Thomas Barrett (1960–2016)
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Thomas Barrett (1960–2016)

On 3 May 2016, our field lost one of its most creative and beloved practitioners. At the young age of 55, Thomas Barrett succumbed to multiple myeloma, leaving behind his wife, Liisa Franzén, and two children. Those who knew him were blessed by that acquaintance. Those who read his work were the beneficiaries of his imagination and curiosity. He was a fine scholar and a iarkaia lichnost´—in the best sense of that term.

With a BS from the University of Virginia in 1982, Barrett later matriculated at Georgetown University for graduate studies and in 1997 completed a PhD thesis on the Terek Cossacks under the guidance of the inimitable Richard Stites. By that time, he was already a visiting instructor at St. Mary’s College in Maryland, where he spent the rest of his career, becoming associate professor in 2002 and full professor in 2009.

Barrett’s work on the Terek Cossacks appeared at a critical moment for Russian and Eurasian history, as the field was experiencing a momentous shift featuring novel investigation of questions relating to empire, non-Russian nationalities, and borderlands—a reorientation eventually labeled “the imperial turn.”1 Indeed, his scholarship was critical to effectuating that shift, and his interventions in the mid- to late 1990s acquired foundational significance. Most important in this regard was his 1999 monograph, At the Edge of Empire, an ingenious ethnographic portrait of Cossack life in the North Caucasus that succeeded brilliantly in decentering our understanding of Russian expansion and empire building.2 By shifting the emphasis from military conflict and the political dimensions of imperial rule to the social, cultural, and economic factors that framed Cossack life and the interactions that bound Cossack communities to their ostensible enemies in the mountains, Barrett provided a compelling corrective to the narrow preoccupation with [End Page 222] division and difference that had undergirded much historical writing on this area. The book was strikingly novel in its attention to the environment, especially deforestation; in its close analysis of the economic dimensions of Cossack life; and in its serious consideration of the importance of women to Cossack society. Closely related to the monograph interpretively, Barrett’s articles on the North Caucasus frontier proved no less influential. This is most immediately obvious in light of the republication—twice!—of his seminal article of 1995, “Lines of Uncertainty,” in both English (in an important volume on new approaches to imperial Russian history) and Russian (in a collection of the best contemporary American historiography on Russia).3 Some of his central findings on the role of women in Cossack history were likewise reproduced in Russian translation.4 Barrett furthermore made a critical contribution to what was arguably the landmark publication of the imperial turn, Russia’s Orient.5 As in his other work, here Barrett insisted on the complexity and ambivalence of Russia’s incorporation of the Caucusus, in this case by focusing on the peddlers and merchants crisscrossing the military frontier and in particular the ways in which goods flowing north from the mountains shaped Cossack communities and their material culture. Those of us who attended the 1994 conference at the University of California, Berkeley, on which Russia’s Orient was based will likely recall the ways in which Barrett’s exchanges with the literary scholar Susan Layton constituted, in effect, a conference within a conference.

Having made this substantial mark on Russian imperial history, in the new millennium Barrett embarked on other investigations, though many of these preserved an organic link with his earlier work. Thus in his innovative article “Cowboys or Indians?” Barrett sought to discern the place of Cossacks in the civilizational hierarchies inscribed in American Wild West shows of [End Page 223] the late 19th century.6 A similar foray into US history appeared in the form of Barrett’s insightful consideration of competing plot lines about Siberia on the 19th-century American stage, which drew on theater archives and the personal papers of George Kennan.7 This scholarship revealed the international dimensions of American (popular) culture in the past and accordingly helped place the United States in a broader comparative framework. Such work was...