Thomas Barrett (1960-2016)
Christine Adams and Willard Sunderland, December 2016
Historian of Russia and World History
The door to the office of Thomas Barrett, accomplished professor of Russian and world history at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, was covered with numerous wry cartoons and sketches that he’d received as gifts from students over the years, including two mini-masterpieces of Tom-as-Ivan-the-Terrible and Tom-as-Yoda. These small mementoes speak to the enormous affection students felt for Tom, which was all the more visible in the many letters they sent once they learned he was ill. Tom touched thousands of undergraduates over the course of his career, inspiring them with his love of history and Russian culture, and he left them—and us—far too soon.
Tom Barrett died of multiple myeloma on May 3, 2016, at the age of 55, leaving behind his wife Liisa Franzén, son Janoš, and daughter Marja-Helena. Born on September 8, 1960, Tom received his BS in commerce in 1982 from the University of Virginia and his PhD in Russian history in May 1997 from Georgetown University, where he studied under the influential historian Richard Stites. Tom then went on to spend his academic career at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, where he debuted as a visiting assistant professor in 1995, was promoted to associate professor in 2002, and finally became full professor in 2009.
Tom’s research interests ranged widely across Russian history, from the tsarist era to late Soviet times. They touched on multiple topics, including the history of Russian frontiers, Cold War popular culture in the USSR, and impressions of Russia and eastern Europe in US art and mass entertainment in the 19th century, including the American fascination with operas and musicals with Russian or eastern European themes. Partly due to his graduate training under Stites as well as his own unassuming and restless nature, Tom was drawn to the history of popular experiences—the gritty, earthy, pungent, and sometimes volatile ways in which ordinary people made sense of their world.
Even in the early 1990s, the history of Russian culture was still studied largely as a story of great minds and refined salons, usually in the capitals. Tom decidedly broke with this tradition, insisting on studying culture in everyday places. Most dramatically, these places were distant frontiers where one found multiple currents of culture, “high” and “low,” Russian and non-Russian, mixing together to create hybrid forms. His dissertation, revised and published as At the Edge of Empire: The Terek Cossacks and the North Caucasus Frontier, 1700–1860 (Westview Press, 1999), was a masterpiece in this regard. Appearing simultaneously with a significant turn toward reexamining the tsarist empire as a cultural terrain, the book quickly became a statement of the “new imperial history” that has since grown into one of the most significant fields of Russian historical scholarship.
Tom’s insights and influence as a publishing historian constitute a significant legacy, but he was also a generous and committed colleague who was widely admired for great passion and integrity. Along with his professional interest in Russian history and culture, he loved jazz, science fiction, film noir, and the Chicago Cubs. His research interests were eclectic; in addition to his seminal publications on the Caucasus and views of Russia in US popular culture, he also published on Cold War science fiction writer Murray Leinster (nom de plume of William Fitzgerald Jenkins) and characters in James Bond novels. While he taught standard courses in Russian history to enthusiastic students, his wide-ranging interests allowed him to offer a smorgasbord of other popular classes, including The Frontier in World History; Westerns: Popular Culture and National Mythologies; History of Silent Cinema; Cold War Culture; First Contact: Soviet and American Science Fiction during the Cold War; and Mass Culture and the Creation of Modernity.
Tom’s death is an enormous loss to the St. Mary’s history department and to the colleagues and friends who loved him dearly. We will miss sharing zakuski and vodka shots with him and Liisa, as well as his inspiring devotion to his students, his colleagues, and the historical profession.
Christine Adams, St. Mary’s College of Maryland
Willard Sunderland, University of Cincinnati
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