biographical sketch of Leo Tolstoy
Posted here (PDF file above) is a handwritten student paper by me, written in Russian, about Leo Tolstoy.
It was written by me for a Russian course at New York University.
The way this came about was as follows.
I was taking a noncredit course in Russian at NYU — I believe it was in 1977. I had enrolled for advanced Russian. I was underqualified to take the course, having so far completed only first year Russian. But, I wanted to be challenged. I had done some extra studying of the language on my own.
I seemed to be the weakest student in the class. Our instructor, a Russian woman who was an adjunct professor, commented after a few classes that I didn’t belong in the class.
I was a Slavophile and a big fan of Tolstoy, among other Russian writers. One evening, our instructor was discussing Tolstoy briefly. She made the suggestion, off the top of her head, that perhaps someone in the class would like to write an essay on Tolstoy.
No one volunteered, so I raised my hand. It was clear that she did not think I should or could do it, but she begrudgingly agreed, by default, to let me.
In the next class session, I read my essay, which was twelve pages long, handwritten on loose leaf paper. (See PDF file, above.)
At the end of my presentation, the instructor said — maintained adamantly — that I must have copied the essay from somewhere.
No, I insisted, I had written it myself. I said to her in Russian,”Я сам написал” (Ya sam napisal), meaning “I wrote it myself.” This was slightly incorrect. The correct Russian is Я написал это сам: Ya [I] napisal [wrote] eto [it] sam [myself]. (Note the Russian word sam, meaning myself. It is a root of the Russian word samizdat, which means self publishing.)
She still didn’t believe me. She said that in the next class I should present the essay again, this time without reading from my written text. I’m sure she thought she had me.
The day of the next class arrived. It was in the evening. I got to NYU about a half an hour early and took a stroll in Washington Square Park. I had not prepared, had not memorized the essay!
I walked in circles around the park for a half an hour or so with the handwritten essay in my hand. I was reading and reciting it to myself. I found that it was not hard to memorize. I think this was because of the fact that I had put such effort into writing it, had slaved over it with an English-Russian dictionary close at hand. I remembered stuff from having drafted it.
After a while, I said to myself: I’ve got it. I can do it.
I went to the class and recited the essay word for word off the top of my head, without reading from my paper.
I think the professor was flabbergasted; certainly, she was surprised.
To be honest, I myself was surprised that I could do it.
I have posted a revised version of my essay, typewritten in Cyrillic characters, on this blog:
Roger W. Smith, “биографический очерк Льва Николаевича Толстого” (Biographical Sketch of Leo Tolstoy)
It can be accessed at
or through the category “Tolstoy”: on this blog.
— Roger W. Smith