The book opens with a poem ("Where Is It Now?
") written in 1913 by Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov
. It's followed by a court transcript from June 21, 1922. The Bolsheviks (pro-revolution) put Rostov on trial. The poem made him a revolutionary hero, but his upbringing is clearly noble. They decide that they won't execute him, but they sentence him to house arrest in the Metropol Hotel
(where he was already living) for the rest of his life.
1922, An Ambassador
Rostov is escorted back to the Metropol, but to a much smaller room than before, originally built for the hired help. He's allowed to fill it with his belongings, but anything that doesn't fit is now property of the State. Rostov deliberates and keeps mostly items with sentimental value. The last object he grabs is a pair of scissors that once belonged to his sister, Helena
(maître d' of the hotel restaurant, the Boyarsky), Vasily
(hotel concierge), and Marina
(hotel seamstress) show up to see him, and they drink and talk and toast to the Metropol.
Rostov then goes to his desk which he kept and unlocks a secret latch in the desk legs where some gold coins are stored.
An Anglican Ashore
The next morning, Rostov asks a clerk to deliver a letter to Konstantin Konstantinovich
. He tries to read the essays of Michel de Montaigne which he has been meaning to do, but Konstantin shows up. Konstantin agrees to send out three notes, and later in response, three items (pillow, linens, soap) are delivered to Rostov. That night Rostov gets dinner at the best restaurant in the hotel, the Boyarsky.
An Appointment, An Acquaintanceship
Rostov goes to his barber appointment. A man gets annoyed with Rostov and clips off part of his moustache. Rostov goes ahead and asks the barber to shave off it all off, since it's a symbol of aristocracy which he no longer is.
For lunch, Rostov goes to the less upscale hotel restaurant, the Piazza
. The waiter there is the Bishop
, who Rostov thinks is bad at his job. Rostov helps out a couple nearby by recommending a better wine pairing for their meal than what the Bishop recommends.
He is approached by Nina
, a 9-year-old girl whose father is a Ukrainian diplomat. She says she's seen him before, but wants to know what happened to the moustache. She asks him a bunch of questions, and the Count ends up telling her a story about a duel that once began in the lobby of the hotel. He tells her about a pair of pistols the hotel manager kept behind a secret panel in his office.
Anyway, Around and About
Nina soon calls on Rostov for tea and ask him about princesses. He tells her about royal drama and courtly manners.
Nina teaches Rostov about the inner workings of the hotel. Nina managed to obtain a passkey for the hotel at some point, and she uses it for her adventures and to snoop on people. She takes him to the basement, shows him the furnace and electrical room, and she even shows him the storage room for the hotel's silver.
Inspired by their adventures, Rostov discovers a secret room attached to his room.
Nina and Rostov go spy on a Bolshevik assembly. Rostov notes the many similarities between the Bolsheviks and the old order. After, Mr. Halecki
, the hotel manager, talks to Rostov. He says that the hotel staff must no longer refer to Rostov using honorifics such as "Your Excellency" as they were previously accustomed to. Rostov says it's fine.
When Halecki steps out of the office, Rostov sees that the pair of dueling pistols are still hidden in Halecki's office.
Mishka (Mikhail Fyodorovich Mindich)
, Rostov's friend from University, comes to see him at the hotel. Mishka is a writer. The two catch up and reminisce about Mishka staying with the Count's family over various summers. They remember Helena
, Rostov's sister.
In late December, the Count gives Nina a Christmas gift of his grandmother’s opera glasses. Later, he sees Nikolai Petrov
, a former prince, who is now working as a musician. The chat. They also plan to get together. (Via footnote, we're told that this never happens. The Bolshevik police will soon find that Nikolai has kept of photo of the Tsar and send him to be sentenced. He gets a relatively light punishment of a "Minus Six
", being barred from the six largest cities in Russia.)
That night, the Count opens Nina's present to him which is her passkey for the hotel.
1923, An Actress, an Apparition, an Apiary
It's been one year since Rostov's house arrest. Rostov meets up with Mishka, who is excited about a woman named Katerina
. Rostov feels a twinge of jealousy over his friend's comparative freedom.
, an elegant actress with two borzoi dogs shows up at the Metropol and invites Rostov to dinner. The two eat and make love. As he heads back to his room, he sees an open window with a ladder that leads out to the roof. He climbs up and chats with the handyman Abram
who is out there.
As time passes, Rostov begins to feel invisible at the hotel. Nina is busy with schoolwork. Mishka has also been busy lately, editing an anthology and romancing Katerina. The USSR has recently been recognized by other countries and the hotel has been filled with foreign guests.
