Amor Towles Reveals the Horrors of Life Without the 1 Percent
In The Moscow Scene, Geoffrey Bocca’s 1976 book about life in the Soviet Union, his description of a visit to a restaurant in the Soviet capital had to be re-read many times to be believed. By the 1970s restaurant waiters were viewed as the lowest of the low in this most dystopian of countries, and it showed. The waiter Bocca encountered brought new meaning to surly, the greasy, tattered menu he handed to him literally hadn’t changed in 25 years, and then the waiter proceeded to start an argument: Bocca wanted borscht and beef fillet, but was gruffly told he would be having caviar and Chicken Kiev instead.
Bocca’s Moscow experiences, along with those of Hedrick Smith (author of The Russians, and The New Russians), kept coming to mind while reading Amor Towles’ excellent 2016 novel, A Gentleman In Moscow. There was this burning desire to ask Towles questions about the backwards U.S.S.R. witnessed and reported on by Bocca and Smith, the one in the process of going backwards in Towles’ novel, plus how he would analyze the country's decline from bad to really bad. What’s important is that while communism brought it to its knees, Russia was hardly a paradise before this most anti-human of ideologies was cruelly foisted on its people.
As Osip Ivanovich Glebnikov, a well-placed Bolshevik who plays a crucial role in Gentleman, notes about the country’s situation before 1917,
“In 1916, Russia was a barbarian state. It was the most illiterate nation in Europe, with the majority of its populations living in modified serfdom: tilling the fields with wooden plows, beating their wives by candlelight, collapsing on their benches drunk with vodka….”
The Bolsheviks destroyed what was already in bad shape. And that’s what this review will mostly touch on. The novel itself was unputdownable, the characters very interestingly drawn, but as is frequently stated in my reviews, no one reads the same book, or novel. There’s an economic aspect to Towles’ story that will be the focus here. Either on purpose or maybe unwittingly, Towles revealed the horrors of government spending, life without free trade, and the unrelenting cruelty of a country in which the much-demonized 1 percenters have their genius suffocated, or worse, exterminated altogether.
Gentleman begins in 1922. The character around which the novel revolves, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, is being prosecuted in front of the Emergency Committee of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs. While the uber-aristocrat had formerly occupied a beautiful suite in the Metropol, Moscow’s grandest hotel, the sentence handed down to him from the Bolsheviks was house arrest (he would be killed if he exited the Metropol’s premises), a substantially smaller room at the hotel, plus he was designated a “Former Person.” “Elite” was a bad, often life-threatening distinction in the new Russia (U.S.S.R.), and Rostov (“Master of the Hunt, member of the Jockey Club”) is elite as they come. Something to think about given the modern desire to dismiss the well-situated. The frequently mindless emotion is hardly original.
Interesting about the approach to status in Gentleman is that Towles doesn’t hide his contempt for the anti-elitism that was all the rage then, not to mention the underlying hypocrisy that underlay it. About a third of the way into the novel, a scene unfolds in which Rostov sits down for his regular dinner at the Boyarsky, the Metropol’s world-class restaurant. He orders a “San Lorenzo Barolo, 1912” to accompany his meal, only to find out from the restaurant’s downcast maitre d that it had been decreed from up above that “the existence of our wine list runs counter to the ideals of the Revolution. That it is a monument to the privilege of the nobility, the effeteness of the intelligentsia, and the predatory pricing of speculators.” And it only gets worse.
Rostov is subsequently informed that “Henceforth, the Boyarksky shall sell only red and white wine with every bottle at a single price.” In the new regime’s infinite unwisdom, the labels on every bottle in the cavernous wine cellar were removed. Red and white were to be sold, but without regard to quality.
Without giving away the plot, Rostov spies the bottle he wanted in the first place for future consumption (the maitre d informed of the changes while in the cellar), and then later on the ridiculous decree is reversed. Indeed, it becomes apparent fairly quickly in Gentleman that the supposedly class-unaware Bolheviks enjoy the comforts of the elite much as the out-of-favor, exiled and murdered once did. Eventually the labels return, and the hotel’s eating establishments are soon enough populated by the leaders of the Revolution. So while politicians – then and now – talk a big game about being one with the common man, their actions rarely match their rhetoric. Much as Washington, D.C.’s top restaurants are always and everywhere thick with men of the people, so is the Metropol.
