‘A Gentleman in Moscow:’ Ewan McGregor Takes Viewers to Post-Revolution Moscow

L-R Bjorn Hlynur Haraldsson as Emile, John Heffernan as The Bishop, Leah Harvey as Mariana, Anastasia Hille as Olga, Daniel Cerqueira as Vasily, Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Anna Urbanova, Ewan McGregor as Count Rostov, Alexa Goodall as Nina, Lyes Salem as Andrey, Johnny Harris as Osip, Fehinti Balogun as Mishka in a Gentleman in Moscow, streaming on Paramount+ 2024.
Photo Credit: Jason Bell/Paramount+ With Showtime

The very accurate motif behind this Soviet-era drama, based on the bestselling novel by Amor Towles, can be summarized in one line of narration from Episode 5: “Russia’s people starved and the revolution devoured its children.” To most, it’s a history lesson perhaps over-told. But to those living through the Russian Revolution of the early 20th century and the many years of Stalin dictatorship that would follow, it was news, and often took a very long time to learn, and sometimes was never learned. What A Gentleman in Moscow does a great job of illustrating is how it felt to be living through such an unstable, horrifying time in history. All without ever leaving the Hotel Metropol! Kudos to Amor Towles, and the series showrunners on that one.

Ewan McGregor as Count Rostov in A Gentleman in Moscow, streaming on Paramount+ 2024.

Jason Bell/Paramount+ With Showtime

Probably because I am an immigrant from the USSR, my favorite part of this show is the setting, and the setting is also what sets it apart from other historical dramas; it’s an uncommon location and time period, and it is filmed beautifully and carefully, without making one feel as claustrophobic as the former aristocrat Alexander Rostov, played by Ewan McGregor (and a very on-point Russian mustache), must have felt being imprisoned in a hotel after the revolution. It’s certainly better than getting sent to a Gulag, but a prison is a prison nonetheless — one of the many underlying themes of the show.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Anna in A Gentleman in Moscow episode 2, streaming on Paramount+ 2024.

Ben Blackall/Paramount+ With Showtime

The main idea, in my view, is how to not lose yourself despite being pushed into the worst circumstances possible (a very Russian theme as well, and one that was well covered in classic literature, probably because so many Russian authors were also imprisoned). Rostov does a great job of staying positive and sticking to his morals throughout many hardships, the most frustrating of which is being unable to ever leave Hotel Metropol. And he even gets to experience some romance with a famous actress, played by McGregor’s real-life wife, Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Good for him.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MARCH 12: Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Ewan McGregor attend the "A Gentleman In Moscow" New York Premiere at Museum of Modern Art on March 12, 2024 in New York City.

(Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images)

As times go from bad to worse to bad and worse again, Rostov struggles to remain who he is without his estate and status while experiencing one of the worst periods in human history. Raised to be a gentleman, Rostov begins the show still hanging on to his aristocratic ways and overly attached to his belongings. As time progresses, however, he becomes an integral part of the hotel staff and develops friendships with many of the people who work and stay there. Adapting is necessary to survival, and Darwin is even referenced in a conversation between Rostov and his favorite hotel resident Nina (played by multiple actresses as she ages), a core relationship at the heart of the series. (Lots of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky references too, for us bookworms.) The music selection for the series, classical songs such as Beethoven’s “Für Elise” and several Chopin and Rachmaninov tunes that would have been popular at the time and were still played often in my house growing up, is also perfect, and adds to making the atmosphere authentic.

A Gentlemen In Moscow


The one thing that did not feel authentic to me about the setting was the overly multicultural cast. It does not seem historically accurate to me for 1920s and ’30s Moscow, which was predominantly, if not entirely, white, other than a very small number of students from Africa who came to study in Russian universities. Having been back to Ukraine as recently as 2018, that would not even be an accurate current representation of what that area of the world looks like. I’m not saying that there were no Black people in the USSR (although that is exactly what my family members have said); just that they did not exist in large numbers. If you were to judge the ethnic makeup of post-Revolution Russia based on this show, it would seem like 30-40% of the population is not white. The only recent stat on Afro-Russians I could find estimated about 30,000 of them in 2013 (and not entirely sure on the accuracy of this, as the information is very hard to find), in a population of 143+ million. That amounts to 0.0002% of the 2013 population, and would have been far less in 1923 or 1933. It doesn’t make or break the show, but it took me out of the setting a bit, because my entire family is from the USSR and that runs contrary to what they’ve said about the ethnic makeup of my home country. Plus, everything else about the setting is so carefully and meticulously drawn that I just found it odd.

Aerial view of the Moscow Kremlin landmarks: St. Basil's Cathedral, Kremlin, Spasskaya Tower and Red Square

Courtesy of Getty

For me, the USSR has never just been an interesting historical lesson (though it is indeed that); despite living in America for most of my life, the USSR is my home, and even though my home is a place that no longer exists, the pull to it can feel just the same. I’ll watch just about anything set in Russia or its neighboring countries. It’s a setting that brings me back to my childhood, proof that one can be nostalgic about anything, even violent dictatorships. I was five when we left, so I only have good memories of living in a tiny, ramshackle apartment with six other people. Multi-generational cohabitation is great for children — not so great for adults forced to share a bathroom with their in-laws. But what this show makes clear, just as my childhood in Soviet Ukraine, is that there is beauty even in ugliness; Rostov is never allowed to leave Hotel Metropol, but the hotel is exquisite, and so is the view of Moscow from the roof, and so are the relationships he makes there, and he always remains grateful and makes an effort to hold onto these things at a time where many people might just crumble in despair.

L-R Ewan McGregor as Count Rostov, Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Anna Urbanova and Jason Forbes as Alexei Nachevko In a Gentleman in Moscow episode 4, streaming on Paramount+ 2024.

Ben Blackall/Paramount+ With Showtime

So, in the end, the show is really about humanity’s ability to find hope in the darkest of times; and that is a relatable theme no matter what era you live in or where you live. It’s also a lesson in having perspective, which is a common result of a good story well-told; modern first-world problems pale in comparison to the stressful existence of a man stuck in a country where he will never be allowed freedom, even if he were to get out of the hotel, and that’s if he’s allowed to live. The shadow of death hovers over Rostov and his loved ones constantly, as it did with anyone who lived in the Soviet Union. The growing, near-constant anxiety and eventual understanding that one must leave such an oppressive place, even if it’s home and there are things to be loved about it, is what rings the most true of the setting here; my parents went through the exact same thing, but in the 1980s. A difficult decision to make, and even more difficult to follow through on, but that is what this kind of story is about: making difficult decisions.

If anything, watch it for the visual feast it is! If I was to be imprisoned somewhere, that hotel would be my first choice.

A Gentleman in Moscow is available to stream on Paramount+ starting March 29, or watch on Showtime starting March 31.


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