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The Black Russian
Cover of The Black Russian
The Black Russian
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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 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. But 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 debtors' prison. He died in Constantinople in 1928.

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. But 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 debtors' prison. He died in Constantinople in 1928.

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About the Author-
  • Vladimir Alexandrov received a PhD 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.

Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    January 21, 2013
    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.

  • Stacy Schiff, Pulitzer Prize–winning author "A spirited tale of boundary-crossing and history-bucking, every bit as colorful as it seems improbable."
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The Black Russian
The Black Russian
Vladimir Alexandrov
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