The Black Russian

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Overview


The Black Russian is the incredible true story of Frederick Bruce Thomas, born in 1872 to former slaves who became prosperous farmers in Mississippi. After his father was brutally murdered, Frederick left the South and worked as a waiter in Chicago and Brooklyn. Seeking greater freedom, he traveled to London, then crisscrossed Europe, and—in a highly unusual choice for a black American at the time—went to Russia.

Because he found no color line there, Frederick settled in ...

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Overview


The Black Russian is the incredible true story of Frederick Bruce Thomas, born in 1872 to former slaves who became prosperous farmers in Mississippi. After his father was brutally murdered, Frederick left the South and worked as a waiter in Chicago and Brooklyn. Seeking greater freedom, he traveled to London, then crisscrossed Europe, and—in a highly unusual choice for a black American at the time—went to Russia.

Because he found no color line there, Frederick settled in Moscow, becoming a rich and famous owner of variety theaters and restaurants. When the Bolshevik Revolution ruined him, he barely escaped to Constantinople, where he made another fortune by opening celebrated nightclubs as the "Sultan of Jazz." However, the long arm of American racism, the xenophobia of the new Turkish Republic, and Frederick’s own extravagance landed him in debtor’s prison. He died in Constantinople in 1928.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Alexandrov (Nabokov’s Otherworld) exports the American dream to the cold climes of Russia in this promising but plodding tale of reinvention. Growing up on the family farm in Mississippi in the late 19th century, Frederick Bruce Thomas learned valuable lessons about business and manners, but as the child of prosperous free blacks, he also learned how to successfully negotiate social and racial boundaries. In flat-as-concrete prose, Alexandrov, a professor of Slavic languages and literature at Yale, chronicles the dogged rise and inglorious fall of Thomas as he traverses the globe in search of success. After his father is murdered by envious whites, Thomas moves from city to city, eventually shipping off from New York City for London and then Paris. There, he becomes fluent in French and serves as the personal valet to a wealthy American on the Riviera before making his way to his adopted home: Moscow. Smitten with the Russian way of life and flush with cash from various business ventures, Thomas changes his name to Fyodor Fyodorovich Thomas and petitions to become a subject of the czar. But even so deft a self-fashioner as Thomas can’t escape the cataclysms of the 1910s. Though Thomas’s is a fascinating and unique story, Alexandrov’s tedious and lackluster telling saps the tale of life. Agent: Michael Carlisle, Inkwell Management. (Mar.)
From the Publisher

One of San Francisco Chronicle's Top Ten Nonfiction Books of 2013

"Magnetizing and unforgettable . . . In his assiduously researched, prodigiously descriptive, fluently analytical, and altogether astonishing work of resurrection, Alexandrov provides uniquely focused accounts of racial struggles in America and decadence and bloodshed in Europe and Russia while insightfully and dynamically portraying a singular man." —Booklist (starred review)

"A wild life of intrigue, deception and beating the odds . . . [Frederick] Thomas’ story is certainly interesting, particularly since he was able to thrive in Europe in a way most African-American men of his generation couldn’t dream of. . . . [The Black Russian is] a good choice for those who enjoy reading about life’s underdogs." —Kirkus Reviews

"[A] gracefully written feat of historical sleuthing. . . . Through prodigious archival research, historical scholarship and painstaking reconstruction of secondhand accounts, [Alexandrov] has drawn a moving and vivid portrait of a remarkable American life." —San Francisco Chronicle

"With so much focus on the black experience in America in the 19th century, we might never consider the black experience in Europe at the same time. Vladimir Alexandrov's The Black Russian rectifies this oversight, and does so with panache. His tale is the biography of an individual who is wholly remarkable, regardless of race, and whose vitality, guile, and charm led him from Mississippi to Moscow, with plenty of adventures along the way. . . . Alexandrov transports the reader to an exotic era. Some of the most memorable parts of Thomas's life story lie in the incidental grace notes that add color to the lands through which he traveled." —The Daily Beast

"It is a testament to Thomas’s unlikely success in Moscow, but also to Alexandrov’s frisson-inducing account of myriad adventures along the way, that The Black Russian emerges as deeply satisfying despite its subject’s woebegone end. . . . By its very nature, the victory of an underdog has a restorative effect on flagging enthusiasm in life’s opportunities. And what triumph against the odds could prove more rousing than that of Frederick Bruce Thomas . . . [who] becomes the king of nightlife?" —Brooklyn Rail

