Sitting in the lounge at the Hotel Metropol in Moscow in 2019 reading Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow was a strange experience.

If you’re a fan of the novel you will now be eagerly devouring the new TV series A Gentleman in Moscow, now on Paramount+ – and I will watch it soon myself.

That will be tricky for me, though, because I know the series is filmed in Bolton, part of Greater Manchester in the UK, and not the Russian capital. I will have to suspend my disbelief, knowing the novel’s actual setting pretty well.

I was sent to Moscow in 2019 to interview the Bolshoi Ballet ahead of their visit to Brisbane. I guess I was lucky because none of us are probably going to Moscow anytime soon for obvious reasons. But it is a fascinating city and if you haven’t read A Gentleman in Moscow, I urge you to do that before watching the series.

The protagonist is the fictional Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov (Ewan McGregor in the series), who ended up living in the famous Hotel Metropol after the October Revolution of 1917. As an aristocrat he could well have been executed, but he is saved from death by the strange fact that he is credited as the author of a seminal revolutionary poem.

Still, he’s a toff and must be punished. His punishment? Internal exile in the Hotel Metropol where he is allotted a cramped attic room and forced to work as a waiter.

It’s a fascinating story and while it is fiction the historic events surrounding his story are all too real. The hotel, where I was also holed up when I was in Moscow, served as a kind of headquarters for the revolutionaries. The Bolshoi Theatre, home to the famous ballet company, is across the road and also served the revolutionaries as a venue.

The hotel and the Bolshoi are in the heart of Moscow, just a stone’s throw from Red Square. I arrived in the city on a cold February morning in 2019 – it was about -10C – arriving at the Hotel Metropol at about breakfast time. So I had breakfast in a magnificent and spacious hall with a stained-glass ceiling. I had with me a copy of A Gentleman in Moscow to read during my stay, which seemed appropriate.

For the next 10 days I fancied that I was that gentleman in Moscow. I wasn’t banished to the hotel as such but spent most of my time mooching around in the historic Art Nouveau architectural treasure, due to the cold weather. I ventured out to go to the ballet, to interview the dancers who were coming to Brisbane and to wander in the local area wearing a thick down jacket.

I took myself to the Café Pushkin for lunch, visited Lenin’s tomb on Red Square, ate borscht at a nearby restaurant each day for lunch. The rest of the time I luxuriated in the hotel.

My room was in the historic wing, which suited me. It was strange and wonderful to be sitting reading the book then to look up and see a stained-glass window, described by Towles, right behind me.

Towles obviously scoped out the hotel, Moscow’s most famous, which was completed in 1905.

In 1918, the hotel was nationalised by the Bolshevik administration and renamed Second House of Soviets to provide living quarters and offices for the growing Soviet bureaucracy. Eventually, in the 1930s, it reverted to its original function as a hotel. Then between 1986 and 1991 it was thoroughly restored by Finnish companies as part of Soviet-Finnish bilateral trade.

The Hotel Metropol has 365 rooms and everyone who is anyone has stayed there, from heads of state to rock stars. Michael Jackson and his entourage stayed in the presidential suite when he did a concert in Moscow in 2003.

Some of the suites have again been refurbished, while others are largely as they were.

It’s a huge hotel that takes up most of a city block and while I stayed there for 10 days, I still didn’t get to explore all of it. At that time the hotel was holding A Gentleman in Moscow tours, largely for foreigners such as myself.

People were going to Moscow on the strength of Towles’ wonderful novel. I’m sure people will want to go there again after seeing the TV series, but who knows when it will be appropriate to visit the Russian capital again.

Moscow is a fascinating city with history on a huge scale. Touring the Kremlin, which is also close to the hotel, was jaw dropping. Sitting in the famous GUM shopping Centre, built by the Tzar, having lunch and watching people ice skating in Red Square outside, I had to pinch myself. Was I really in Moscow?

It wasn’t too hard to get there. I simply went out to Brisbane International Airport, got on my Singapore Airlines flight and 24 hours later after transiting through Singapore I arrived in Moscow in pre-dawn darkness with light snow falling. A black Mercedes limousine was waiting for me.

“My name is Sergei,” the driver said, and that was the full extent of his English.

I had no Russian at all except spaciba – thank you.

I was supplied with an interpreter to interview the Bolshoi dancers. I attended two ballets, Spartacus and Jewels, both of which came to QPAC as part of its International Series. The ballets were on consecutive Saturday nights in Moscow, which is why I had to stay for 10 days.

Sitting in the hotel’s famed Chaliapin Bar taking Russian high tea with caviar and blinis, the tea stewing away on the samovar, I had to pinch myself again.

Even now it seems like a dream, but it’s all true. I was there. For 10 days I was a gentleman in Moscow too. Crazy, huh?

A Gentleman in Moscow is now streaming on Paramount+

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