The setting for historical drama A Gentleman in Moscow is the Russian capital’s legendary Hotel Metropol. It is here where the protagonist, the noble-born Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov (played by Ewan McGregor in the Paramount+ adaptation), is detained by Russia’s new Bolshevik masters after being denounced as an enemy of the revolution on account of his aristocratic heritage.


Is A Gentleman in Moscow a true story?

Not quite. Though Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov and the decades of house arrest that he endures within the Metropol are a work of Amor Towles’s imagination, the setting in which the events unfold is a real hotel, with a history that rivals any work of fiction.

When was the Hotel Metropol built?

Located within sight of the world-famous Bolshoi Theatre and just a short walk from Red Square and the Kremlin, the Metropol has borne witness to some of the most dramatic events in Russia’s modern history.

Built in the Art Nouveau style, construction began in 1899 and was initially funded by Russian industrialist Savva Mamontov, who conceived of building a ‘palace of the arts’ capable of holding 3,000 spectators. Scottish-Russian architect William Walcot was recruited to oversee the project, while artists including Mikhail Vrubel and Alexander Golovin created the building’s celebrated décor and façades.

The Art Noveau facade of the Hotel Metropol in Moscow
The Art Noveau facade of the Hotel Metropol in Moscow (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

However, Mamontov’s sudden bankruptcy (he was accused of embezzling funds from a railroad venture, and though later acquitted, he faced financial and reputational failure) led to the Petersburg Insurance company stepping in to see the project through to completion. Consequently, the building evolved from Mamontov’s original concept into more of a plush hotel with an American cocktail bar and a restaurant, in the vein of the Ritz in Paris and the Savoy in London.

When did the Hotel Metropol open?

The Hotel Metropol finally opened its doors in 1905, just as revolutionary turmoil in Russia forced Tsar Nicholas II to cave in to constitutional reforms. His issue of the October Manifesto, which pledged to enshrine civil liberties and an elected legislature, was met with jubilation throughout Moscow.

The Metropol was among the first in Moscow to have facilities such as refrigerators and elevators, and to provide hot water and telephones in its guest suites. It soon became a magnet for both Russia’s well-to-do set and genteel visitors from abroad on the eve of the First World War.

The Metropol’s role in the Russian Revolution of 1917

The fall of the Romanov monarchy in spring 1917 paved the way for a Provisional Government, which set about establishing a Russian republic. But the October Revolution later that year saw Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks take power in Petrograd (now St Petersburg) and proclaim the birth of a new socialist Soviet state.

In Moscow, their opponents hunkered down within the Metropol and fortified it, but to no avail. A ferocious battle between forces loyal to the toppled Provisional Government and the Bolsheviks ensued, during which the Metropol sustained heavy damage, including broken windows and bullet-marked walls.

Even throughout this ordeal, the hotel continued to cater to guests, including Tomáš Masaryk, the future founder and first president of Czechoslovakia, who witnessed the maelstrom first-hand.

The aftermath of the street fighting around the hotel was described by the American journalist, John Reed, who referenced it in his classic 1919 account of the Bolshevik Revolution, Ten Days That Shook the World.

“Desperate fighting had broken out again in Moscow … White Guards [ultraconservative opponents to the Bolsheviks] held the Kremlin and the centre of the town … The Soviet artillery was stationed in Skobeliev Square, bombarding the City Duma building, the Prefecture and the Hotel Metropole [sic]”.

Red star over the Metropol: the hotel as a Soviet nerve centre

In 1918, the Bolsheviks moved the capital of Russia from Petrograd to Moscow. The Metropol was nationalised and became the base of many Soviet institutions, as well as home to the nascent regime’s officials and their families – a change reflected in the building’s new name: the Second House of the Soviets (the first being the former Hotel National, not far from the Metropol).

To this day, a maiolica frieze along the façade of the Hotel Metropol that faces Revolution Square contains a quote from Lenin, proclaiming: “The dictatorship of the proletariat alone can emancipate humanity from the oppression of capital.”

Indeed, the hotel appears in the background of one of the era’s most iconic photographs of Lenin delivering a speech in Sverdlov Square (now Theatre Square).

Vladimir Lenin addresses Red Army troops
Lenin delivers a speech to Red Army troops in Moscow's Sverdlov Square – the Hotel Metropol can be seen in the background of the image to the right (Photo by Getty)

The Metropol’s declining fortunes after the revolution

Throughout the early 1920s, the Hotel Metropol continued to act as a hub for some of the Soviet government’s organs as well as offering rooms to guests. The Bolsheviks’ disdain for bourgeois affectation meant that the building’s lavish interiors soon turned grubby from neglect.

This deterioration mirrored the loss of status incurred by members of the Russian aristocracy themselves.

Those who didn’t flee abroad or go underground lived in a shadow world under the surveillance of the Cheka (the forerunner to the KGB), denounced as ‘former people’.

The fictional Count Rostov in A Gentleman in Moscow is one such person.

