Red October

03.17.13

The Black Count of Russia

The incredible story of a black man from Mississippi who struck it rich in turn-of-the-century Russia gives us a picture of race relations in Europe compared to post-Reconstruction U.S.

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.

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The Great Kremlin Palace in Moscow, Russia. (AP)

Frederick Bruce Thomas was born in Mississippi in 1872 to former slaves, who found success as independent farmers. Driven away by a vengeful white plantation owner, the family left for Memphis. But the murder of Thomas’s father prompted young Frederick to set out for Chicago and, later, Brooklyn, where he worked as a waiter. Nothing unique so far.

In 1894, Thomas’s German music professor recommended that he attend a conservatory in London, where he had been accepted as its first nonwhite student; Thomas was a great lover of music and hoped to become a singer. England at that time was welcoming to blacks in ways that the United States could not have been. “No American Negro who reaches London goes away again, if he can help it,” American reporter William Drysdale said during a grand tour of Europe. “Here his color does not militate against him in the least, but rather the contrary, because it is something of a novelty … He is more of a man here than he can well be at home, because there is no prejudice against him.”

He used his savings for the voyage across the Atlantic, but was left with no tuition money to attend the conservatory. So he went on his own grand tour, working at hotels or restaurants for a few weeks at a time, just long enough to get a sense of the place and earn the cash for the next leg. From London he went to Milan, Venice, Trieste, Vienna, Budapest, St. Petersburg, and Odessa.

After a few years, he ended up in Moscow, where he was briefly employed as valet to a wealthy nobleman. As the historical and religious heart of Russia, Moscow appealed to Thomas, but it was not exactly grand central for black Americans in 1899, and this was precisely the point. Moscow, like London, was a place with much less racial prejudice, at least with regard to skin color. For instance, Thomas fared better there as a black man than he would have as a Jewish man. “Unlike what Frederick saw in Western Europe, not everyone’s skin in Moscow was white,” Alexandrov writes. Asians played a role in the Moscow street scene, and “of the three great human races, only black was rare.” Russians never had colonial ambitions in Africa, and they never enslaved people of African descent. Alexandrov says that there may have been no more than a dozen permanent black residents in Moscow, a city with a population of well over a million people. “But because the parade of humanity on the city streets was so varied, Frederick did not stand out.” He “went native,” taking on the name Fyodor Fyodorovitch Tomas.

It was a place where Thomas’s exoticism was celebrated, and where opportunities were open to him that he would never have found in the restrictive United States.
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‘The Black Russian’ by Vladimir Alexandrov. 304 pp. Atlantic Monthly Press. $25. ()

Thomas worked as a maître d’ in a music pavilion inside an entertainment park called Aquarium. When the manager skipped town with his employees’ salary money, Thomas joined a consortium that took over. He was made manager and relaunched the club. He added a scale of entry fees, from reasonable to very expensive; the extra money bought one access to fashionable operettas and comedies, performed by troupes imported from Vienna, Paris, London, and Berlin. Acrobats and comedians were featured in over-the-top acts, including up to 25 performers and car-loads of scenery. The new Aquarium was so acclaimed that Thomas soon opened another club, Maxim, which featured a can-can quartet supposed to be “straight from the Moulin Rouge in Paris.” Thomas is even credited with having brought the tango to Russia. Things often got crazy: one reveler decided it would be fun to play soccer in the dining room with hothouse pineapples that sold that winter for the equivalent of around $1,000 each. “He ordered a whole cartload and proceeded to kick them all around, smashing china, overturning tables, and spilling imported champagne.”  His bill came to around $750,000 in today’s money. More risqué entertainments would follow late at night, when rich men would “recline on low settees … watching with sated eyes the bare midriffs of Oriental belly dancers writhing on the carpeted floor.”

The entertainment business was perfect for a black man, as Moscow was a place where Thomas’s exoticism was celebrated, and where opportunities were open to him that he would never have found in the restrictive U.S. All of Thomas’s clubs featured an “overindulgence in food and drink” and “passions stirred by Gypsy choirs and comely chorus girls” which were accompanied by prayer service. This period in Moscow was described as one that featured the “easy coexistence of transgression and forgiveness in the Russian consciousness,” as embodied by Rasputin’s spiritually inspired passion and contrition.

