Mikhail was a traveler to the last. He wasn’t ever on vacation—or at least, he wasn’t ever only on vacation. He always found a way to create a role, or a job, or a plan. He was traveling to help solve big problems, from the Klamath tribal land in Oregon to Jamaica to Mauritius to Mali—working there on internet accessibility—and back to New York City and Boston, trying to solve the problem of managing medical information here at home, and around the world several times. At the end, Thailand.
He was in Thailand, I think, working on resource management and sustainability, with an eye towards a more equitable future. He was also, I’m sure, swimming and diving every day. He loved to be in the water. (There was a time, when he lived on Roosevelt Island, that Mikhail was scuba diving, alone, in the East River. That’s commitment.) In terms of the specifics of the work in Thailand, I’m not entirely certain I have the description correct. He had set out to improve the world more than once, and none of us would have been surprised if it didn’t come together this time. All the same, none of us would have been too surprised if this, in fact, was it—if he had been at the forefront of something big, seeing further than we had.
I don’t mean to suggest that Mikhail was in any way unreliable. Mikhail did what he said he would do. He was a loyal friend. He was, deep down, unchanging. But still, you were never quite sure you had got him pinned down. Even when you first met him, at that moment of first impressions, all those years ago. Did he really love Aerosmith all that much? Or could that be a pose, partly something to do with growing up outside Boston, like pretending to like the Red Sox, but partly, maybe, something more. Something to do with confounding the expectations of white kids there, in that place, in the early 1980s. Maybe by the time you met him in the valley it had become a fully-inhabited deep cover. But maybe loving something can become a kind of iconoclasm in itself; the thing coming to represent freedom. And Mikhail was free. So Aerosmith: yes. Let’s go with yes. He really loved Aerosmith.
In the moment-to-moment movement of conversation with Mikhail one thought suggested another, and if you could keep up, and stay nimble, you passed the ball back and forth while running ahead together. His demeanor changed when this began to happen, his eyes narrowing and shining at once, the intellect coming to bear. He was wonderfully adept at this: a kind of collaborative thinking, a process of being at play. Like all true play, fundamentally serious; an expression and reflection of life. He was a joy to be around, especially if you could conjure the strength to relax your grip on your own preconceptions, whatever they might be in that moment, and join him in the dance. Perhaps Mikhail’s playfulness, this quality of improvisation, is legible in the larger pattern of his life. Led him to the kinds of work he did, his method in that work, and to his various passions. The movement of a body in water.
Mikhail was impatient with the settled and predictable.
The authorities in Thailand report that Mikhail died of a heart attack. They report little else. The circumstances are either unknown or undisclosed. The island, Koh Tao, has become notorious for the unexplained deaths of tourists and foreigners. Mikhail’s death was in April of last year. Covid lockdowns were just beginning. Travel was impossible. News reached the Deep Springs family only at the beginning of this year. We are all still processing the shock.
Mikhail was without doubt doing what he loved. I hope that we’re correct in thinking that his last work had to do with water as a resource for equity and social justice; there would be poetry in that. But no matter. He was, in any case, doing his work. He was at the ocean. He was at home.
I think of Mikhail walking the fields at Deep Springs, his shoes sodden, squelching, as he moved the lines with laser-guided precision.
Covered in grease and soot after a fight with the Main Building’s boiler.
Or on the way to class, fully inhabiting the Deep Springs drag: head-to-toe in Carhartts and blood, his hair matted with hay, a stack of books under his arm. Wild-eyed with ideas.
Later, he was a connoisseur of various kinds. I think of him sharing music, listening thoughtfully, waiting and watching to see if you heard what he heard. Three or four empty Guinness bottles on the table and—why on earth were we drinking bottled Guinness?—one of the very early Staple Singers recordings, with Pops Staples on lead vocals. His voice, and the nearly ascetic reserve of the instrumentation, cutting through the haze of the late hour, perfect and powerful. (“. . . Ease me down with a Golden Chain.”) Mikhail shaking his head slowly, looking away.
Or picture Mikhail some other night out in Manhattan, listening with the same intensity, his head cocked to the side, as the sommelier describes a bottle of wine, or the waiter a complicated dish. In this look he makes visible something else: a touch—or really, more than a touch—of humorous skepticism.
I think of Mikhail in Jamaica, stopping the car for Jerk Chicken at a roadside shack in the mountains. I think of him in India, showing off the city he always called Bombay, and never ‘Mumbai.’ (He would want you, after you finish reading this, to look up the story of its renaming, its political aims.) His habit of looking beyond the surfaces of things, seeing the hidden scaffolding. Another Bombay example: each evening, young lovers sit together on the city’s beaches, looking out at the Arabian sea, their heads leaning in, almost touching. “Romeos and Juliets,” Mikhail points out; forbidden by their families and the social strictures to see one another at home, in their parents houses, or, really, anywhere else at all. This, delivered with judgment, but also with equanimity and with sympathy.
Later, we will make the long holy pilgrimage through hill stations to the source of the Ganges—more water!—high in the Himalaya.
Mostly, I think of Mikhail talking and thinking, his face alight, his hands in emphatic gesture. He could be a trickster. He delighted not only in the improvisatory collaborative mode of conversation, but also in conversation as a game of hide-and-seek, which was riveting, but also, at times, maddening. It was both a form of control and a freedom. In his very lightest moods, he was an absurdist of the first order.
And finally this, not to be forgotten: while juggling ideas—while doing almost anything, in fact—Mikhail practiced a comic physical repertoire. An actor, asked to characterize it, would describe its basis as ‘Over Indicating.’ Might, perhaps, make reference to the era of the silent-movie greats. The comedy and sophistication of this performance came from Mikhail’s self-awareness and precise control; it could be quite subtle. He expected you to get that joke and to hear the ideas at the same time. He never actually winked, but you would swear he had. There was always that, with Mikhail: the surface, the current below.
He was a great clown, but nobody’s fool.
He was Not To Be Underestimated. He made that clear.
He was also, when it mattered most, willing to brave total honesty. About himself. About this world.
He was adored. Mikhail was here, and we were with him. We saw him.
He is survived by his father and his brother, and his Deep Springs family mourns with them.
— James Gibbs, DS ‘89