Frederick & Fyodor

Vladimir Alexandrov
The Black Russian
(Atlantic Monthly Press, 2013)

You would be forgiven the assumption that The Black Russian, a new book by Vladimir Alexandrov, is about the vodka and coffee liqueur cocktail—perhaps tracing its history, measuring its popularity, and bemoaning the fact that “The Dude” in the Coen brothers’ film The Big Lebowski will only drink a White Russian. Yet Alexandrov’s book is a biography of a black Russian man, a subject all the more remarkable because Frederick Bruce Thomas is not a recent immigrant or a relic of some cultural exchange program between the Soviet Union and an African client state. Born in Mississippi in 1872 to former slaves, Thomas would make a name for himself as a variety theater owner and manager in early 20th century Moscow, during which time “there were probably no more than a dozen other permanent black residents amid a population of well over a million.” Alexandrov, a professor of Slavic languages and literatures at Yale and the author of several books on Russian literature and writers, combines the nose of a biographer, the eye of a historian, and the imagination of a novelist to tell the exhilarating story of this extraordinary man.

Once you discover what The Black Russian is really about, you start puzzling over the question of race. Racism, of course, was institutionalized in America during Thomas’s time, but if you follow contemporary world news, you’re also aware that wide swaths of Russian society today are xenophobic and racist. (Many ethnic Russians pejoratively refer to people from the Caucasus as “blacks”; attitudes toward actual black people are naturally worse.) How does Thomas, who leaves the South for work as a waiter in Chicago and a bellboy in New York City, then spends the latter half of the 1890s in Europe (principally France), manage to assimilate into Russian society a few years later?

Alexandrov, who encases his immediate narrative in a wider socio-political history—not only instructive, but necessary for padding out sections with scant biographical information—points to several factors. Like most of Europe, Russia had no local black population at the time, let alone one that constituted an underclass the way blacks did in the United States. As a result, Thomas is not associated with a community to which all manner of negative stereotypes are pegged. Secondly, there already existed a people that served as Russian society’s punching bag: Jews. “In contrast to the other countries where [Thomas] had been accepted more or less like anyone else,” notes Alexandrov, “in Russia he would explicitly not be a member of a despised and oppressed minority.”

It is intriguing to contemplate how Thomas would have fared in Europe and Russia had he been African. To what extent did his American identity prove a boon in England and France, countries which deplored the treatment of blacks in America even as they colonized Africa? It’s an issue Alexandrov touches on only in passing. And would Russians (whose country’s participation in the Scramble for Africa was quickly aborted by France) have looked askance at him had he come from that continent?

What we do know, thanks to Alexandrov’s meticulous scouring of sources, is that by the time the charming Thomas arrives in Tsarist Russia in 1899, he speaks French and is experienced as a waiter and personal valet. In Moscow, he works as a maitre d’hotel at various high-class venues, learns Russian along the way, saves money, and soaks in the nightlife.

In 1911, Thomas and two partners reopen the closed Aquarium, an “entertainment garden” where he had previously worked. It becomes a huge success, thanks largely to Thomas’s management of its themes and stewardship of its programs. The British viceconsul in Moscow at the time would describe Aquarium as “a perfectly respectable operette theatre, an equally respectable open-air music hall, a definitely less respectable verandah cafe-chantant, and the inevitable chain of private ‘kabinets’ for gypsy-singing and private carouses.” Later, Thomas (alone) opens Maxim, like Aquarium a variety theater, but one targeting Moscow’s elite. He becomes rich and famous, obtains Russian citizenship, and changes his name to “Fyodor Fyodorovich Tomas.”

The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 overturns Thomas’s world and inverts its values. His wealth and social status become a liability. The nature of Thomas’s nemesis is not unfamiliar to him, and Alexandrov brilliantly captures the irony of the situation. A man leaves behind the societal pigeonholing of his native country only to be corralled by an outwardly different but substantively similar form of it in his new homeland. For the “Marxist and communist concept of class functioned, perversely, as a quasi-racial label.... In the end, [Thomas] could no more escape how the new regime saw him than he could change the color of his skin.”

The Thomases (by now he has a family) seek refuge in the western Russian city of Odessa (today in Ukraine) until the Bolsheviks close in, whereupon they flee to Turkey’s Constantinople, occupied and administered by Western European military forces. But after starting from scratch in 1919 and achieving limited success, Thomas faces the Turkish army’s recapture of the city and a host of economic restrictions on foreigners. Simultaneously, his efforts to obtain a US passport from the American consulate—he has lost his—are rebuffed, partly due to racism.

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 (in 1928). In Turkey, Thomas dies stateless, penniless, and incarcerated—but the reader takes solace in the man’s earlier spectacular achievements. 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, the son of former slaves who leaves the Jim Crow South for the “warmth of other suns” further north, only to wend his way via Paris to freezing Moscow, where he becomes the king of nightlife?

Contributor

Rayyan Al-Shawaf

RAYYAN AL-SHAWAF is a writer and book critic in Beirut.

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