Most Americans think of Twentieth Century Russia in terms of its Communist government.
That is certainly the background scene throughout this novel, but in the foreground is Count Alexander Rostov, a man under house arrest for most of his adult life.
The story begins with Rostov’s appearance before the People’s Commissariat prosecutor in 1922: “Our inclination would be to have you taken from this chamber and put against the wall.
But there are those among the party’s senior ranks who regard you as a pre-revolutionary hero.
Thus, you will be returned to the Metropol Hotel where you live. But make no mistake: should you ever set foot outside the Metropol again, you will be shot.”
The hotel moves Rostov from his suite to a single room 10 x 10 feet on the unused fifth floor.
He is permitted to keep certain personal articles; the rest become “property of the people.”
Well educated, polite, rarely as a loss for words, Rostov is cordial to all.
A nine-year-old girl sits down uninvited, at his table in the hotel restaurant.
“Is it true you are a count?”
“Have you ever known a princess?”
“I have known many princesses.”
Her eyes widened.
“Was it terribly hard to be a princess?”
Several days later, the girl, Nina Kulikova, has more questions.
“What are the rules of being a princess? Those things expected of her?”
She explains that her Papa is wonderful, and knows all about tractors, but he knows absolutely nothing about the workings of princesses.
Count Rostov patiently explains the basics of good manners and behavior of princesses, and a bond of friendship gradually grows.
In return, the nine-year-old knows everything about the hotel, having purloined a pass key from somewhere, allowing access to everywhere in the hotel, from wine cellar to spying from the grand ballroom balcony, to the view of the Kremlin from the roof.
And the Count gains allies in Vasily the concierge, Andrey the head waiter, Marina the seamstress, Emile the chef, and many others.
Months and years pass; 1930; Russia’s first five-year plan has begun, which will change the nation from farming to and industrial power.
Rostov is now head waiter in the exclusive Boyarsky restaurant on the hotel’s second floor.
Nina, now age seventeen, is part of a young team heading eastward into a farming province to oversee the exile of farm owners to Siberia; their farms now belong to the laborers. The province has only eight tractors, but factories are booming and workers need bread.
Alas, the combination of mismanagement and one of the worst droughts in history results in many deaths from starvation across the nation.
In 1930, a Colonel Osip, apparently part of the Foreign Affairs office, had required Rostov to meet with him for lunch once a month not only to learn French and English, but to help Osip understand the customs of those people.
It was a couple of years later that Nina showed up again.
She had married one of her team and has a 6-year old daughter.
Her husband had just been arrested and sentenced to five years at hard labor.
She needs to find lodging to be near him but needs someone to look after her daughter “Only a month or two.
I have no one else to turn to.
Please!” With years of friendship between them, there can be only one answer.
He crosses the hotel lobby to be introduced to Sofia.
He has no idea what to do with a six-year-old, but noticing that the doll she clutches has no dress, he takes her to Marina, the hotel seamstress, who bonds with her easily. Sofia will stay with the Count for eighteen years.
She is easily her mother’s equal in intelligence, and is mischievousness. At age thirteen, racing up the hotel’s service stairs, she falls and hits her head on the cement steps. A chambermaid finds her unconscious and bleeding and calls Rostov. Rostov picks her up carefully and hurries down the stairs, across the lobby, out the door. It’s the first time in twenty years he has been outside. He tells the taxi driver “St. Anslem’s Hospital!” They arrive in minutes, but in the thirty years since Rostov was last there, the hospital is no longers Moscow’s finest. The young nurse receptionist drops her magazine, summons the doctor on call, who calls a surgeon. But it is a different doctor who appears. “I’m Lasovsky, chief of surgery at First Municipal. I will be seeing to this patient.” He turns. “Are you Rostov?”
“Yes,” says the Count, astounded. Lasovsky takes a brief, competent history, assigns everyone their task, reassures Rostov, who must wait in the corridor.
It’s perhaps two hours later when the surgeon comes out again, with a favorable report. Simultaneously, a guard opens the door for Colonel Osip, who confers with the surgeon. Then he led Rostov down a back stairway to a metal door. “This is where we part. It’s best if you never mention to anyone that either of us were here. You have been at my service for over fifteen years. It is a pleasure for once to be at yours.” Then he was gone.
It will be another ten years before Rostov and Sofia will each find freedom. But the depth of insight shown by author Towels will lead the reader to a satisfying end, including why Osip had rescued Sofia.