Though A Gentleman in Moscow focuses on the Count’s thirty-two-year confinement in a Moscow hotel, Towles also explores the social and political landscape outside the hotel, detailing the drastic shifts occurring in Russian society from 1922 to 1954, due mostly to the rise of the Communist Bolshevik Party. Towles examines these large shifts by exploring their effects on individuals within his narrative, as each character tries to adjust to the changing political landscape. On an individual level, characters who are able to adapt to the new political sensibilities enjoy success, while characters who remain moored in old ways are either sent to Siberia or vanish from the narrative. As radical as these governmental changes are for Russia as a whole, Towles uses the historical context to demonstrate how it is necessary for individuals to adapt to a rapidly changing society in order to survive.
The Count is the most prominent example of an individual who at first falters under communism, but eventually finds success within the new Russian society by adapting to its norms. At the opening of the novel, the Count is a member of the Russian nobility and had never worked a day in his life. During the first few years of the Count’s house arrest, he notes how the Bolsheviks “would not rest until every last vestige of his Russia had been uprooted, shattered, or erased.” He is particularly dismayed when all of the wine labels on the bottles in the hotel’s cellar are removed in order to equalize the wines, because he had prided himself on knowing exactly which kind of wine should be paired with a meal. He takes this as a sign that he no longer has a place in the current culture and attempts to jump off the hotel’s roof. The Count’s action quite literally demonstrates that he feels unable to live in a society whose values are so drastically different from his own. Fortunately, the Count is prevented from committing suicide by a chance encounter with the hotel handyman, Abram, on the roof. After this key juncture, the Count then throws off his title and takes a job in the hotel’s restaurant as headwaiter. Even though he still does not fully subscribe to communism, by adapting to the new class structure the Count feels that he can continue to live.
Anna Urbanova, an actress who becomes romantically involved with the Count, is a second example of a character who is able to adapt to Russia’s changing attitudes. Like the Count, Anna also begins the novel in the lap of luxury, until critics begin to note that her movies often celebrate individuals and involve princes and princesses, harkening back to aristocratic eras whose values no longer hold up in communist Russia. Her films quickly fall out of favor, and Anna then loses all of her wealth along with most of her possessions. Rather than giving up her career, however, Anna reinvents herself. She takes a small part in a film as an unnamed factory worker who delivers an impassioned speech about the necessities of pushing on in the face of harsh conditions. Anna therefore crafts her persona in order to keep up with the changing times and maintain her career. After that initial opportunity, Anna regains fame by taking on roles that celebrate workers. By taking on acting roles that showcase Bolshevik ideals, then, Anna is able to rejuvenate her career.
The adaptability of both the Count and Anna is contrasted with the experiences of Mikhail Fyodorovich (Mishka), an old poet friend of the Count’s, and Nina, a young girl in the hotel who grows up to be a part of the Soviet agricultural planning committee. At first, Mishka sympathizes with the Bolsheviks, but gradually, he realizes the pitfalls of the new regime. When Mishka is asked to edit the playwright Anton Chekhov’s collected letters, he is disturbed when the senior editor asks him to censor a paragraph in which Chekhov remarks about the quality of the bread in Berlin, because the editor believes praising German bread is too anti-Russian. Mishka then storms into his chief editor’s office and rants about the lines he has been forced to edit. As a result of his outburst, he is taken to the authorities for questioning and is soon exiled from Russian society to Siberia. Thus, his inability to adapt to the society forces him out of it completely.
Nina’s journey is similar to Mishka’s. When she returns to the hotel as a seventeen-year-old, she is helping the Soviets with the collectivization of farms. But the narrator notes how her faith in the party will eventually be tested by seeing millions of peasants starving in Ukraine. When Nina returns a final time to the hotel eight years later, she tells the Count that her husband has been arrested and sent to Siberia (it is implied as a result of breaking ties with the Bolsheviks). She leaves her daughter Sofia with the Count while she attempts to track down her husband, but the Count never hears from her again. Like Mishka, Nina finds the new Russian society at odds with her own morals, and she ultimately disappears from it altogether.
Societies are always changing, but the dramatic and fast-paced nature of change in Russia during this period is particularly jarring for many of the novel’s characters. The arcs that Towles has given his characters demonstrate how devastating it can be when one feels out of place in a culture, but Towles offers only two solutions: one must change, or one must get out.
Change and Adaptation ThemeTracker
Change and Adaptation Quotes in A Gentleman in Moscow
From the earliest age, we must learn to say good-bye to friends and family. […] But experience is less likely to teach us how to bid our dearest possessions adieu. And if it were to? We wouldn't welcome the education. For eventually, we come to hold our dearest possessions more closely than we hold our friends.
In the seventeen years since the making of that peace—hardly a generation—Russia had suffered a world war, a civil war, two famines, and the so-called Red Terror. In short, it had been through an era of upheaval that had spared none. Whether one’s leanings were left or right, Red or White, whether one’s personal circumstances had changed for the better or changed for the worse, surely at long last it was time to drink to the health of the nation.
And when the Count's parents succumbed to cholera within hours of each other in 1900, it was the Grand Duke who took the young Count aside and explained that he must be strong for his sister’s sake; that adversity presents itself in many forms; and that if a man does not master his circumstances then he is bound to be mastered by them.
Ever since its opening in 1905, the hotel’s suites and restaurants had been a gathering spot for the glamorous, influential, and erudite; but the effortless elegance on display would not have existed without the services of the lower floor.
And when that celestial chime sounds, perhaps a mirror will suddenly serve its truer purpose—revealing to a man not who he imagines himself to be, but who he has become.
Yes, a bottle of wine was the ultimate distillation of time and place; a poetic expression of individuality itself. Yet here it was, cast back into the sea of anonymity, that realm of averages and unknowns.
Because the Bolsheviks, who were so intent upon recasting the future from a mold of their own making, would not rest until every last vestige of his Russia had been uprooted, shattered, or erased.
With the slightest turn of the wrist the shards of glass tumble into a new arrangement. The blue cap of the bellhop is handed from one boy to the next, a dress as yellow as a canary is stowed in a trunk, a little red guidebook is updated with the new names of streets, and through Emile’s swinging door walks Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov—with the white dinner jacket of the Boyarsky draped across his arm.
Our churches, known the world over for their idiosyncratic beauty, for their brightly colored spires and improbable cupolas, we raze one by one. We topple the statues of old heroes and strip their names from the streets, as if they had been figments of our imagination. Our poets we either silence, or wait patiently for them to silence themselves.
“Who would have imagined,” he said, “when you were sentenced to life in the Metropol all those years ago, that you had just become the luckiest man in all of Russia.”
In 1916, Russia was a barbarian state. It was the most illiterate nation in Europe, with the majority of its population living in modified serfdom: tilling the fields with wooden plows, beating their wives by candlelight, collapsing on their benches drunk with vodka, and then waking at dawn to humble themselves before their icons. That is, living exactly as their forefathers had lived five hundred years before. Is it not possible that our reverence for all the statues and cathedrals and ancient institutions was precisely what was holding us back?
The pace of evolution was not something to be frightened by. For while nature doesn't have a stake in whether the wings of a peppered moth are black or white, it genuinely hopes that the peppered moth will persist.
“Your sort,” he sneered. “How convinced you have always been of
the rightness of your actions. As if God Himself was so impressed with your precious manners and delightful way of putting things that He blessed you to do as you pleased. What vanity.”