I’m thoroughly enjoying the best-selling Amor Towles novel A Gentleman In Moscow. It’s been out for two years, but I’m just now finding it, and boy, is it ever a delight. It’s the story of Count Alexander Rostov, a young Russian aristocrat condemned by the Bolsheviks but sentenced for life to house arrest in the luxury Hotel Metropol. The story plays out over the decades, within the universe of the Metropol, and we see the count grow as a man through the people he lives with there, and meets in their coming and going. The novel also tells the story of what communism meant to Russia, through the lives and fates of the men and women who pass through the Metropol.
Novelist Amor Towles (an American) has a very light touch, one that allows him to make sophisticated observations about the nature of life, and even of politics, without coming across as heavy-handed or didactic. I found this scene below to be a profound illustration of the barbarity of egalitarianism. Here’s the set-up.
In real life, the Bolsheviks did their best to keep the Hotel Metropol a showplace of luxury, because they wanted to have a place to impress travelers from the West, and make them think that communism was working out. Prior to the Revolution, the Hotel had a spectacular wine cellar. In the novel, Count Rostov enjoys bottles from the cellar in his nightly dinners at the hotel’s Boyarsky restaurant.
At some point, the Count finds that an ignorant waiter from the hotel’s lesser restaurant has been moved to the Boyarsky. The reader has met this waiter before, and knows him as an example of someone incompetent who has been given a position because he is politically connected, and because Bolshevism generally regards expertise as an offense against equality. Earlier in the story, the Count was dining at the lesser restaurant, and spied a young couple out on their first date. The young man was desperately trying to impress his icy female companion, though he didn’t have much money. The bad waiter knew nothing about wine, and was trying to steer the young man towards buying a bottle he couldn’t afford, and that would have overpowered the entree the two had ordered. The Count, sitting at a nearby table, intervened to advise a different wine — one that the young man could afford, and that was suited to the meal.
The waiter regarded the Count’s intervention as an insult from an aristocrat. He gets his revenge later, when he’s moved up to join the staff at the Boyarsky. The waiter files a complaint with a Bolshevik official, alleging that the wine cellar of the Metropol — over 100,000 bottles — was counterrevolutionary. It was a monument to the aristocratic spirit, he charged. The Bolsheviks declared that henceforth, the hotel will sell all wine at a single price, and will designate them only as red or white. That’s it.
Andrey, the maitre’d of the Boyarsky, had to send a crew down to remove the labels from every single bottle of wine in the cellar. Now, there was no way to tell what was in any bottle, other than that it is either red or white. The wines of the Metropol had been turned into a single mass, undifferentiated except by their color.
Here’s what happens next:
The Count looked at Andrey in amazement. But then a memory presented itself — a memory of a Christmas past when the Count had leaned from his chari to correct a certain waiter’s recommendation of a Rioja to accompany a Latvian stew. How smugly the Count had observed at the time that there was no substitute for experience.
Well, though the Count, here is your substitute.
With Andrey a few paces behind him, the Count began walking the cellar’s center aisle, much as a commander and his lieutenant might walk through a field hospital in the aftermath of battle. Near the end of the aisle, the Count turned down one of the rows. With a quick accounting of columns and shelves, the Count determined that in this row alone, there were over a thousand bottles — a thousand bottles virtually identical in shape and weight.
Picking up one at random, he reflected how perfectly the curve of the glass fit in the palm of the hand, how perfectly its volume weighed upon the arm. But inside? Inside this dark green glass was what exactly? A Chardonnay to complement a Camembert? A Sauvignon Blanc to go with some chèvre?
Whichever win was within, it was decidedly not identical to its neighbors. On the contrary, the contents of the bottle in his hand was the product of a history as unique and complex as that of a nation, or a man. In its color, aroma, and taste, it would certainly express the idiosyncratic geology and prevailing climate of its home terrain. But in addition, it would express all the natural phenomena of its vintage. In a sip, it would evoke the timing of that winter’s thaw, the extent of that summer’s rain, the prevailing winds, and the frequency of clouds.
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 real of averages and unknowns.
The Count reflects on how he, like most people, had unconsciously assumed that his way of life would take generations to fade. That change would be gradual. But the Revolution showed that this was not so. That men who held power, and who were absolutely sure of themselves, could destroy it all in a stroke. More:
[T]he 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.
This passage from the novel helped me to better understand the refrain I keep getting from readers who once lived under communism: that they see the same mentality growing in strength here in the West today.
Recently a college professor told me that one of his students complained that his is the only class the student has where LGBT issues were not addressed in the course. The student criticized the professor for being out of touch with today’s students. The professor was taken aback by this, not only because his course material has nothing to do with LGBT issues, and it would have been artificial to have inserted them into the classroom instruction, but also by learning that all of this student’s other professors had done that.
