes the hat, jacket and Finnish passport, and boards a train to Helsinki in order to confuse the police. Rather than joining Sofia in America, however, the Count heads back to his home province, where Anna Urbanova is waiting for him in a tavern.