On the first day of class, one of several with Professor Barabtarlo, he announced that we must read each book twice: The Defense, Master and Margarita, Doctor Zhivago, The First Circle. Once in order to get the gist of the matter, a second time to truly appreciate the artistry. If this would not be feasible for any of us, then it would be perfectly all right to not continue further in the course. One student seated in the back row politely excused himself. And we proceeded.
Professor Barabtarlo was not my first Russian instructor, but he was certainly the most demanding. He expected and modeled excellence in his scholarship. Reading a book with him was like resurrecting a dead object (with him doing most of the heavy lifting!), seeing the wonder and power of a literary text burst forth. Every time I now reread Nabokov, our conversations will thankfully continue to be brought to life again, too.
His generosity took many forms. Ahead of one particular semester when I had few remaining options for Russian coursework, I asked whether he would be willing to supervise an independent study on Nabokov. What this request became was much larger and drew in more acolytes: an entire course on Nabokov’s English-language fiction—a supplement to his standard class on the Russian texts. Again, I had to read and reread and rereread that summer. Then, in August, we dove in. The doublings in Sebastian Knight. The squirrels of Pnin. The false-bottoms of Pale Fire. It wasn’t only that his lectures and our discussions explained the difficulties of Nabokov’s prose. Rather, my world shifted. Something changed. Reading Nabokov with Professor Barabtarlo meant learning how to read anew.
From there, he invited me to take his third-year translation course, as well as Old Church Slavonic, before I was close to being ready for those particular trials. It felt like giving myself over to the Russian language when I wasn’t quite steady on my feet. At the time, it was hell, but in hindsight I’m incredibly grateful. I had a kind guide along the way, who saw how I could be pushed to improve and to take risks.
The guidance continued. Gennady Alexandrovich was the first to suggest I continue my studies in graduate school, and in the application process, he was a dedicated advocate. Always willing to take a phone call to discuss problems, both good and bad, he could be trusted to offer candid advice, the sort that doesn’t instantly resolve things, but that puts things in perspective.
Over time, my interests changed. What would Gennady Alexandrovich think? Nabokov would no longer be my primary scholarly focus, and in a way, it felt like a betrayal—at least to me. Perhaps it was, and he had a special way of demolishing writers with just a few words (Pelevin and Kharms and his OBERIU compatriots found no quarter). He made his opinion known, and that was all, really: it must be said for posterity’s sake. From there, though, he could offer more of his solid advice, improving any project with his erudition.
I’ll remember most vividly running into him at a conference—that odd, constantly ever-changing meeting point of all former professors and former students—not long after graduating, calling out to him from behind, and seeing his smile behind his trademark beard expand as he turned around. A simple encounter, but one that lingers. It would be repeated several times over.
Gene was full of surprises.
It was only recently that I learned two fascinating things about him. First, that he had some connections to the SMOG group of the 1960s and, second, that he appreciated the TV show Lost. The former I discovered while working through—of all people!—Sasha Sokolov’s archive in Santa Barbara last summer. We briefly corresponded about it, but we never did manage to work through the details. As for Lost, it felt so strange to see my favorite show referenced in Insomniac Dreams; it somehow seemed unimaginable to think Gene would condescend to polar bears and smoke monsters on a tropical island. And yet, he was drawn to the philosophical and religious questions intertwined with all the action and drama. I wonder what else I could have learned about and from him.
Returning to teach at Mizzou for the 2016-17 academic year, I got to experience “Dr. B” all over again. (I never dared to call him that, fearing being overhead in the hallway.) My students would recount their challenges and discoveries in the classroom. One reported having her grade dropped from an A to C, not because she didn’t submit the assignment or because the translation wasn’t entirely accurate, but because she wasn’t living up to her full potential. Gene, in this way, was an instructor who could expect the best of all of us and raise our abilities in the process — a tough lesson, but one that sticks and one that I’ve carried on myself.
The original grade was later reinstated.
During this time, I saw Gene’s commitment to the Russian Program from a different angle. I had experienced it as a student, but now I saw the kind of quiet, constant passion and thought that he put into everything. Both behind the scenes and front and center, he remained curious about the MA students’ future plans, and he was an eager recruiter. His was an approach equal parts rigorous and humane.
Of course, at moments like these, one struggles to recall and recapture as many memories as one can in an effort to stave off the inevitable. He pets his German Shepherd. A student spills an entire box of candy in a lecture room, they roll down to the front where he is speaking, he looks down, and says, “Oh, thank you!” without any malice, simply wry humor. He suggests that carrying a wooden log from his car to Strickland Hall for a play my students are staging will make him look “faux Russian.” He reads his poems at the annual bliny night. He watches with love and pride as Alla presents a paper on a medieval manuscript. He must drive home to pick up the fish (salmon?) that was delivered to his door. He expounds upon Tarkovsky and icons. He entrusts me with a copy of his translation of The Original of Laura to take to Moscow. He uses slides and a projector to introduce writers in class. He prepares his personal miniature lectern before speaking. He was a professor, a mentor, and, all too briefly, a colleague; he remains a model of utmost integrity and loyalty. He smiles softly once more as we shake hands and part at another conference, the last one we will share.