Taking the above further, in his sentencing Rostov was once again relieved of his suite, along with many of his possessions. Worth discussing here is the basic truth that politicians who decry concentrations of wealth rarely destroy it in the literal sense. They instead redistribute it. They claim to despise wealth, but absent it they would have no purpose, and certainly nothing to thieve in order to “give.” In short, class warriors like Bernie Sanders are opportunistic creations of the wealth they disdain.
The violent Bolsheviks of the early Soviet era didn’t hate wealth as much as they loathed those who had it. Towles seemed to be saying about the redistributionists that there was a lingering anger from the past, hence the hatred for preternaturally smooth individuals like Rostov. His very existence mocks their own uncouth one, and reminds them of when they were on the outside looking in as it were. Notable here is that the novel reveals a desire within the scruffy Bolsheviks to emulate Rostov’s style in a sense, and to utilize his immense knowledge about the outer world in a very real sense. The main thing is that while market forces regularly change the proverbial team picture of the rich, violence and coercion were the only skills brought forward by the Bolsheviks. Lacking what it took to create real wealth, they resorted to thuggery and murder. They were never as honorable as Rostov, and as such were never able to be him.
The above easily explains why (all of this a statement of the obvious) there was no economic growth to speak of during the Soviet era. Without defending what came before the Soviet Union, or even Rostov’s privileged perch that was an effect of high birth in the Russia of old, the Bolshevik-authored stealing had little to do with production as logic dictates, and as Bocca and Smith reported in troubling fashion. By the 1970s the store shelves in the U.S.S.R. were bare; the exception being the private stores patronized by – you guessed it – the U.S.S.R.’s supposedly class-blind leadership. It seems that wine bottles weren’t the only creations of capitalism that ultimately regained their privileged position with the faux populists brutally controlling the U.S.S.R. Smith also noted how those lucky enough to actually travel outside the U.S.S.R. (once again, the well-connected, or the athletic) “were like coiled springs, leaping at the department store cornucopias of the West.” No wonder foreign travel was reserved for the very few, who were very closely watched. Few who leave prison are likely to return.
Looking at all of this in terms of the United States, whether it’s the relatively light taxation in the U.S. that doesn’t fully suffocate the profit motive, or the near-total state ownership of the means of production in the former U.S.S.R., government spending – whether a little or a lot – is a taking. It is government taking what someone else has produced, and in the process it is the government controlling more of the economy. The totality of it in the former Soviet Union had tragic consequences, but Americans perhaps shouldn’t be so smug about the allegedly enlightened expropriation that has long taken place here. If a lot of government expropriation is totally harmful, and even tragic, then a little is very harmful too. Call relatively light government spending (if you want to call $4 trillion in annual federal spending light) a slow version of theft, but theft it is; a slow clipping of the proverbial coin. The U.S.S.R. was starved of progress thanks to the leadership’s self-abnegating desire to suffocate the country’s enterprising altogether, but that in no way excuses the softer version by the allegedly compassionate types who populate Congress. Not asked enough is how much we’ve lost in addition to our freedom. It doesn’t take a doctor to presume that all the spending over the years deprived us of the expensive experimentation that, among other things, would have perhaps delivered us a cancer cure by now. Just a thought.
Interesting about Count Rostov is that in addition to having his suite and many of his belongings taken, he ultimately becomes a waiter at the Boyarsky that he had formerly only entered as a guest. While he stated in his prosecution that “It is not the business of gentlemen to have occupations,” soon enough Rostov had one. Unknown is if Towles was making a statement about Rostov’s reduced position that was bigger than the “Former Person” (and gentleman at that) having an actual job.