But revolutions and counterrevolutions loomed, and Tsar Nicholas II abdicated after the February Revolution (which occurred on Women’s Day) in 1917. Alexandrov treats us to an inside look at what happens in the evolution of revolutions. We see eerie echoes of modern developments in Turkey, the Middle East, and the former Soviet Union that show the honeymoon phase preceding the “we’ve won, now what?” aftermath, when a giant “Liberty Parade” snaked through Moscow. “An American who saw it was much impressed by the orderliness of the procession, the good cheer of the crowds … the absence of police, and the easy mixing of the social classes,” Alexandrov writes, putting himself in Thomas’s shoes. But this man “of property,” whose parents were themselves once considered property, soon realized that his adopted home couldn’t accommodate him anymore.

Come November (the October Revolution was so-named according to the Julian calendar, which fell on Nov. 7 in the modern Gregorian calendar), the Bolsheviks dismantled his small business empire, hunting for those who smacked of capitalism, which included anyone who carried a handkerchief or wore a white collar. Thomas’s German wife had taken a Bolshevik lover, who nearly killed him when Thomas walked in on them. Thomas narrowly escaped, disguised as a porter, then stowed away in a friend’s train compartment.

He settled in Constantinople, where he had to start from scratch. There he teamed up with a colorful barkeeper and spy, and co-managed a popular saloon that he soon expanded into a chain of nightclubs that introduced jazz to Turkey, although the band was not made up of professional jazz musicians but a comedy act that included jazz interludes. It didn’t matter; they were a huge hit. This led a rival entrepreneur to come up with a bizarre plan to turn Hagia Sophia into “a temple of jazz,” after a consortium of Turkish businessmen had determined that “the edifice is unsuitable for religious services.” This, needless to say, was never realized.

With such a rollicking story, it’s easy to see why a biographer would leap at the chance to chart the wild life of Russia’s first black impresario. Perhaps it is more of a surprise who would turn to this project. Alexandrov is a venerable professor of Russian literature at Yale University. Born to Russian immigrant parents in West Germany, he grew up in New York and trained as a geologist, before switching from reading landscapes to reading Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.

Although Alexandrov has authored many academic publications, The Black Russian is his first foray into writing for a popular readership. Thankfully, he does so with style, thanks to his training in the literary greats. When Thomas arrived in Moscow, the city’s “barnyard whiffs of manure mingled with the smell of charcoal and wood smoke from the chimneys of kitchens,” and 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. Who knew, for instance, of the “cafarodromes” of Moscow, sporting halls in which enormous black cockroaches were raced against one another for high-stakes betting?

Men with feverishly glistening eyes and women with flushed faces crowded around the table, transfixed by the sight of the enormous black cockroaches. Each had a name … Released from their cigar box “stables,” the cockroaches dashed forward, pulling tiny, two-wheeled sulkies fashioned out of wire … Winnings could reach … the equivalent of several thousand dollars today.

I’d never imagined how engrossing cockroach racing could be. In another example, we learn of a sort of Slavic geisha class in 1920s Turkey, women who recited Baudelaire between dances with “male restaurant clients,” and who were able to say “love” in every language. Through these bejeweled chapels of lateral detail, Thomas’s escapades leap off the page.

Thomas’s end was more of a fizzle than his life had been. In Russia he had contracted a nasty case of pneumonia, similar to the one that killed his first wife. When his business ventures turned south, Thomas ended up in debtor’s prison, where he died of exposure in 1928. Thomas left five children, all polyglots who, like him, found success around the world. The eldest, Mikhail, studied in Prague and became the city’s first Russian student boxing champion, before he moved to France and worked for La Resistance. In the evenings, Mikhail would sing Russian folk songs, Gypsy tunes, and African-American spirituals at a Russian émigré nightclub called Scheherazade. He made a career as a character actor in French television and film, in movies where he stood behind Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn.

It’s a shame Mikhail never used his connections to get his father’s story filmed. It cries out to be a Russian Moulin Rouge; it will only be a matter of time before we see Thomas on the big screen. His life was certainly large enough to fill one.