War and Peace, a tale of class warfare

I had a Russian teacher once who didn’t much like me.  In her defense, I did not attend class with particular regularity.  In my defense, this was because she had committed two terrible indiscretions, the second being worse than the first:  she had a class favorite, and it wasn’t me.

Instead of witnessing such wrong-headedness, I took to lolling about in the park with my friends.  But come the final exam, I made sure to attend.  I am nothing if not a model of propriety.

It was an oral exam, and it was worth the bulk of our grade. 

“Ruth,” she said, “as you may have heard, we read War and Peace in class.”  I had not heard this.  To have heard this would have required me to associate with my classmates.

Instead of answering, I genteelly scraped my jaw off the floor and rearranged my features into a stretched, sub-par variation of “oh, did you not notice me in class?”

All this time she was looking at me from the top of her eyes, and I was steadily smiling back.  Maybe overly widely.  Never show fear, shock or complete consternation to the enemy.

“Ruth,” she said, “please tell me about Prince Andrei and Natasha.”

I nodded.  Like many a Russophile, after all, I HAD read the damn book, or at least the Peace part of it.  But in English, my friends.  Not in Russian.  Not after but three months of the language!  I could not FATHOM how the class had done it.  But fake it, I would. 

And so, with a polite cough, I passionately brought Tolstoy down a notch, to my simpleton’s grasp of Russian.

Once upon a time, there was a Frenchman called Napoleon.  Napoleon did not like Russia.  No!  Napoleon told himself, Russia must—suffer!  Russia—bad!  (This is Napoleon, not I.  I like Russia.  But Napoleon—No!)

Napoleon with many Frenchmen came to Russia, and then Napoleon—with pistols!  Bad!  Very bad!  Many pistols!  More than before!  The Russian people—sad!  War!  Many men come in to war!

Prince Andrei also.  But Prince Andrei loves Natasha!  Natasha additionally loves Prince Andrei’s!  They have met each other to dance in a nice place.  She is beautiful.  He is—there!  They dance!  And they love each other.

Then Prince Andrei asks Natasha to—live with him forever!  Natasha agrees!  Prince Andrei is in the war!  It is bad!  Natasha is at home.  France is bad!  Napoleon!  War!  Pistols!

Suddenly, Prince Andrei is—A gun!  No!  Pain!  In his body!  Prince Andrei—it is very sad!  Prince Andrei’s soul!—leaves him!  Forever!

It is very sad.  There, that is the anecdote of Prince Andrei and Natasha in War and Peace.  Thank you.

She looks at me.  I’m sweating and congratulating myself on my genius.  It is incidentally the first time I truly realize how flexible one becomes with a new language when one doesn’t have a full vocabulary.  And that one should always know the verb for dying.

“Ruth,” she says, in English now, “we only read one scene.  When they met, at the ball.  Not the whole book.” 

“Ah,” I say, growing hotter.

“What am I going to do with you?”

Ah, this is great.  I hadn’t realized I would get a vote here.  I am very good at advice.  I lean forward.  “If I were you, I would either fail me or give me an A+.”  I nod.  “I would lean toward the A+.”

She dismisses me.  I don’t get a chance to explain why I would give myself the A+.

My grade comes in two weeks later.  She’s had the audacity to give me a B+.  I fume.  I would have preferred a stronger statement, one way or another.  But I guess this is what she did, nick the pleasure from a high grade, showing ultimately the point is knowledge but also respect.

Years later we met again and I can say I was still not her class favorite.  And once again hers became the only Russian class I ever skipped.

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About sputnitsa

Born in the US, I grew up in Africa and the West Indies, and returned stateside in my teens. After a decade in international development, democracy work, and inclusivity training for domestic NGOs, I joined Peace Corps, and after a year, experienced my first Russian invasion. I followed that up by volunteering with refugees and youth, and after some vacation time climbing minarets and mountains, I returned to New York City, where today I work on social justice with college students, produce short films, and write.
This entry was posted in accuracy, books, communication, foreign languages, language, languages, life and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to War and Peace, a tale of class warfare

  1. J says:

    Brilliant. 🙂

  2. ralfast says:

    I think you outwitted yourself, Sput.

    • sputnitsa says:

      🙂 I wonder if the teacher remembers this… If somewhere out there there’s a blog entitled “the most audacious student I ever had, or how low Tolstoy can go” 🙂

      (note how I insist the word is “audacious” and not “moronic.” this is because my grasp of english allows me that flexibility. it occurs to me i do not know those words in Russian, however. where oh where is my Russian dictionary these days??) 🙂

  3. Beth says:

    Hehe. That’s great!

  4. That’s great Sput!

    What did happen that time you ran into her again?

    • sputnitsa says:

      Either I smelled like a dead fish, or else she was not thrilled to see Moscow had permitted me to visit. 🙂 We both set about agilely avoiding one another.

      I suspect that her disapproval of me was exacerbated by my close friendship with one of her favourite students. 🙂 She began to look at me not only with displeasure but also with a sort of horrified curiosity. I felt the question “WHY?” was constantly hovering in the air above me.

      I can’t recall if I thoughtfully avoided her classes or if she kindly assigned me to any class but hers. So all worked out in the end. 🙂

  5. LilliCray says:

    Oh… oh, wow… Man! I forgot how awesome it is to laugh out loud.

    Man, three months of Russian, and you could do all THAT? I’m impressed. Majorly, majorly impressed. Wish I could do the same in Japanese. With kanji. And full sentences. Ha! Wishful thinking.

    Does Russian share some of the same roots as English? I know the whole no-relation-to-native-language thing makes Japanese learning slower than, say, Spanish or French, but I’m not sure where Russian falls. I love the sound of Russian. It’s so pretty.

    And thanks so much for the LOLs. Laughing is definitely the best medicine. 😀

    • sputnitsa says:

      🙂 🙂 Thanks Lilli! 🙂

      There are some cognates, and Russian is an Indo-European language, but it’s Slavic and so shares only a few noticeable roots. The Russian nobility’s love of French in by-gone days means that there are some French-origin words in the language too. But overall, yep, it’s an entirely different language group.

      One = odin
      Ten= deciat
      Day = dyen
      Night = noch’
      Suddenly = vdrug, or vnezapno
      Always=vsegda
      Spy=shpion (I suspect both come from French tho I’m not sure)
      Intelligence (of the spy sort)=razvedka
      Wisdom (of the intelligence sort)=razumnost (if memory serves :))

      🙂 So you study Japanese, huh? Now THAT must be hard!!! 🙂 I think I read somewhere that it takes Japanese kids an extra year to learn their language, so I can only imagine how hard it is for a foreigner to learn it!! 🙂

  6. ralfast says:

    Hey sput, where are you? Haven’t heard from you in awhile, hope everything is OK.

    🙂

    • sputnitsa says:

      Oy, you are too right, you are too right. I must get my blogging act together. 🙂 And get internet at home so it’s easier to just surf and blog every time the desire hits!!

      Thanks for the nudge, Ralfast! 🙂

      • ralfast says:

        Yeah, I know what you mean. I switching providers right now and it looks like I’ll be without Internet for awhile, maybe the whole of next week, which sucks!

        Glad everything’s okay!

        • sputnitsa says:

          🙂 Thank you, seriously 🙂 And I hope the week FLIES by, if a week it must be.

          See, I took your nudge and posted! 🙂 I know, of course, your nudge was from concern, which was kind. But I have been so remiss!!!! 🙂 May you not fall as far behind as I did! 🙂

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