What’s certain is that Rostov’s reduced circumstances occurred alongside the neutering and murder of the country’s commercial class; also known as the kulaks. These people weren’t the aristocrats, but they were of means thanks to their own toil. Call them the old Russia’s 1 percenters. While it’s popular for the ignorant in the U.S. to bemoan our own kulaks (not necessarily wellborn, but immensely productive in a country – the U.S. – that happily cares more about productivity than bloodlines), only people so rich and comfortable as Americans could so thoughtlessly decry the productive. Indeed, the truly desperate would never be so foolish. Only the beneficiaries of 1 percenter genius (how many of you readers have an Apple product, or have purchased something on Amazon in the past month?) could be so dismissive of them. Life would be hideously cruel without the productive.
Happily for all of us, Towles doesn’t shy away from the above truth. He is explicit that the “dekulaking of the kulaks” had disastrous consequences. Some readers will respond that Towles was merely stating the obvious, but if so, good for him. It cannot be stressed enough how brutal life would be without the innovative, or as Towles puts it, the “capable.” The Bolsheviks’ approach to the “profiteers and enemies of the common good” was exile, arrest, and of course, murder. What they didn’t understand is that when you murder the capable, the greatest pain is felt among those who perhaps aren’t as skillful at turning scarcity into abundance. In short, the Bolsheviks’ war on the profiteers amounted to “death by starvation for millions of peasants in the Ukraine.” It’s sick-inducing to contemplate, and it’s maddening to consider in light of how much history at the very least rhymes. While the productive aren’t being murdered in the U.S. today, members of both major political parties go to great lengths to comfort voters that any reform of our indecipherable tax code will not help the “rich.” Yes, how awful it would be for all of us if the Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos equivalents of the future were penalized less for their achievements, along with those of means willing to delay consumption in order to bring life to their ideas through investment of their immense wealth.
Extra interesting about Towles is that he plainly understands the odd, frequently counterproductive, and often murderous passions that spring from nationalism. This relates to the discussion of the 1 percent simply because Rostov, though a prisoner of his own country, one that he acknowledges can’t stop harming itself, is at the same time in love with it. He concludes that its cruelty and inconveniences paradoxically brought to him his greatest gift in the form of Sofia, his adopted daughter.
At the same time Rostov, unlike his country’s leadership, is not closed off to reality. A worldly person who was well-traveled before house arrest, he has a sense of the comforts that are abundant in societies where talent isn’t muzzled, but at the same time can only imagine what life is like in the country where the talented are most free to flower: the United States. His love interest, the beautiful Russian film star Anna Urbanova who is less enamored with the U.S.S.R., enligthens him. As she explains it, "Half of the inhabitants of Europe would move there [to the U.S.] tomorrow just for the conveniences." The Count asks what those conveniences might be, and Anna picks up a copy of Life magazine only to list "Dishwashing machines. Clothes-washing machines. Vacuum cleaners. Toasters. Televisions. And look here, an automatic garage door."
The advances that erase life’s inconveniences are invariably the creations of individuals who grow rich for bringing them to us. The author in Towles knows this intimately owing to his successful career in the investment world that preceded his work as a writer. Towles knows the horrors and inconveniences of life without the capable, so does the Count, but his nationalistic tendencies have him a little resistant to acknowledge a truth that is an indictment of the country he loves. And then there’s once again Sofia, the daughter whom he loves uncontrollably. Her arrival was very inconvenient for the Count at the time, but he adds that “it has been the inconveniences that have mattered to me the most.” The Count sees the good in what is mostly awful, but when forced to make the ultimate choice, one that could separate him from the daughter he venerates, rationality and an understanding of the genius that is freedom thankfully win out over emotion and nationalism. Communism will not waste Sofia's life and her abundant talents if the Count can do anything about it.