This is to be expected in a university culture where the particular qualities of, say, literary works are diminished or discarded because of the race and sex of their authors. Where traditional standards of excellence are held to be aristocratic lies that undergird systematic injustice.
True story — I know the people involved: an editor at a major publication was told by his superiors to diversify the section he managed by publishing more bylines by women, people of color, gays, and so forth. The editor said that given the specialized content of the section, it was difficult to find writing that was equally good, across a wide demographic spectrum. If the new quotas were going to be fulfilled, the bosses would have to be satisfied with a serious loss of quality. The editor was told that henceforth, he should count “diversity” as a measure of quality.
In other words, in the name of social progress, an element of the quality of the words on paper is the color of the skin of the writer, or his or her gender, or the sort of person to whom the writer is sexually attracted. To use the wine cellar metaphor, this would be like soaking the label off a bottle of plonk, slapping a Chateau Lafite label on it, and telling everyone to pretend they’re drinking vintage Bordeaux.
This is the same mentality that, taken to a particular extreme, insists that biology has nothing to do with maleness and femaleness, and anyone who says otherwise is an enemy of the people. A reader of this blog commented yesterday:
The level of hysteria at my federal workplace regarding “trans erasure” is unreal.
I happen to know this reader personally, and where she works. Gender politics has even less to do with the kind of work that happens in that agency than in a graduate seminar on Cretan archaeology … but there it is. It is a form of ideological madness. The commissars — like the University of Kansas dean at the end of this blog entry from yesterday — portray policies and opinions that were commonly held only a few years ago as the rankest, most odious bigotry. That’s what is so distinctive about these cultural revolutionaries now controlling so many of our institutions. They are so intent upon recasting the future from a mold of their own making that they will not rest until every last vestige of the America that they loathe has been uprooted, shattered, or erased.
The paradox of our contemporary revolutionaries is that they justify their destruction of particularity in the name of particularity. That is, they denounce and dismiss certain people and their cultural expression as without value, or even as harmful, because those people are bearers of thought and culture now considered counterrevolutionary. This is the ideology that would kick out the experienced waiter and give his job to a sulking ignoramus who holds fashionable political views. This is not such a big deal when it comes to waiting tables. It’s not the worst tragedy in the world to be served the wrong wine with dinner. But in the novel, this sullen ideologue used his power to have the entire wine cellar effectively destroyed, in the name of social justice. Amor Towles rightly characterizes this as not simply an aesthetic loss, but a cultural and historical one. The wine cellar is used in this novel as a symbol of what communism did to Russian civilization.
We find it easy to recognize this catastrophe under the communists. But it’s happening here too — and it’s not being imposed on us by a tyrannical government. We’re doing it to ourselves.
I tell the story here from time to time about the young woman who, having listened to me lecture for an hour about how reading Dante saved my life, stood to ask why anybody today should care what Dante has to say, inasmuch as he was a dead white European male from the oppressive Middle Ages. She was completely serious. This is the mentality of the Bolshevik waiter who wants to erase every sign of distinction as counterrevolutionary — except, of course, the distinctions that the revolutionaries value. People like that ignorant young woman are a figure of comedy among conservatives, but as the fictional Count Rostov learned, we should take them as seriously as they take themselves.
It is a dangerous illusion to think that everything we have come to love from our past and our present is solid and more or less unassailable. The entire project of modernity involves a conscious casting-off of the past in the name of the future. Do not for one second believe that the only ones who want to do this are tenured radicals. I hear over and over from classical educators that parents don’t really care about forming their children in the great traditions of Western thought and culture; all they really care about is their kids getting into the right university, and getting the right job.
In The Benedict Option, I tell a story about a mother and father who approached the pastor at their conservative church to ask for his help with their college-age daughter. The girl had recently told them that she wanted to devote her life to being a missionary. Her parents asked their pastor to help them keep the girl from ruining her life. That family attended a conservative church, but the mother and father valued bourgeois success above all other things. In post-Christian America, bourgeois success now means, and will increasingly mean, repudiating not only traditional Christian faith, but also the artifacts and practices of the Western tradition.
I’m not talking about traditionalism — the mindless worship of the past — but tradition. The academic physicist Carlo Lancellotti gets it right:
Valuing tradition does not mean valuing the past as past. It means valuing what in the past was actually eternal and therefore has the potential to renew the present (while the mistake is to try and recreate the past).
