The Black Russian (Atlantic Monthly Press)

The Black Russian is the incredible true story of a forgotten African American who pursued a dream of freedom, wealth, and happiness that took him across Europe in the early twentieth century. Hailed by Adam Hochschild as “extraordinary and gripping,”  Vladimir Alexandrov’s book  is an inspiring and moving biography of the most unexpected of heroes, and a tour of changing historical and cultural landscapes that spans continents, wars, and revolutions.

Frederick Bruce Thomas was born in 1872 to former slaves who had become prosperous farmers in Mississippi after the Civil War.  When a rich white planter attempted to steal their land, they fled 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 went to London in 1894, then crisscrossed Europe, and—in a highly unusual choice for a black American at the time—decided to go 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.

Described by Arnold Rampersad as “one of the more extraordinary characters in African American history,” Frederick Thomas embodied the quintessential American traits of tenacity and self-invention.  The Black Russian brings him to life with verve and in vivid detail.

Praise for The Black Russian: 

"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

"An amazing story . . . Thomas' improvisational life . . . filled me with wonder and sadness. . .Alexandrov has done a remarkable job piecing together the puzzle of Thomas' life . . . his story staggered me.” —Henry Louis Gates, Jr. The Root

"A spirited tale of boundary-crossing and history-bucking, every bit as colorful as it seems improbable."—Stacy Schiff, Pulitzer Prize winner, author of Cleopatra: A Life

"A fascinating tale of culture clash and historical change, researched with energy and written with verve."—Anne Applebaum, Pulitzer Prize winner, author of Gulag: A History

"This well-written book is about one of the most fascinating black men of modern times. . . Don't miss this masterful work!"—Cornel West, co-author of Race Matters, The Rich and the Rest of Us

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.

Event date: 
Friday, October 25, 2013 - 7:30pm
Event address: 
1818 N Vermont Ave
90027 Los Angeles