My Russian

On a snowy night near Tolstoy's house, a tongue-tied American tries to summon the courage to converse.

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    Leo Tolstoy’s desk at the Tolstoy house and museum, Yasnaya Polyana, Russia.
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Scene: Dead of winter, present day; Yasnaya Polyana, Russia; the hotel beside Leo Tolstoy's estate.

Characters: the author, a middle-aged American obsessed with Russian literature; a van-driving Russian; a slew of Russian actors.

I was exhausted by travel and dispirited by a tongue-tied showing at my Russian lesson with Yuliya that morning; my deep shyness had kicked in and I wanted to escape into sleep but couldn't. From my fourth-floor hotel windows, I couldn't help noticing that floodlights had lit up the surrounding snowbanked trees and outbuildings as bright as day. There were work vans parked helter-skelter and men carrying ladders; I heard several ringing imperious voices.

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I got dressed and walked down the dark hallway toward the staircase and elevators. Across from the alcove, out of the conference room bounded a young woman with a springy step and a blossoming dress. After her came a young man in a gray officer's coat and long cloak, peaked cap, and black boots.

I greeted them in the automatic Russian hello: "Zdravstvuite!"

They nodded, the man replied something, and they disappeared down the hallway into rooms opposite each other. From within the conference room I heard women's voices and rustling clothes and the shuffling of shoes and boots. I peeked in: racks of clothes – dresses, coats, uniforms.

Puzzled, I backed away and took the stairs.

Most of us love those movies where characters walk from one room into another and find themselves in an earlier era. In the lobby were a couple of dozen billowy-bloused peasants, pink-cheeked soldiers, nurses in gray capes, and goateed doctors sitting and standing around. Through the lobby's glass doors I could see several costumed roustabouts smoking cigarettes on the front steps. It was snowing.

Sixty-some years ago, during World War II, the German Army got as far as Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy's estate, which had become a state museum. They occupied the estate, just up the hill from here, and when they left, the story goes, they set the house on fire. The villagers hurried in and extinguished the fire, saving the house where Tolstoy had lived most of his life.

I wondered if these actors were going to reenact that or if these grounds were serving as a backdrop to something else. I gazed at them for a few moments. If anyone glanced my way they didn't glance long: a tall, middle-aged man in jeans, winter boots, and plaid shirt, holding a book – obviously a foreigner.

A noncostumed van driver walked in, and many turned toward him and seemed pleased by the snowfall on his cap and the shoulders of his heavy coat. They breathed him in in the way I take in the aroma of someone coming in from the barbecue grill.

A good traveler, a traveler who travels to lose some of his self-consciousness, would have approached the actors. Why not? Everybody was biding his or her time, quietly conversing or contentedly silent; no one had cellphones to pore over. Would any of those actors have turned away if I had gone up and asked: "What kind of movie are you making?" I could say that in Russian. I could easily say (because I'd been practicing): "By the way, I'm an American who loves Tolstoy. Five years ago, on my first trip to Russia, I accompanied my actor-friend Daniel, who was making a commercial in St. Petersburg. By the way, I teach English in Brooklyn." I had many "by the ways" in store.

Instead, crushed by an excruciating fear of incompetence, I sank into my boots and tramped away to the hotel's poky restaurant. The woman who had served me bread and jam that morning was leaning on the counter watching TV.

"All day!" I managed in Russian.

"Yes, and back tomorrow morning!" she said.

I asked for a bag of chips and something to drink, sat down with my book, and pulled out my journal from my pocket. I didn't talk to the three young, attractive people – the stars of the movie, I figured – who now came in, but when the van driver came in and nodded, I nodded back. He came over and, shaking his head with disgust at the trio near the counter, started complaining. The weary language of complaint needs little translation.

"The actors ... the director ... the lights ... the snow ... the van ... its tires! Its tires!"

Dina, my tutor back home, had taught me how to hang in there during such "conversations" and catch the important words. The complaining tone said the rest. I did OK for a while until, after I had muttered agreement at the wrong moment, it dawned on him that I, as a sounding board, was about as perceptive as his family dog. "You understand nothing!" he said. He turned away in disgust and strode out.

The next morning, feeling for some reason now that I had nothing to lose (I did understand something!), I started talking again. I babbled away at Yuliya, at an impatient cafe waitress down the road, and to the museum guides at the Tolstoy estate. They listened, responded, and corrected me.

When I returned that afternoon through the snow to the hotel, the actors were on the front steps, packed up and in civilian dress and waiting to get into three vans.

My last chance!

I strode right up and – he who hesitates is lost! – sidled past them, still not quite over my stage fright.

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