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Weekend Watch: 'A Gentleman in Moscow' shows revolution's toll

Weekend Watch: 'A Gentleman in Moscow' shows revolution's toll

Ewan McGregor's persecuted aristocrat bears witness to history — and demonstrates true nobility of soul.

A Columbia University protester named Khymani James was recently caught on camera proclaiming that "Zionists don't deserve to live."

Like many of the young people currently disrupting campus and civic life around the country, James' grievances go far beyond what's happening in the Gaza strip. He is a committed foe of "white supremacy" and an advocate for "decolonization." From his self-description as "queer," one can assume he shares the usual objections to "heteronormativity" and a commitment to "smashing the patriarchy."

By now we are used to such posturing. The vagueness of these terms and their near-universal application — is anything not "white supremacist? — makes them comical. Of course, it is also what makes them dangerous.

James has apologized for his words. Whether or not this apology was sincere, that he was compelled to make it suggests that a certain decorum still prevails. While property, institutions, reputations, and careers may all be destroyed in the name of social justice, extermination of our political enemies is going too far.

Or is it? American popular culture today generally celebrates and encourages revolutionary sentiment, while glossing over its excesses. If "white supremacy" — as embodied by Zionists, Christians, married people, rich people, and even plain old white people — is such a problem, maybe getting rid of "whites" is ultimately the only real solution. Maybe James simply said the quiet part out loud.

The limited series "A Gentleman in Moscow," adapted from the 2016 Amor Towles novel of the same name, is the rare entertainment willing to show what happens when a society follows the logic of identity-based resentment to its brutal conclusion.

Unlike the producers of "The Handmaid's Tale," the team behind "A Gentleman in Moscow" had actual history to draw upon. The architects of the Russian Revolution did have the opportunity to exterminate their political enemies, a tactic that proved quite efficient, at least for a while.

"A Gentleman in Moscow" opens in 1921, when the systematic extermination of the aristocratic class was well under way. Ewan McGregor, equipped with a luxuriant mop of hair and an impressive mustache, plays Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov. Having fled the country in 1914, Rostov has made the ill-advised decision to return to Moscow in order to attend to his grandmother.

The first episode opens with Rostov waiting to appear before a Bolshevik tribunal; soon enough the young noble who preceded him is dragged screaming into a courtyard and summarily shot. McGregor plays this scene with powerful, dignified stillness. It is clear he is afraid, yet also clear that he possesses the inner resources to master this fear.

Whatever flaws Rostov may have, this opening scene establishes him as a man of courage and conviction. When asked why he lives in the luxury Metropol hotel, Rostov matter-of-factly responds, "My house was burned down." He refuses to grovel to his potential executioners or make any fake shows of solidarity. "Occupation?" asks his interlocutor. "It's not the business of gentlemen to have occupations," says Rostov.

Nor does he accept his potential executioners' moral framework. Rostov is cool and witty throughout, more than once provoking laughs from the assembled witnesses. The only flash of anger we see from him is when the tribunal accuses him of being a threat to Russia and her people: "I am one of her people."

"A Gentleman in Moscow" depicts Rostov living up to this claim. What saves him from a bullet to the head is a revolutionary poem attributed to him. Instead of death, Rostov's punishment is permanent house arrest. He will stay confined to the Hotel Metropol (after being moved from his suite to a drafty, spartan attic room); one step outside and he will be shot.

The series then follows Rostov for the next thirty years, bearing his reduced circumstances with admirable fortitude and cheer as his homeland endures the horrors of Stalinism and World War 2. The latter is largely kept off-screen. We spend our time in Rostov's company, and it is charming indeed — thanks largely to McGregor's winning performance.

Was it "fair" that Rostov was born into the kind of wealth that allowed him to converse with eloquence on any number of topics, to discern which French white goes best with fish, and to appreciate music, and literature, and art? Perhaps not, but the Bolshevik answer to such disparity is that nobody should have these advantages; better to eradicate beauty and wit and refinement entirely.

In his 2012 book "Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy," Douglas Smith gives a sense of just what was lost when Russia eliminated its ruling class in pursuit of a utopian vision of equality:

The destruction of the nobility was one of the tragedies of Russian history. For nearly a millennium, the nobility, what the Russians called bélaya kost’, literally "white bone" (our "blue blood"), had supplied Russia’s political, military, cultural, and artistic leaders. The nobility had served as the tsars’ counselors and officials, as their generals and officers; the nobility had produced generations of writers, artists, and thinkers, of scholars and scientists, of reformers and revolutionaries. In a society that was slow to develop a middle class, the nobility played a preponderant role in the political, social, and artistic life of the country disproportionate to its relative size. The end of the nobility in Russia marked the end of a long and deservedly proud tradition that created much of what we still think of today as quintessentially Russian, from the grand palaces of St. Petersburg to the country estates surrounding Moscow, from the poetry of Pushkin to the novels of Tolstoy and the music of Rachmaninov.

American society, though organized under far different principles, is no less stratified; it's just that admission to our elite class isn't entirely hereditary. That class' stewardship of our country over the past 250 years may have been a mixed bag; our history is one of glorious achievements and ignominious depredations. Then again, whose history isn't?

Revolutionaries are accomplished at destruction; it's when they're called upon to build that they usually get into trouble. In its poignant evocation of a dying culture, "A Gentleman in Moscow" reminds us of this sobering reality.

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Matt Himes

Matt Himes

Managing Editor, Align

Matt Himes is the managing editor for Align.
@matthimes →