The Black Russian
  • The Black Russian
  • The Black Russian

The Black Russian

4.2 5
by Vladimir Alexandrov
     
 

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The Black Russian is the incredible story of Frederick Bruce Thomas, born in 1872 to former slaves who became prosperous farmers in Mississippi. A rich white planter’s attempt to steal their land forced them to flee to Memphis, where Frederick’s father was brutally murdered. After leaving the South and working as a waiter and valet in ChicagoSee more details below

Overview


The Black Russian is the incredible story of Frederick Bruce Thomas, born in 1872 to former slaves who became prosperous farmers in Mississippi. A rich white planter’s attempt to steal their land forced them to flee to Memphis, where Frederick’s father was brutally murdered. After leaving the South and working as a waiter and valet in Chicago and Brooklyn, Frederick sought greater freedom in London, then crisscrossed Europe, and—in a highly unusual choice for a black American at the time—went to Russia in 1899. Because he found no color line there, Frederick made Moscow his home. He renamed himself Fyodor Fyodorovich Tomas, married twice, acquired a mistress, and took Russian citizenship. Through his hard work, charm, and guile he became one of the city’s richest and most famous owners of variety theaters and restaurants. The Bolshevik Revolution ruined him, and he barely escaped with his life and family to Constantinople in 1919. Starting from scratch, he made a second fortune by opening celebrated nightclubs that introduced jazz to Turkey. 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

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.
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

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780802120694
Publisher:
Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date:
03/05/2013
Pages:
304
Product dimensions:
6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)

What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
"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

"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

"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

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