AMOR TOWLES describes the context of his latest book, written and set in the METROPOL HOTEL, whose history is fascinating …
My new novel, A Gentleman in Moscow, opens in the Kremlin in 1922, where a 30-year-old aristocrat is being interviewed by a Bolshevik tribunal. Over the course of this brief interview it becomes clear that the Count wrote a poem as a young man that was popular with the Revolutionary generation (so he has some friends in the upper ranks of the party); but it also becomes clear that he is an unrepentant aristocrat. So as a compromise, the tribunal decides the Count can return to the hotel where he has been staying and if he ever leaves again he will be shot. With the thump of the gavel, our hero is marched out of the Kremlin across Red Square and through the doors of the historic Metropol – where he remains for the next 32 years …
Where did this odd premise come from? I’ve written fiction since I was a child, but in my twenties I joined a friend who had started an investment firm and ended up working with him for over two decades. In my capacity as primary client contact for the firm, I would spend weeks at a time in the hotels of distant cities. One September, while arriving at my hotel in Geneva (for the eighth year in a row), I recognised some of the people lingering in the lobby from the year before. It was as if they had never left. Upstairs in my room, I began playing with the idea of a novel in which a man is stuck in a grand hotel. Thinking that he should be there by force, rather than by choice, my mind immediately leapt to Russia, where house arrest has existed since the time of the Tsars. Once I’d decided to set my story in Russia, I knew it had to take place within the walls of the Metropol.
When the Metropol opened in 1905, it set the standard in Moscow for luxury and service. Built in the art nouveau style, the hotel had a giant dining room with a hand-painted glass ceiling, a billiard room, movie theatre, and coffee house. It was the first hotel in Moscow to have hot water and telephones in the rooms. Because of its elegance, upon opening, the hotel quickly became a gathering spot for the glamorous and well-to-do of Moscow.
But twelve years after the hotel opened, it found itself in the middle of a proletarian revolution. Recognising that the building was the perfect bastion from which to defend the weakest flank of the Kremlin, the Tsar’s forces took over the hotel’s suites, positioning snipers in corner windows. When the Bolsheviks returned fire from the streets below, they shattered every single window in the hotel. Thus, when the American journalist John
Reed arrived in the city in November, 1917, having witnessed the fall of the Hermitage a few days before, he and a colleague were assured by the Metropol’s unflappable front desk captain: “We have some very comfortable rooms, provided the gentlemen don’t mind a little fresh air …”
In the aftermath of the Revolution, one of the first things the Bolsheviks did was to move the capital of Russia back to Moscow from St Petersburg (where it had been since the times of Peter the Great). This posed a significant problem, however, since Moscow didn’t have the infrastructure to serve as a modern government. As such, the Bolsheviks seized the Metropol. Renaming it the Second House of the Soviets, they threw out the guests, swept aside the luxuries, installed government officials in the suites and all manner of agencies in the rooms. Soldiers were billeted in the restaurant and the ballroom was cleared to accommodate large assemblies. In fact, it was in suite 217 of the Metropol that Yakov Sverdlov, the first chairman of the All-Russia Executive Committee, locked the constitutional drafting committee, vowing he wouldn’t turn the key until they’d finished their work. Sverdlov’s gambit was an effective one, because within a matter of hours the committee emerged with that document which officially heralded the victory of the Proletariat over the forces of elitism, privilege, and luxury.
Right then and there, the Metropol’s existence as a grand hotel should have come to a screeching halt. But when European nations began restoring diplomatic relations and trade with Russia in 1922, the Bolsheviks quickly realised that the hotels of Moscow were going to provide Western visitors with their first impression of the new Russia. Should weary ambassadors or businessmen spend their nights in some Spartan hostel, they might draw the conclusion that Communism was failing! So, the Bolsheviks kicked all the apparatchiks out of the Metropol and began restoring the hotel to its pre-war glamour. A uniformed doorman was put back on the front steps, bellhops returned to the lobby, and the orchestra was reassembled to play American jazz in the dining room on a nightly basis.
With luxury and liberty restored in the hotel, the bar at the Metropol quickly became the preferred watering hole for American and British correspondents (despite the fact that the beautiful hostesses were known to report all overheard conversations to the KGB). So secure was the Metropol’s reputation as a free-wheeling retreat that not even the Second World War could disrupt it. As correspondent Harrison Salisbury recalls in his memoirs, during the war “it was a poor night, indeed, when a party was not in progress in someone’s rooms and usually there were several to choose from. And the guests were not just foreigners. The day did not pass when well-known Russian artists and writers and singers, famous Party propagandists, proud holders of the Order of Lenin or the Order of the Red Banner of Labor, Red Army colonels and generals, scientists and publicists, playwrights and ballerinas, did not enter the Metropol.”
Thus, during the initial decades of Soviet Union, which were characterised for the citizenry by all manner of hardship, the Metropol remained an oasis of luxury and liberty – despite being around the corner from the Kremlin and a few blocks from the headquarters of the secret police. And that’s why I knew I had to set my novel in the hotel.
With the rise of the oligarchs, Moscow has become home to an array of topflight hotels under the familiar banners of the world’s premier chains. A number of these are housed in sleek new towers with every modern convenience. So, if you travel to Moscow today, can you find a hotel that is more luxurious than the Metropol? Undoubtedly, you can. But you will not be able to find a Moscow hotel which offers a greater sense of history.
A Gentleman in Moscow (Hutchinson, €14.15) is out now.
This article appeared in a previous issue, for more features like this don’t miss our next issue, out Thursday May 4.
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