The Black Russian by Vladimir Alexandrov

Several years ago, when one still did such things, I went to a guest lecture in my department by Vladimir Alexandrov, a Slavic professor at Yale (now retired). Prof. Alexandrov was giving lots of talks at that time on the new book he had written: The Black Russian (Grove Press, 2013). The book, which has since won awards and been translated into several languages including Russian, was a biography of one Frederick Bruce Thomas – Alexandrov refers to him as Frederick throughout – whose life followed an absolutely astounding trajectory: born the son of freed slaves in Coahoma County, Mississippi, he made his fortune in the entertainment business in turn-of-the-century Moscow (and again in Constantinople, after the 1917 Revolution forced him to leave). Although hugely famous in Moscow, he was forgotten after he died. As Prof. Alexandrov explained, he discovered Frederick through a passing reference in the memoir by Alexander Vertinsky, who knew him in Moscow and Constantinople, which so fascinated Alexandrov that he set out to learn everything he could about who this Black American Moscow resident was (Alexandrov spent years researching the book, including going through archival documents and court and government records, as well as tracking down and interviewing Frederick’s grandson in France). The lecture was riveting in a way that sticks with you long after it’s over; you can get a taste by listening to Alexandrov’s recent interview on Sean Guillory’s SRB Podcast. Even though I don’t often read biographies, I immediately ordered the book, and then couldn’t put it down and raved about it to anyone who would listen.

It’s an incredible story from start to finish, told in highly engaging, fast-moving prose. Frederick’s parents were former slaves who became prosperous farm owners in post-Civil War Mississippi. His mother died when he was young, and his father remarried; when a white landowner attempted to cheat the couple out of the farm, they took him to court, where they proceeded to win. The case did get dragged out after that, and a horrific death befell the family. By that point, the Thomases had left Mississippi, which Alexandrov notes “was becoming the ‘lynchingest’ state,” and eighteen-year-old Frederick soon set out on his own on a journey that literally lasted a lifetime.

At first, his travels took him out of the South to major American cities, including Chicago and New York, where he worked as a waiter and a hotel bellboy, and then, because he wanted to become a singer, to Europe. The singing career never materialized, but he did well by working in hotels and restaurants in several West European cities, with Paris being a particular favorite. Moving to Western Europe to escape the Jim Crow-dominated U.S. was not unheard of among Black Americans. But then Frederick did something very few Americans of any background did at the time: in 1899, he moved to Russia. While it sounds unbelievable given the levels of racism there today, early twentieth-century Moscow was where Frederick Bruce Thomas – or rather, “Fyodor Fyodorovich Tomas,” as he renamed himself – came into his own.

As Alexandrov writes, Moscow was a very multicultural city, with many inhabitants from the Caucasus and Central Asia. This made it a comfortable place for Frederick despite his being in a tiny minority: “During Frederick’s years in the city, there were probably no more than a dozen other permanent black residents amid a population of well over a million. But because the parade of humanity on the city’s streets was so varied, Frederick did not stand out nearly as much as his actual rarity might have led one to expect.” It was in Moscow that Frederick achieved what would seem unimaginable for a child of former slaves from Mississippi: gradually working his way up, he became the owner of one and then another “entertainment garden,” amassing a fortune and becoming one of the city’s leading entrepreneurs. His establishments, Aquarium and Maxim, catered to an upper-crust native and foreign clientele, who watched often risque performances while enjoying expensive food and drink in lavish surroundings. Given the nature of many of the acts, the atmosphere in these places was rather non-family-friendly, with female performers being expected to offer themselves as tableside companions to the male patrons whenever the latter requested it. To be sure, there is no suggestion that there was any rape or sexual assault in these venues; moreover, Alexandrov points out that, unlike other bosses, Frederick went out of his way to protect his female employees. Yet my one criticism of the book is that Alexandrov stops short of admitting that Frederick, like the other male entertainment entrepreneurs, was complicit in that he made his fortune by literally instrumentalizing women’s bodies for male pleasure.

Part of what makes this book so rich is Alexandrov’s deft weaving in the broader historical background with Frederick’s biography, understandable given that the outcome of Frederick’s life was directly affected by the turbulence of the times. After the Bolshevik takeover, as a wealthy business owner, he was forced to flee Moscow with his wife and some of his children (his third wife, previously his mistress; he had an eventful personal life). They first went to their villa in Odessa, which was under Allied control, but as Alexandrov describes in what has to be one of the most gripping prologues ever, they then had to escape to Constantinople along with thousands of others as the Bolsheviks closed in. Amid the wrenching misery and poverty of displaced Russians in Constantinople, Frederick once again showed his singularity and ability to persevere in dire circumstances. He opened up Western-style entertainment venues in a Muslim city, often employing Russian formerly upper-class women as waitresses (despite not being particularly invested in the Russian upper classes, I found the discussion of their very genuine plight extremely affecting).

In the end, external forces shattered Frederick. In 1923, Turkish nationalists overthrew the old regime and made it extremely difficult for foreigners to do business; he also faced stiff competition from another entertainment venue. Frederick attempted to reapply for his American passport so he could potentially get himself and his family out of Constantinople. As a Black man from the South, he knew first-hand to what conditions he would be subjecting himself and his children were he to go back to the U.S., where his marriage to a white woman would moreover be considered illegal, which shows how desperate his situation was. His attempts, however, came to nothing; while some American diplomats tried to help him, the racism of other embassy personnel sabotaged the application (as bad as this was, it would have been even worse had anyone discovered – which Alexandrov says no one had until he himself did in the course of his research – that Frederick renounced his American citizenship in Moscow in favor of a Russian one, which is unique indeed). Ultimately, he went bankrupt, was arrested for nonpayment of debts, and died in prison in 1928.

But he lives – extravagantly, sometimes not totally decently, always resiliently against extreme adversity – in the pages of The Black Russian. He has been rescued from oblivion by a writer who said during his lecture that he was given a native son’s welcome by the community in Frederick’s birthplace, whom this book put on the map. In the Epilogue, Alexandrov brings the story up to the present by describing the fates, at least to the extent that this information is available, of Frederick’s children; while most of their stories are tragic, in some sense, the book resurrects them, too. With many in the United States currently engaged in a long-overdue conversation about systemic racism, one of the things happening is the various attempts to center Black voices and experiences and to bring to the fore histories that should be much more widely known. Perhaps this book contributes to that by telling the story of Frederick Bruce Thomas’s, aka Fyodor Fyodorovich Tomas’s, remarkable and unexpected life.

Buy this book in English and in Russian.

7 thoughts on “The Black Russian by Vladimir Alexandrov

  1. This has immediately gone on to the TBR list; I was just wondering the other day what kind of books are available about Black people’s experiences of living in Russia and your wonderful write-up is much appreciated.

    Liked by 2 people

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