At the Boyarsky, Rostov helps Andrey to narrowly avoid a socially-fraught seating arrangement. Rostov has always been good at managing seating arrangements. Rostov is dismayed to discover that his waiter is the Bishop, who has been promoted to work at the Boyarsky, likely due to nepotism. Furthermore, Andrey thinks that it was the Bishop who put in a complaint that the Metropol's various wines were against the ideas of the revolution. Now, they can only serve unlabeled wines, sold as simply red or white.
Depressed, Rostov grabs a bottle of wine with an insignia he recognizes, the Châteauneuf-du-Pape, to take with him. He decides he will drink it on the 10th anniversary of his sister Helena's death and then kill himself.
On the 10th anniversary of his sister's death, Nina is 13. She and a boy are testing out the rules of gravity and doing other scientific experiments, so she declines dinner with Rostov. She will be moving soon. Mishka has also left with Katerina to go to Kiev. Abram, the handyman he occasionally chats with, plans to retire. Rostov sees small signs that the world outside is changing quickly.
Rostov meets Charles Abernathy
, a British aristocrat, at the hotel bar, the Shalyapin
, and they chat. Rostov tells him the story about the birthday party of Princess Novobaczky
Rostov and his friend arrived late due to being run off the road by a Hussar (means light cavalry) officer. His friend also slips on ice on the way in. The Hussar is at the party and is clearly interested in the Princess, though Rostov ends up talking with her. After dinner, Rostov's friend wants to play cards instead of dancing due to his fall. Rostov and the Hussar join him, and Rostov wins a lot of money. Rostov smugly forgives the Hussar's debt, and the Princess hears about it and offers him a dance to reward his generosity.
Bitter about being shown up, the Hussar courts Helena, Rostov's sister, breaks her heart and sexually assaults her handmaiden. Rostov challenges him to a duel, where the Hussar's arm is injured. Rostov gets sent out of Russia, to Paris, for a while for injuring the Hussar. When Helena later gets sick with scarlet fever, Rostov is still stuck in Paris and is not able to see her before she dies.
After parting ways with Charles, Rostov goes to the roof to kill himself as planned, but is interrupted by Abram. They chat until late and he goes to sleep. The next day, he goes to have a chat with Andrey.
1930, Arachne’s Art
Four years later, he's still alive. Rostov has been working at the Boyarsky with Emile
(head chef at the Boyarsky) and Andrey and is now head waiter. They have daily meetings where they strategize on how to acquire rare ingredients and deal with other restaurant issues. They refer to themselves as the Triumvirate
The Bishop is now an assistant manager to Mr. Halecki. Wine labels were eventually able to come back to the Metropol. Mishka is in St. Petersburg now, broken-hearted after Katerina left him for another. Rostov sees a girl he recognizes as Nina, who has hasn't seen in years. They catch up for a while. She says she's leaving the next day to help collectivize farms. He confides in Marina, the hotel seamstress, that Nina seems passionate but overly serious now.
Rostov then returns to his room where Anna is waiting for him.
An Afternoon Assignation
The narrator fills us in on Anna's past. Before, she was a successful actress, but things changed. Some people objected to the content of her movies as being anti-communist and when talkies (movies with speech) arrived, people didn't like the sound of her husky voice. Her career was over. Because all her fancy possessions belonged to the state, she couldn't keep them and was soon living very humbly.
In November 1928, eight months after being kicked out of her mansion, Rostov and Anna ended up seeing each other for the second time. From then on, they ended up seeing each other on and off for the next year and a half.
Anna was able to resurrect her career, but in different types of roles with her as a hardworking woman (as opposed to playing princess-y type roles before). She got her mansion back, though she has been humbled either way.
Back in present day, the Triumvirate is preparing for a private function. Rostov learns that the guests have requested him specifically.
He finds Osip Ivanovich Glebnikov
there, a Soviet official, who knows all about Rostov's background and history. He's there to ask for Rostov's assistance. In order to help manage diplomatic relations with the French and English, he wants Rostov to teach him English and French. He also wants insights into the privileged classes. Rostov agrees.
The Triumvirate has recently gotten together a number of rare ingredients for a bouillabaisse, a dish they've been wanting to prepare. They have a run-in with the Bishop when he rudely inquires about what they're doing.
After the delicious meal, they chat and celebrate. Rostov drunkenly misplaces a letter from Mishka. Unbeknownst to Rostov, Mishka reports in the letter that a Poet Laureate of the Revolution has killed himself (an ominous piece of news, indicating the shifting social circumstances going on in Russia).