"A compelling narrative of [a] powerful and complex man." —Shelf Awareness

"Although Alexandrov constructed this vessel with sturdy timbers of historical research, it sails lightly on a swift narrative current that transports us from Reconstruction Mississippi to Memphis, New York City, London, Paris, Moscow and, finally, Constantinople. . . . Alexandrov excels at recreating the various worlds Thomas inhabited—from his restricted existence during Reconstruction to his glittering fast-lane life on the Continent. . . . What [Thomas’s] life illustrates, as Alexandrov skillfully and gracefully shows, is that when people are unshackled from slaveries—of whatever sort—freedom's buoyancy can lift them to surprising heights, can offer miraculous views." —Cleveland Plain Dealer

"A remarkable story about a formidable man. A story Alexandrov has uncovered, and masterfully told." —Winnipeg Free Press

"This well-written book is about one of the most fascinating black men of modern times. Like Jack Johnson, Frederick Thomas was a brilliant, proud and ambitious black man who experienced the heights of success and the depths of failure—in a foreign land. Don't miss this masterful work!" —Cornel West, author of Race Matters

"In The Black Russian, Vladimir Alexandrov provides a powerful counter-narrative to the conventional Great Migration story of southern blacks migrating North en masse in the decades after the Civil War. He tells instead the tale of Frederick Bruce Thomas, son of a slave, who left the United States to hopscotch through Europe, proceeding from London south to the Riviera and then east to Moscow, before ending his days in Constantinople. Armed with a single but formidable skill—that of southern hospitality—Thomas progressed from waiting tables to serving as maitre d'hotel in fancy restaurants, to opening his own glitzy night clubs. In assembling the facts of Thomas's story, Alexandrov relates in vivid detail the political, financial, and emotional highs and lows of this man's incredible life." —Carla L. Peterson, author of Black Gotham: A Family History of African Americans in Nineteenth-Century New York City

"As a reader, I found myself fascinated by this well-written story. As a writer, I found myself envious of Vladimir Alexandrov for having discovered such a remarkable man whose life, both triumphant and tragic, spans continents, wars and a revolution—and whom no one seems to have noticed before. An extraordinary and gripping book." —Adam Hochschild, author of To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918

"A spirited tale of bucking the tides of history, every bit as colorful as it seems improbable." —Stacy Schiff, author of Cleopatra: A Life, a New York Times Book Review Top 10 Books of the Year

"A fascinating tale of culture clash and historical change, researched with energy and written with verve." —Anne Applebaum, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the international best-seller, Gulag: A History

"In The Black Russian, Vladimir Alexandrov tells the keenly researched and vividly written story of one of the more extraordinary characters in African-American history. Alexandrov deftly brings to life the succession of complex milieus in the United States, France, Russia, and Turkey in which Frederick Bruce Thomas achieved both his improbable successes and his haunting defeats. This is a tale to remember." —Arnold Rampersad, author of Ralph Ellison: A Biography

"As the granddaughter of a family that escaped from Russia because of the Bolshevik Revolution, I read The Black Russian in one sitting. Vladimir Alexandrov has done more than tell the story of a forgotten man, he has woven a fascinating tapestry of Moscow life before the October Revolution. The reader is offered a unique front-row seat to Moscow's Pre-Revolutionary beau monde and a hair-raising escape days before the Bolshevik takeover. Frederick Thomas’s unlikely ascent from Mississippi farmboy to Moscow impresario is a surprising tale with those most American of themes: tenacity and self-invention." —Olga Andreyev Carlisle, author of Solzhenitsyn and the Secret Circle

"That truth is ever stranger than fiction is underscored by the story of Frederick Bruce Thomas. The highs and lows of Thomas's unlikely life journey are skillfully unfurled by Vladimir Alexandrov." —Elizabeth Dowling Taylor, author of A Slave in the White House: Paul Jennings and the Madisons

"Hang on for the ride of a lifetime. With the verve of a novelist, historian Alexandrov takes one on an adventure through pre-war Mississippi, London, Paris, Tsarist Russia and the Bolshevik Revolution, ending up in decadent Constantinople." —John Bailey, author of The Lost German Slave Girl: The Extraordinary True Story of Sally Miller and Her Fight for Freedom in Old New Orleans