So while governmental attempts to bring down the haves invariably bring down the have-nots most cruelly, so do witless attempts to shield the have nots from the genius of the haves in other countries, bring great harm. Let’s never forget that the Russian peasants died by the millions thanks to how the country’s 1 percent were treated. But let’s also not forget that efforts to block the inflow of goods and services of 1 percenters from other parts of the world are every bit as damaging. The Bolsheviks wrecked their own merchant class to the clear detriment of the average Russian. Ok, if it’s harmful to the little guy to crush the capable in country, so by extension is it harmful to block out the genius of the capable outside. Yet that’s the purpose of tariffs; shield the people who have the least, from the skillful around the world most capable of serving their needs. “Protection of jobs” is always the excuse, but protectionism invariably saves jobs (in the very short term) that can be measured in the thousands to the detriment of millions, and in our case hundreds of millions who are working in order to get. “Dekulaking” is cruel whether it’s visited on one’s own countrymen, or those in other countries.
About this, it’s hard to know if Towles was making a trade point or not, but at one point Rostov and colleagues at the Boyarsky use their combined connections to source the ingredients necessary to make a bouillabaisse. And they love it. It plainly brings back memories of the past, when goods and services were abundant, when “any half-wit with a spoon” could “please a palate.” Bolshevik Russia not only closed itself off to its own talented, but also to the plenty created by the talented around the world. The result was that creativity in the kitchen was more of a challenge. Tariffs are so very self-defeating. The sole purpose of work is to import; whether from across the street, or from the other side of the world. Without imports, life is literally bland. A read of how giddy Rostov and friends were as they stuffed themselves with a bouillabaisse that was a creation of the black market is a reminder of how horrid life will be if we forget the lessons of history and “crack down” on the world’s productive who supposedly injure us by working feverishly to meet and exceed our needs.
Towles’ broad economic point in Gentleman seemed to be a Schumpeterian one; that an unwillingness to evolve, to essentially shed the past, is the source of stagnation. If we’re not constantly replacing the existing order, we’re stagnating. So true. Interesting here is that in his memoirs, former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan remarked that the equipment used by Soviet-era industry hadn’t changed much over the decades. The equipment he saw the first time was the same as what he saw decades later. Bocca saw much the same with restaurant menus.
Where it gets interesting is that while the capitalist in Towles plainly sees the importance of change to economic evolution, so does the well-placed Bolshevik mentioned previously, Osip Ivanovich Glebnikov. Left out from the character’s earlier passage was what concluded it:
The masses who were illiterate, who beat their wives, and who were collapsing from too much vodka consumption were “living exactly as their forefathers had lived five hundred years before. Is it not possible that our reverence for all the statues and cathedrals and ancient institutions was precisely what was holding us back?” Glebnikov seems to think so, and that is his justification for all the destruction of lives and property that defined the arrival of communism. A great leap forward of sorts, authored by death and destruction.
So while Glebnikov is no doubt correct that Russia’s reverence for the past is holding it back, his mistake is in presuming that the future can be found through the barrel of a gun. Missed by Glebnikov is that capitalism has no peers when it comes to replacing the existing order with something better. That’s what it’s all about. The economic growth that enriches the enterprising leads to capital formation that eventually topples those on top. In business there are no preservation societies, but there’s thankfully history telling us that today’s commercial giant is tomorrow’s vanquished. The Bolsheviks wanted change, but their philosophy enforced extreme rigidity. To refer to the former Soviet Union as a dystopia is to be redundant. Of course it was. Such is life where the state attempts to freeze the present, or worse, bring back the past. Are you listening Steve Bannon?
Could what happened in Russia ever happen in the U.S.? Towles’ writing suggests he doesn’t think so. He alludes to how Americans just aren’t into all the philosophy stuff as so many in the rest of the world are, but we love the comfort that can only spring from market-driven achievement. Still, we would be wise to keep our guard up to the encroachment of the state. As Count Rostov observes, he too, in more carefree days, was prone to being ridiculous, and talking of the ridiculous. But as he added to a co-worker at the Metropol, “we argued about ideas,” but “we never had any intention of doing anything about them.” Amen. Too bad the Bolsheviks weren’t more self-aware. We’d be wise to watch out for their modern equivalent; ready to discredit what is dangerous and anti-human while also making what is an easy case for freedom.