The narrator notes that collectivization of the farms ends up going poorly for Nina and her group. It results in a million farmers being exiled and massive food shortages, which tests Nina (and the others') loyalty to the party.
1938, An Arrival
The thirties are a difficult time for Russia, with famine, overcrowding, limits on personal expression and the like. The Bolsheviks start trying to bring back more luxurious and glamorous aspects of life, like nicer clothes and accessories.
Nina shows up one day at the Metropol. It's been many years, and she is now married and has a daughter, Sofia
, who is about 5 or 6. Her husband was arrested, and sentenced to corrective labor in Siberia. She is going to move there and needs help watching Sofia until she is settled. She asks Rostov for his help, and he agrees despite not being in the best position for the job.
Adjustments, Ascending, Alighting
With Sofia as his charge, Rostov has to figure out what to do with her. He needs to learn how to care for a child. He turns his bed into a bunk bed so she will have space to sleep. Sofia turns to be a obedient, but playful child and likes playing games. Marina agrees to watch Sofia for the afternoon, and suggests a hotel chambermaid that can help in the future. Rostov has a meeting with Osip, but Rostov is unprepared. Osip is angry, but understanding when Rostov explains why.
Mishka shows up. He's upset over his publisher's censorship of an anthology of Chekhov's letters that he has been working on for years. Rostov tells him he did the right thing by just accepting it.
However, afterwards Mishka ends up going back and making a scene. He is questioned by the police and sent to Siberia. As for Nina, she never returns from Siberia and Rostov never sees her again.
The Kremlin eventually gets a report that Rostov has a child with him. However, due to his relationship with Anna and her affair with the Commissar, they assume Sofia is an illegitimate child of Anna and the Commissar. The report is buried and locked away.
1946, Antics, Antitheses, an Accident
Eight years later, Russia is on the mend post-WWII. The Bishop is now the manager of the hotel, and he summons Rostov to inquire about a prank involving a trio of geese that ended up on the fourth floor, near the room of a Swiss diplomat. The Bishop accuses Sofia, now 13. Rostov is indignant. At the same time, he knows that the geese were originally in the kitchen of the Boyarsky, and that Sofia saw the same diplomat complain about the freshness of the poultry to the staff. Andrey notes that the dumbwaiter is covered in feathers.
Mishka shows up, looking haggard post-Siberia, though he has been sentenced to a Minus Six (exile from the six largest cities in Russia) and shouldn't be here. As Rostov and Mishka catch up, it's clear how out of step the Bolshevik's ideas are from Mishka's, who was once a revolutionary. He notes how the greatest poets in Russia have stopped writing and how Russia has become too adept at destruction. When Rostov discusses the same topic with Osip, Osip says that progress always comes at a great cost. He notes how America was built on the backs of slaves.
Later, Rostov chats with Richard
, an American aid-de-camp to a general and hotel guest who saw the geese incident. The two become quick friends. Richard thinks it's impossible to predict what parts of history and culture will live on to become immortal.
That night, Rostov sees Sofia and anticipates that she will play a game where she tries to secretly rush to whatever location he's headed to and arrive before him. Rostov back to his room to try to beat her at her own game, but Rostov soon finds out that she has fallen on the stairs. Rostov takes her and leaves the hotel for the first time in over 20 years.
Rostov rushes to the hospital. He directs the taxi to what once was a state-of-the-art facility, but is now worn down. An unqualified doctor is about to perform surgery, but two visiting surgeons appear and take over. Sofia will be okay.
Osip shows up with Marina, saying that Marina will watch over Sofia, but he's arranged for Rostov to discreetly return to the hotel. Osip explains that he found out because it's his business to keep an eye on people of interest (presumably, he was the one who brought the surgeons there as well). Rostov thanks him for the favor. Rostov returns to the hotel to find that Richard has left him a gift of a phonograph and records.
Andrey's son died in battle in WWII. He and his wife are grieving his death. He also knows that eventually the authorities will realize their apartment is too large for their reduced family. In time, they will be forced to leave their home and will be moved into a smaller apartment.
1950, Adagio, Andante, Allegro
Sofia is 17. She has grown up to be demure and sympathetic. Rostov hears from Vasily (the concierge) that Sofia is with a man, Viktor Stepanovich
, and he marches angrily into the ballroom to separate them. Rostov is quickly informed that nothing improper is going on. Viktor is giving Sofia piano lessons. Sofia plays, and Rostov is shocked at how good she is. She says it was meant to be a birthday surprise for him. Viktor actually studied at the Conservatory once, but now conducts the hotel restaurant's orchestra to make ends meet.