— Carlo Lancellotti (@_CLancellotti) October 29, 2018
Conservatives must repudiate our complacency. The signs of our revolutionary times are all around us. The fictional Count Rostov made an innocuous remark in the presence of a resentful and ignorant nobody who happened to have the ear of power-holders. The result was a cultural catastrophe, the destruction of memory in the name of revolutionary justice. Think of what happened to the Christakises at Yale in 2015, when a very mild remark by Erika Christakis about Halloween costumes led to a spasm of left-wing hysteria that drove Erika Christakis out of the university. As Conor Friedersdorf wrote about the event:
At Yale, I encountered students and faculty members who supported the Christakises but refused to say so on the record, and others who criticized them, but only anonymously. On both sides, people with perfectly mainstream opinions shared them with a journalist but declined to put their name behind them due to a campus climate where anyone could conceivably be the next object of ire and public shaming. Insufficient tolerance for disagreement is undermining campus discourse.
We shouldn’t think, though, that the only threat comes from Social Justice Warriors in the quad. You can change a society forever as much by what you don’t teach as what you do. I’m 51, and was formed intellectually in the era when political correctness was just beginning to establish itself. The kinds of experiences on campus today are alien to my own, though certainly PC was going hot and heavy at elite campuses of my generation. I graduated from college largely ignorant of the Western tradition because I was not compelled to study it, and I didn’t have the sense to choose classes that would have given me a basic grounding in the art, literature, and philosophy of Western civilization. This is partly my fault, I concede, but it is also the fault of a culture whose authorities — institutions, parents, et al. — no longer care about these things, and see no point in preserving them and handing them down to the young.
That’s not the fault of a campus diversity commissar. That’s on us.
I find myself this morning thinking about the Benda family of Prague. The late Vaclav Benda and his wife, Kamila, raised their six children under communist oppression. These children grew up to keep their Catholic faith, as well as to bear within their hearts and minds the traditions of the civilization of which they are heirs, despite communist efforts to eradicate it. How did they do it? It was not easy. Please read Terry Mattingly’s column based on his visit with Kamila and some of her children in her apartment in Prague.
And please read my account of the night I spent this spring at the Bendas’ place — such inspiring people! They were ordinary hobbits who resisted Mordor in everyday ways. As Martin Benda, one of the boys, said to me this spring, “We felt responsible to something outside of ourselves.”
Mark my words, readers: being responsible to something outside of ourselves, and living that way no matter what, is the only way we are going to make it through this time with our faith and our culture intact.
I’ll end on a hopeful note. Here’s an excerpt from an interview with Amor Towles about his wonderful novel:
What is the nature of your fascination with Russia?
I am hardly a Russologist. I don’t speak the language, I didn’t study the history in school, and I have only been to the country a few times. But in my twenties, I fell in love with the writers of Russia’s golden age: Gogol, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky. Later, I discovered the wild, inventive, and self-assured writing styles of Russia’s early 20th century avant-garde including the poet Mayakovsky, the dancer Nijinsky, the painter Malevich, and the filmmaker Eisenstein. Going through those works, it began to seem like every accomplished artist in Russia had his own manifesto. The deeper I delved into the country’s idiosyncratic psychology, the more fascinated I became.
Kazan Cathedral is a perfect symbol of Russia’s mystique for me during the Soviet era. Built in 1636 on Red Square to commemorate both the liberation of Moscow from interlopers and the beginning of the Romanov dynasty, Kazan was among Russia’s oldest and most revered cathedrals. In 1936, the Bolsheviks celebrated the 300th anniversary of its consecration by razing it to the ground. In part, they leveled the cathedral to clear Red Square for military parades, but also to punctuate the end of Christianity in Russia. But Peter Baranovsky, the architect who was directed to oversee the dismantling, secretly drafted detailed drawings of the cathedral and hid them away. More than fifty years later, when Communist rule came to its end, the Russians used Baranovsky’s drawings to rebuild the church stone for stone.
I find every aspect of this history enthralling. The cathedral itself is a reminder of Russia’s heritage—ancient, proud, and devout. Through the holy landmark’s destruction we get a glimpse of how ruthless and unsentimental the Russian people can be. While through the construction of its exact replica, we see their almost quixotic belief that through careful restoration, the actions of the past can effectively be erased. But most importantly, at the heart of this history is a lone individual who at great personal risk carefully documented what he was destroying in the unlikely chance that it might some day be rebuilt. The Soviet era abounds with sweeping cultural changes and with stoic heroes who worked in isolation at odds with the momentum of history towards some brighter future.
Our task here and now is to be Baranovskys. To be Benedicts. To be Bendas. To keep the knowledge alive until the darkness passes, so the rebuilding can begin.