Library Journal
In this intriguing work, Alexandrov (Slavic languages & literature, Yale Univ.; Limits to Interpretation: The Meanings of Anna Karenina), introduces "The Black Russian," the charismatic and optimistic Frederick Bruce Thomas (1872–1928). Thomas, the son of former slaves in Mississippi, who traveled to London seeking work as a waiter, moved to Russia where he advanced through the restaurant business. For 20 years, he successfully ran a series of theaters and restaurants, introducing the Russian public to international talents (e.g., Jack Johnson) as well as new entertainment (jazz and the tango), and choosing to raise his family where the line of discrimination was religious rather than racial. Unfortunately, the Russian Revolution caused him to flee to Turkey and forfeit his properties and millions. New ventures in Turkey were initially successful, but within a decade his luck ran out: in debt and unable to convince the American authorities of his right to American citizenship, he died in a Turkish prison. VERDICT Set against the dramatic backdrop of the upheavals in Russia and Turkey in the early 20th century, this biography will interest those who enjoy a good rags-to-riches story (albeit an ultimately sad one). For more on African American immigrants in Russia, although not directly relating to Turner, see Ed Hotaling's Wink: The Incredible Life & Epic Journey of Jimmy Winkfield and Joy Gleason Carew's Black, Reds, & Russians. [See Prepub Alert, 10/15/12.]—Maria Bagshaw, Elgin Community Coll. Lib., IL
Kirkus Reviews
Beginning his account with a daring escape from 1919 Russia to Constantinople, Alexandrov (Slavic Languages and Literature/Yale Univ.; Limits to Interpretation: The Meanings of Anna Karenina, 2004, etc.) promises a wild life of intrigue, deception and beating the odds for his subject. Immediately following Frederick Bruce Thomas' arrival in Turkey as a refugee without a country, the author moves back to the 1870s to examine Thomas' childhood as the son of freed slaves in Mississippi. Though his parents were successful farmers and businesspeople after the end of the Civil War, rampant racism made life difficult, and Thomas left shortly after his father's death. He made his way to Chicago and New York and in both cities took jobs in what Alexandrov calls "the elegant service industry," gaining experience in the hospitality trade. After leaving New York, he traveled through Europe, continuing to work in the industry until he finally made his way to Russia and settled there. He eventually built his own entertainment empire in Moscow, becoming a rich man in an environment mostly free of racial prejudice. However, his success was interrupted by the events that begin the book: the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and the subsequent pillaging of the wealthy. With Thomas' life in danger in Russia and his family fragmented due to the war, the second half of the book focuses on his attempt to rebuild his life amid the political upheaval in Turkey. The obstacles to success were far greater in Constantinople, and this part of the book showcases the most difficult years of his life. Thomas' story is certainly interesting, particularly since he was able to thrive in Europe in a way most African-American men of his generation couldn't dream of. However, the author never recreates the prologue's sense of urgency, and the narrative suffers from pacing issues throughout, with some parts reading like a novel and some like a history text. Though sometimes dry, a good choice for those who enjoy reading about life's underdogs.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802122292
  • Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
  • Publication date: 4/8/2014
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 249,643
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author


Vladimir Alexandrov received a Ph. D. in comparative literature from Princeton. He taught Russian literature and culture at Harvard before moving to Yale, where he is B.E. Bensinger Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures. He is the author of books on Bely, Nabokov, and Tolstoy, and has published numerous articles on various other Russian writers and topics.
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 4 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Posted April 23, 2013

    Who knew ? A black man from Mississippi hits the big time in Cza

    Who knew ? A black man from Mississippi hits the big time in Czarist Russia ! How ? By business smarts and good ol' Southern hospitality. This is a great read about a spectacularly successful entertainment entrepreneur who parlayed his savvy into millions of rubles. Totally researched, it provides first hand accounts by people who crossed paths with Frederick Bruce Thomas (aka Fyodor Fyodorovich) as he made his way across America, Europe and Russia as well as fact based narrative providing a scintillating glimpse of this historical character. On his extensive travels, stopping for awhile in notable place like London, Paris, Cannes, Berlin, Monte Carlo, Venice and Vienna, Frederick continued to hone his skills and acquire business acumen. When he finally settled in Moscow, he used all that he'd learned to build an entertainment empire. For years he enjoyed unimaginable success and social cache until the Russian revolution took it from him. Making his way to Constantinople, he endeavored to build again. His story is a testament to the human spirit, and a fascinating look at 19th and early 20th C America, Europe and Russia. The author has rendered Frederick's life in 3D. This book should be optioned for a movie. It cries out for translation to the big screen.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 9, 2013

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Black Russian by Vladimir Alexa

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Black Russian by Vladimir Alexandrov, who recounts the life of Frederick Thomas. Thomas was an individual who was driven to succeed in spite of immense obstacles that he encountered ranging from being a black man in the US following the civil war to the calamity of unstoppable world events. The book is very well written and engages you from start to finish. It is certainly one of the best books that I have read in a long time.

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  • Posted April 30, 2013

    The first part of the book was really interesting and absorbing.

    The first part of the book was really interesting and absorbing. By the middle, it started to sag and I was hard-pressed to continue reading. The last 90 pages were excruciating. There's not a whole lot of information on Frederick Bruce Thomas (no writings, no papers) so much of what is written here is conjecture. Thomas constantly reinvented himself and exaggerated events that may not have even happened. It's certainly admirable that he was able to create this wonderful life for himself. His work ethic came from his parents. Since there is not much about him, the book has plenty of chapters on the history of Russia and Turkey and this filler can become interminable. You don't really get a sense of who Frederick Bruce Thomas really was because the writing is just not that engaging.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 29, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

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