At lunch, Rostov comes across an architect. There's no longer a need for architects in Russia, so now he sketches buildings for a travel agency. Rostov also meets up with Richard, who he is now close friends with. As they chat, Rostov recalls a story about the moths of Manchester
. They are an example of speedy evolution, of a species having to adapt to their new circumstances quickly. (This is reminiscent of the people in this chapter who, like Rostov, have had to adapt quickly to new circumstances.)
Anna has shifted to stage acting, which means she is now around for months at a time. Rostov and Sofia play a game during lunch, and Sofia mentions that Rostov should invite Anna. Rostov pretends to not know Anna until Sofia tells him that she and Anna have been acquainted for years.
A professor staying at the hotel invites Rostov for a meeting, which he discovers is a clandestine meeting with Richard, who he hasn't seen in two years. Richard wants Rostov to spy for the Americans. With Stalin's health in question, the Americans need information on the power hierarchy in Russia in order to prepare diplomatically for the shift in Russian leadership.
Rostov gently refuses, and the matter is put to rest. Soon, Stalin passes away, and a battle is brewing between Malenkov and Nikita Khrushchev to be the next leader of Russia.
1953, Apostles and Apostates
The Bishop makes changes to the order-taking process at the Boyarsky, and when Rostov complains, Rostov also lets slip that the Triumvirate has daily meetings about the restaurant's operations.
Meanwhile, Sofia wins a piano competition. Sofia, Anna, Rostov, Andrey and Emile celebrate in Rostov's room afterwards, but the celebration is cut short. Vasily enters to warn them that the Bishop is on his way up because someone is looking for Rostov. The Bishop enters with Frinovsky
, the director of the Red October Youth Orchestra. He invites Sofia to join the orchestra in Stalingrad, noting that it's not optional. However, Anna intervenes by saying that Nachevko
, the Minister of Culture is interested in Sofia's talents (a lie), so Frinovsky lets it go.
Later, Katerina, Mishka's love interest, introduces herself to Rostov for the first time. She tells him that she and Mishka reunited, but he died a week ago. When Katerina refers to both Rostov and Mishka as fine poets, he corrects her. Rostov never wrote a poem in his life. Instead, he reveals that the poem that saved his life ("Where Is It Now?
") was written by Mishka. They published it under Rostov's name because they were worried Mishka would be killed for writing something so revolutionary, but Rostov's nobility would protect him. Ironically, the poem ends up saving his own life instead.
Katerina leaves Rostov with Mishka's final project, a chronological compilation of quotes about bread from famous Russian authors, including the censored quote that landed him in Siberia. It's a rebellious project because it contrasts with all the famine the Bolsheviks caused in Russia.
1954, Applause and Acclaim
Sofia is now headed to Paris in six months, which they all marvel at since for a very long time Russians were not permitted to leave the country. When Sofia thinks about staying here instead, Rostov tells her he has done her a disservice by not conveying to her that the world outside is worth exploring, even if he's stuck in here.
The Bishop now attends the Triumvirate's daily meeting and micromanages them. Rostov has been formulating a plan to escape from the hotel. Sofia's tour spurs him further into action.
(The book now starts describing the actions Rostov is taking to prepare for his escape, but doesn't divulge what the plan actually is.)
Rostov leaves a note with the front desk and goes to the barber, despite not needing a shave. Soon, a bell boy shows up asking for the barber to come immediately. With him gone, Rostov steals a bottle that the barber refers to as the "Fountain of Youth
" from the cabinet.
Ever since Sofia's plans to head for Paris were in place, Rostov has been busy preparing. He bought her a suitcase and guidebook, has been teaching her French and Marina has sewn her a dress.
Now, Rostov returns to his room, pulls out the guide book and finds a map of the 8th arrondissement (municipal district) of Paris. He carefully draws a line. He then grabs his copy of the essays of Michel de Montaigne and begins cutting out hundreds of pages.
In May, after he sees an Italian couple leaving the hotel, he breaks into their room using the passkey that Nina once gave him. He steals an outfit. He later returns to steal a hat and some nesting dolls as well. That night, he notes that he has almost all the components he needs for his plan.
When he sees an American salesman, Webster
, wave to the same professor who once lured him into a meeting with Richard, Rostov makes his acquaintance. Rostov asks Webster to deliver a letter to Richard, who he suspects Webster may know.
Sofia has a fitting for the dress that Marina made and Rostov sputters and gets overprotective when he sees it is backless. After, he meets with the Triumvirate plus the Bishop. There is an important dinner for the Council of Ministers and the Presidium
that Rostov is supposed to oversee, but the Bishop assigns it to Andrey instead. This is problematic because overseeing the dinner is required as part of Rostov's plan.
