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Home / Articles / Columnists / On the Bright Side /  Back in the USSR
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Monday, April 10,2023

Back in the USSR

By Jonna Shutowick. M.S. Ed.  
In his book “A Gentleman in Moscow,” Amor Towels presents the bright side of the unprecedented societal upheaval wrought by the Bolsheviks in the early 20th century and the years that followed under the iron fist of Joseph Stalin over the next 30 years. The story centers around an aristocrat who, shortly after the revolution, was ordered to spend the rest of his life un der house arrest in a luxury hotel in Moscow. At first he feels the gloom and doom of the loss of his freedom, and the fact that the penthouse suite he was used to would no longer be an option; instead he was to reside on the top floor cupola in a tiny, barely furnished apartment. What I find so beautiful about the way Towels tells the story is in the details. Count Rostov exudes dignity in even the most mundane tasks. His description of making his breakfast is nothing short of poetic.

Then having poured the coffee, he began to enjoy the morning’s sensations to their fullest.

The crispness of the apple… The bitterness of the coffee… The savory sweetness of the biscuit… In that instant, darkness was separated from light, the waters from the lands, and the heavens from the earth. The trees bore fruit and the woods rustled with movement of birds and beasts and all manner of creeping things.

All this, and yet this description occurs the morning after he was fatefully thwarted from taking his own life by jumping off the roof of the hotel. The futility of his situation having gotten the best of him, he reasoned that he and the world were of no use to each other any longer, and he looked forward to joining his sister, long since passed.

One of my favorite examples of the protagonist’s positive outlook is the way he compares the Russian people with the American people through the lens of an old- world middle-aged aristocrat thrust into a New World communist experiment with out the benefit of hindsight through which we, the 21st century reader, view these events. The Bolsheviks were quite sure they were right in their philosophy and the inevitable dictatorship of the proletariat. Thus, Count Rostov had reason to believe as well, because it was happening before his eyes. In a discussion with a leader of the Communist Party, the rise of the American entertainment industry during the Great Depression came up. The comrade viewed movies (among other things, like religion) as opiates of the people, comparing musicals to pastries and vaudevillian comedies to narcotics, stating, “Hollywood is the single most dangerous force in the history of class struggle.” The ever-philosophical Count thought later:

Certainly, it seemed true that glittering musicals and slapstick comedies had flourished during the 1930s in America. But so too had jazz and skyscrapers.

Were those narcotics designed to put a restless nation to sleep? Or were they signs of a native spirit so irrepressible that even a Depression couldn’t squelch it?

I absolutely loved this book. There are so many more layers and plot twists, but through it all, Amor Towels artfully takes Looking On The Bright Side to new heights. I am in awe.


  • Currently 3.5/5 Stars.
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