Give ‘War and Peace’ a chance

By Elizabeth Wilkerson ( MA, English '86)

Photo by Jack Mellott.

When you’re looking for a good read, taking on a Russian novel might not be your first choice. With page counts often approaching the four-figure mark and sometimes exceeding it, a cast of characters longer than your teenager’s IM buddy list and those triple, multisyllabic names, the Russian novel can be intimidating if not overwhelming.

Andy Kaufman wants you to give it a go anyhow. Russian writers, he says, have a wonderful way of communicating the extraordinariness of everyday life.

Kaufman, who is in his second year as a lecturer in Slavic at U.Va., admits that he was “terrified” of “War and Peace,” Tolstoy’s epic. Forced to read it for a college assignment, however, he found it to be “sensual and honest — everyday experience with something magical added.”

His newfound passion took him to Russia for a year when he was a junior in college, to study at Moscow State University. “I met a woman who became my mentor,” he recalls. In a six-hour-a-week tutorial, she took him through the Russian classics. “She showed me it was possible to be an academic and still have a personal connection with your students and your material.”

Kaufman went on to earn a Ph.D. in Slavic languages and literatures at Stanford, but he didn’t go into academia right away. He worked for five years as an actor, and, while he was working in communications for a Linux start-up company, he appeared on Talk America Radio to share the inside scoop about Silicon Valley.

But his talk gradually turned to Russian literature and his experiences in other countries. His zeal for popularizing literature was born.

The impulse, he says, is similar to Leo Tolstoy’s. “Tolstoy was a social idealist. He wanted his books to be read by everybody, not just a select few. He even set up a school for peasants on his estate.”

Kaufman was wondering how to combine his love of Russian literature with his actor’s training when he heard that Oprah Winfrey’s next featured book would be “Anna Karenina.”

He wrote a passionate letter to the show, to no avail. But through one of those friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend connections, he got a call from a producer. Go to the Oprah’s Book Club Web site, and you can still hear his pronunciation of the Russian names and other commentary on the novel. On Dec. 6, you can hear him on Pacifica Radio, joining the likes of Alec Baldwin and Count Nikolai Tolstoy in a recorded reading of “War and Peace.”

Kaufman brings his theater background into the classroom as well. Last year he had the drama department’s Acting Out troupe perform scenes from Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard,” “Three Sisters,” “Uncle Vanya” and “The Seagull,” then had his students re-direct the scenes themselves. This fall his advanced Russian class is reading and performing Gogol’s “The Inspector General” in Russian.

It’s the philosophical depth and moral seriousness of Russian literature that appealed to him. “Russian writers never wrote just to entertain or create great stories. They wrote to tell about life and to create characters who went through major spiritual struggles.”

Kaufman has published in scholarly journals — “Existential Quest and Artistic Possibilities in Tolstoy’s ‘The Cossacks’” in the Slavonic and East European Review, for example.

But his current project, with his Stanford University mentor, continues his efforts to bring the language and culture he loves to the masses: “Russian for Dummies.” The book is scheduled to be published in the spring.