Andrey reports having tremors in his hand (later we find out it was a lie), so Rostov ends up doing the dinner anyway. Rostov is glad when he's told there is no seating plan. He thinks to himself that because of rigid hierarchy of the Russian bureaucracy, the people will know exactly where they need to sit and that says everything you need to know about the power hierarchy in Russia.
At 9, the doors open with Malenkov and Khrushchev at the head of the table. Rostov listens intently as he serves. They make a demonstration. A power plant has finally finished construction and will now provide power to half of Moscow. The people watch as the lights go out across Moscow and then flicker back on, now drawing power from the newly opened plant.
On June 16, Rostov is making final preparations with Sofia, having explained to plan to her the night before. Sofia comes in later, telling him that her venue has been changed. Rostov fetches a new map and redraws the path.
That night, Rostov and Sofia reminisce over dinner. He tells Sofia how sad he will be without her, and he gives her a photo of himself from when he was younger for her to keep. She teases him for the huge moustache. Rostov tells her about the moustache being cut off and how that led to him meeting Nina.
At ten, all the hotel staff see Sofia off for her trip. Rostov hugs her and she leaves.
An Association, Antagonists at Arms (And an Absolution)
While Osip and Rostov have seen each other less over the years, Osip is in town now and they get together to watch Casablanca.
On June 20, Rostov serves a Finnish couple. He asks them for their room number since he needs to steal a Scandinavian passport as part of his plan. After he gets the passport, he returns to find the Bishop in his room.
The Bishop has found the discarded map with the path drawn on it. The Bishop heads down to tell the authorities, but when he gets to his office, Rostov is somehow sitting there waiting with a gun in his hand (reminiscent of the game Rostov used to play with Sofia). The gun is one of the dueling pistols stored in the office.
Rostov demands the key to the files in the office (where the Bishop has documented all the flaws of the hotel staff). He has the Bishop destroy the files on his friends and then locks him up in a storage room in the basement (in the process, they end up visiting all the rooms Nina once showed him).
On June 21, it has been exactly 32 years since his imprisonment. He follows his normal routine, except for stealing an American journalist's fedora and raincoat. He gathers only the essentials in a rucksack.
In Paris, Sophia has finished her performance. She cuts off her hair using Helena's scissors and uses the "Fountain of Youth" stolen from the barber to dye her hair where one part of it is white. She puts on the clothes stolen from the Italian couple. She exits and walks according to the map that Rostov prepared.
Sofia marvels at the monuments in Paris, and eventually she finds the house of Richard and his wife. Richard hands her a package, which is the copy of Montaigne's essays that has been filled with gold coins. In return, Sofia hands Richard her bag. In a seam is a piece of paper with the notes on the dinner of the Council of Ministers and the Presidium.
(In other words, Rostov has offered Russian intelligence in exchange for help. Richard had previously wanted information on who would be in power after Stalin. Rostov notes that the seating arrangement points to Khrushchev and Malenkov being in power. But the fact that only Khrushchev knew where the dinner would held pointed to his dominance over Malenkov.)
The final piece of the puzzle is for Richard to confirm Sofia's arrival. As instructed by Rostov, he has men call into the Metropol at midnight. The calls on 30 different phones causes pandemonium. In addition to letting Rostov know Sofia is safe, it also presents an opportunity for Rostov to escape during the fracas, wearing the journalist's clothes.
That same day, just before midnight Viktor Stepanovich awaits Rostov. They meet up.
By the next morning, the KGB has been alerted to Rostov's disappearance. The Bishop is also nowhere to be found and rumors have arisen that Sofia went missing in Paris.
While Andrey and Emile wonder if Rostov escaped, two letter are delivered from Rostov where he thanks them for their friendship as well as gifting them with a few gold coins.
Later that day, a chief security administrator (Osip, as indicated by a scar above his left ear) in Russia is reviewing a file when a young man tells him about the situation involving Rostov at the Metropol. He's also informed that they found the Bishop locked in a storage room. They were able to gather that a Finnish passport was stolen along with some clothes. It was confirmed that a man wearing those clothes boarded a train to Helsinki.
We then find out that the stuff about Finland was a diversion -- Viktor is the one who got on that train to misdirect the police.
Rostov is in the Nizhny Novgorod
province, his home province. He sees that his mansion has been burned to the ground. He heads toward a tavern instead where a willowy woman (presumably Anna) sits waiting.
See A Gentleman in Moscow