Ewan McGregor as Count Rostov in 'A Gentleman in Moscow'
Ewan McGregor as Count Rostov in 'A Gentleman in Moscow' (Photo courtesy of Paramount+)

Russia’s premier inn: the Hotel Metropol as the guesthouse of Stalinist civilisation

But the Metropol soon became integral to the regime’s bid to obtain international recognition, as it was increasingly used to wine and dine foreign diplomats. As a consequence, the hotel also gained a reputation for impropriety and lewd liaisons.

Its fêted restaurant was moved beneath the stained-glass ceiling of the Fountain Hall (which features prominently in A Gentleman in Moscow). This spectacular space was the setting for the 1925 international chess tournament, which saw the world champion, Cuba’s José Raúl Capablanca, lose the title to his Soviet opponent, Efim Bogoljubov.

As the 1930s approached, with the Soviet Union in the midst of Josef Stalin’s sweeping industrialisation drive – the First Five-Year Plan – a new chapter in the Metropol’s story began.

Inside the Fountain Room of the Hotel Metropol
Inside the Fountain Room of the Hotel Metropol (Photo by Getty)

Soviet apparatchiks (bureaucrats) checked out. The hotel instead became an intrinsic part of the regime’s campaign to woo foreign visitors and impress upon them – via heady doses of propaganda plied by tour guides from the All-Union Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries (better known by its Russian acronym, ‘VOKS’) – the glories of the socialist system being built in the USSR.

Over the following decade, significant names passed through its doors, including Nobel Prize-winning playwright George Bernard Shaw and the British social reformers Sidney and Beatrice Webb.

The 1930s was a time of immense suffering, fear and bloodshed in the Soviet Union. Millions perished from famine – notably in Ukraine – because of the Kremlin’s push to collectivise agriculture by bringing farms under state ownership.

The latter part of the decade saw Stalin’s paranoid megalomania manifest into show trials and purges of his erstwhile comrades within the Soviet elite.

The Metropol and the tightly-controlled tourist experience ensured that these western luminaries were distracted from this dark underbelly of Stalin’s burgeoning tyranny.

A woman sits behind a desk with brochures behind her
A bookstall promoting Russian tourism sat in the lobby of the Hotel Metropol (Photo by Getty)

Not far from the Lubyanka – the infamous headquarters of the secret police agency, the NKVD – the Metropol, like so many other places, was no stranger to the sinister incursions of Stalin’s henchmen during these years.

In 1938, one of Russia’s greatest contemporary writers, Lyudmila Petrushevskaya, was born in the hotel. Her early childhood there was the subject of a 2017 memoir, The Girl from the Metropol Hotel. Fans of A Gentleman in Moscow may note similarities between Petrushevskaya’s experiences and that of the fictional Nina and Sofia in Towles’s story.

The Metropol as a WW2 press corps

When Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, Stalin suddenly found himself breaking bread with the dogged anti-Bolshevik British prime minister, Winston Churchill. Joined by the United States after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December that year, the Allies pooled their efforts into defeating fascism.

During the Second World War (known as the ‘Great Patriotic War’ in several post-Soviet countries – most notably Russia), the Hotel Metropol became home to various Allied journalists covering news from the Eastern Front, and they transformed some of its rooms into busy press offices.

Their copy was meticulously scrutinised and censored by the Soviet authorities, before being returned to the foreign reporters, invariably daubed with corrections that conformed to the heroic angle demanded by the Kremlin.

The Hotel Metropol during the Cold War

After the war, the hotel continued to receive international visitors. American writer John Steinbeck and war photographer Robert Capa frequented the Hotel Metropol as they embarked on a tour of the USSR to record ordinary Soviet citizens’ lives, resulting in the 1948 travelogue, A Russian Journal.

That same year, Golda Meir, the future prime minister of Israel, took up residence in the Metropol as that nation’s first ever minister plenipotentiary (ambassador) to the Soviet Union.

By the 1950s, with the Cold War beginning to heat up, Stalin welcomed the recently established People’s Republic of China into the communist camp. A reception attended by both Stalin and Mao Zedong was held in the Metropol’s aptly named Red Hall to celebrate the signing of the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance in early 1950.

Does the Hotel Metropol of A Gentleman in Moscow still exist?

Following Stalin’s death in 1953 and the onset of the ‘Khrushchev Thaw’, the Metropol settled into a more sedentary existence. Its renown meant that it continued to serve as the place to stay in Moscow for visiting foreign notables, including the movie star Marlene Dietrich, in the 1960s.

During the late 1980s, the Metropol underwent extensive restoration while the Soviet Union embarked on an experiment of systemic political and economic reforms – perestroika and glasnost – launched by Mikhail Gorbachev. In 1991, the work on the hotel was completed just as the USSR fell apart and ceased to exist.


Yet today the Metropol continues to welcome guests, and trades in its rich and astonishing legacy.


Danny BirdStaff Writer, BBC History Magazine

Danny Bird is the Staff Writer at BBC History Magazine. Danny Bird is the Staff Writer at BBC History Magazine and previously held the same role on BBC History Revealed. He joined the brand in 2022. Fascinated with the past since childhood, Danny completed his History BA at the University of Sheffield, developing a special interest in the Spanish Civil War and the Paris Commune. He subsequently gained his History MA from University College London, studying at its School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES)