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Thursday, Nov 27, 2014
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Jackson: American dreamer is a high-energy Russian

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LAND O’ LAKES Gleb Barkovskiy’s recent lineage reads like characters from a 1980s Tom Clancy novel. His father captained a Soviet Union submarine. His father’s father was a Soviet-era admiral.

One was in charge of a warship containing a nuclear reactor. The other oversaw an entire fleet of them. Long out of the intriguing business that gave us Clancy’s “The Hunt for Red October,” the pair, nonetheless, seem to have achieved a fitting genetic miracle, passing to the boy a biological form of internal nuclear propulsion.

In his singular pursuit of The American Dream (So Far), Gleb Barkovskiy, native of St. Petersburg, Russia, and Academy at the Lakes senior, personifies unstoppable.

Now, whether limitless energy explains everything he’s heaped on his plate — or, in his case, scribbled on the whiteboard in his bedroom — or everything on his plate/whiteboard requires limitless energy, is a classic chicken-egg question.

Either way, in three years at Academy, Gleb has distinguished himself, in no particular order, as a scholar/athlete/musician/mentor/romantic. Or, as Paul Hagenau, the school’s director of college counseling, wrote in his letter of recommendation, “a mighty and powerful presence” whose legacy will be an “indelible impression and (a) memorable impact.”

Here as the oldest and last surviving charter member of the 6-year-old “Renaissance Project” (more about which in a moment), Gleb’s bulging binder of achievements seized the enthusiastic attention this winter of Bucknell University in east-central Pennsylvania near Williamsport, the home of Little League Baseball.

Among the last of the two-dozen universities to which he applied — each selected for strong reputations in business and international relations — Bucknell was the first to respond with an offer of a full four-year financial aid package.

Thus did Gleb, 17, attend last week’s gathering of Bucknell alumni at a Wesley Chapel sports pub for the school’s one-and-done showdown with Butler in the NCAA basketball tournament. Now add prognosticator to the lad’s resumé.

“If I do not get a full ride,” he says, “I could not stay in the U.S. My parents have no money. At the end of this school year, I would have been back in St. Petersburg looking at a future that was not so good. This,” he adds pointedly, “was not an option.”

No one familiar with Gleb’s story (so far) doubted his prediction’s fulfillment.

“So many things had to fall into place just to get him here in the first place,” says Eric Wilson, head of the Renaissance Project and stateside guardian for Gleb and three other St. Petersburg teens. “You just refuse to believe this isn’t supposed to happen.”

Briefly, in St. Petersburg scouting candidates to start Renaissance, a Coconut Creek psychologist wound up in the back of the former submarine captain’s taxicab. By the end of the fare, she’d added Gleb to her list. Seven years later, that episode of serendipity seems divinely inspired.

Russians have a word for Gleb’s high-energy adventure: Vozmozhnos, or, strictly defined, “opportunity.”

But as with so many things Russian, the term contains unseen layers and textures.

Vozmozhnos suggests, also, a strong link between striving and reward, between committing yourself utterly to a goal and achieving it.

Although his hometown does not lack for opulence — Google “St. Petersburg, Russia, tourism” sometime — personal wealth is only a rumor, allowing Gleb a full appreciation of the size of the prize he has earned, worth about $250,000.

“That is more,” Gleb says, “than my parents will make in their lifetime.”

Add this remnant of Soviet perversity — the old submarine captain’s monthly pension precisely matches the monthly taxes on their St. Petersburg apartment — and it’s understandable how vozmozhnos is not a word slung liberally around Gleb’s old neighborhood.

“In Russia,” Gleb says, “it is a struggle just to battle through childhood. There’s no energy left to seek opportunity. If opportunity is not right there for the taking, there is no room to believe.”

He returns to that this summer, getting reacquainted with friends and former classmates whom he frets will have gone even deeper into that homegrown cycle of despair fueled by vodka, drugs and all-night clubbing.

“When I am home,” he says, “it is not enough not to say, ‘Yes,’” to temptation. “I must not miss saying, ‘No,’ because you can wind up doing not-smart things you never set out to do. There is too much now to lose.”

In pursuit of The American Dream (So Far), Gleb has scored touchdowns, was named homecoming king, crushed the foreign-student version of the Scholastic Aptitude Test, became proficient on the violin, won a full college scholarship and soon is — let us be clear; we are quoting the source — “taking the hottest girl at Academy to prom.”

“He refreshes my faith in this youthful generation,” says Debbie Pitcairn, Academy’s assistant director of college counseling. “And he reminds me, and others, of the value of the American experience.”

Sometimes, it takes an outsider who just happens to be unstoppable.


tjackson@tampatrib.com

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