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The Black Russian Hardcover – March 5, 2013


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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Born in Mississippi, in 1872, to former slaves, Frederick Bruce Thomas became rich and famous “against all odds,” but Alexandrov is the first to discover just how high the stakes were. In this magnetically appealing, unforgettable biography, Alexandrov tracks Thomas as he works his way cross-country as a waiter, bellhop, and personal valet, then takes “the extraordinary step” of sailing to Europe in 1894. Thomas thrived in the absence of racism in France, Germany, and Italy, then settled in Russia, a land of nearly no people of African descent, where he achieved international renown as a brilliantly innovative and strategically charming nightclub owner. He married a German woman and started a family, but as the world went to war and the Bolsheviks came to power, questions about Thomas’ citizenship became dangerously complicated. Exiled and destitute in volatile Constantinople, he worked his way up again, bringing the first black jazz musicians to Turkey. But swindlers, an outraged ex-wife, a racist American diplomat, and political unrest landed him in debtors’ prison, where he died at 55 and was promptly forgotten. 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. --Donna Seaman

Review

"It is always a pleasure to discover any tale that grips you from the first page and leads you along the byways of history  . . . This biography flows as well as any novel, packed with adventure, romance and drama. The writing and research are exceptional, and the reader will be enthralled . . . Most highly recommended." -- Historical Novel Society

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
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press (March 5, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0802120695
  • ISBN-13: 978-0802120694
  • Product Dimensions: 1.2 x 6.2 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (58 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #605,024 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

I grew up in New York City in a Russian emigre family and wanted to be a scientist from an early age. However, after getting Bachelor's and Master's degrees in Geology from Queens College and The City College of New York, I decided that I'd learned enough about the natural world but didn't understand myself or other people. My solution was to switch to studying literature and the humanities, which resulted in my getting a Ph. D. in Comparative Literature from Princeton. This helped, and the quest continues. After teaching in the Slavic Department at Harvard, I moved to Yale University in 1986, where I continue to teach courses on Russian literature and culture. I live in Hamden, Connecticut, with my wife, and have a son who is in graduate school in Washington, D. C., and a daughter who finished college in 2011 and is working in NYC.

I used to be an avid tennis player before I started to work on THE BLACK RUSSIAN. But Frederick Thomas proved to be such a fascinating character, and the search for information about him through a labyrinth of archives and libraries so engrossing (with lots of research trips both in the United States and abroad), that tennis began to feel increasingly like a distraction from what I wanted to do (I switched to a gym instead). So, I gradually gave up the game, although I may go back to it now that I finished the book.

I have found the process of writing up my findings as compelling as the detective-like hunt for information that occupied me earlier. It's a fascinating challenge to remain absolutely faithful to the facts while you try to squeeze every last drop of information out of them and bring them to life in your imagination. It's also a daunting but a very seductive challenge to find a way to narrate the story in a way that is vivid, compelling, and true.


ADVANCE PRAISE FOR THE BLACK RUSSIAN:


"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, public intellectual, author of Race Matters, The Rich and the Rest of Us (with Tavis Smiley, 2012)


"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, prize-winning author of the New York Times best-seller To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918


"Hang on for the ride of a lifetime. With the verve of a novelist . . . 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


"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, award-winning and best-selling biographer of Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, and Jackie Robinson


"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 the New York Times best-seller A Slave in the White House


"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


"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. . . . 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

Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

13 of 13 people found the following review helpful By TChris TOP 100 REVIEWER on March 8, 2013
Format: Hardcover
Both history and biography, The Black Russian is sort of a Horatio Alger story with a twist. Hard work and perseverance are the formula for success, but in this case success was possible for a black American only because he became an entrepreneur in Russia, where his race was not an obstacle to achievement.

Born in the Mississippi Delta to recently freed slaves, Frederick Thomas was raised in a successful farm family. Unlike many Delta blacks, Thomas was given the opportunity to discover that there was more to life than "an endless cycle of labor, food, and sleep." When his father and stepmother lost their property to an unscrupulous white landowner -- a swindle that was partially rectified after a protracted legal battle -- Thomas learned how quickly the course of a life can change. More than once, his own life followed a similar "rags-to-riches-to-rags" pattern.

Supporting himself with service jobs in restaurants and hotels, Thomas made his way to Chicago and then to Brooklyn. He escaped American racism by moving to London and then to Paris. Thomas worked his way through Europe, refining his skills in the restaurant and hotel trades, and in 1899 made his way to Russia. Thomas eventually settled in Moscow, an ethnically diverse city that drew no color lines. In 1912 he entered into a partnership to turn an old Moscow theater into a classy establishment that offered fine dining, dancing, and stage entertainment. By the end of its first season, Thomas was a rich man. His success encouraged him to make new investments.

To protect himself (and his businesses) from the consequences of war, Thomas became a Russian citizen in 1915.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By DEM on April 13, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Mr. Alexandrov's meticulous research has pieced together the main chapters of the life of an incredible individual. I pre-ordered this book months before it finally came out and looked forward to reading it for a long time. It is a fascinating story and one that the author tell well. At times I felt like Mr. Alexandrov used too much filler material on the culture and history of Russia and Turkey, but I understand that the main character left no diaries and few written traces to present a more detailed biography. Nonetheless, it was a book that I look forward to reading each evening, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I would recommend it without reservation.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on May 8, 2013
Format: Hardcover
I just got this book today, but am already halfway through reading it. As a personal life-story (biography) or as a business success book, "The Black Russian" is unrivaled. As a Russophile, it was fascinating reading about Russia at the turn of the century on the eve of the revolution. Yet it never slows down or gets lost in the minutia that often causes some to dislike history.

As a "rags-to-riches" story, it has the most unlikely of plots, a black man (son of freed slaves who themselves become very wealthy only to lose everything) who becomes a millionaire multiple times over in Moscow, Russia of all places. Corruption, dance halls, racism, anti-semitic bigotry, communism, fat-cat princes throwing wild parties, Monte Carlo,...this book has something for everyone and should be an encouragement to those who may take their situation in life for granted and waste a large portion of it waiting for some breakthrough, rather than working to realize their dreams.

Kudos to a great story and amazing writing by Vladmir Alexandrov!
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Abramo on November 5, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
While it seems obvious on the face of it, the primary advice offered every author, especially writers of non fiction, is to really know what you are writing about. In this remarkable book, Yale professor Vladimir Alexandrov demonstrates the truth behind the advice. He KNOWS Frederick Bruce Thomas. But how does one learn about the life of a remarkable yet little known person? It takes straight forward detective work based on excellent and all encompassing research. Whether for an experienced writer or the not yet published, The Black Russian provides a tremendous example of how historians create truth by slowly ferreting out facts, facts and more facts from the most obvious as well as least expected sources. But, the recitation of every known jot and tittle only broadly informs the reader about the subject. It takes excellent writing skills to literally re-create and breathe life into a human being. Alexandrov helps the reader discover the context of the Thomas's time, "feel" who he was and marvel about his life.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By L. W. Schore on July 19, 2014
Format: Paperback
Firstly, this had to be one of the delightful surprise readings of the year for me. I read a brief review of this odd biopic a good while back, and there it was, staring at me at the local library. I shrugged it off long enough, and simply gave it a whirl. Let me just say I was spellbound and riveted and I read and read with utter fascination. Every aspect of this
True story is illuminating here: the fact that this Black man's parents were so tenacious and successful as sharecroppers then independent farmers in rural Mississippi after the Civil War was utterly fascinating reading to begin with. The very fact that they won lawsuits against greedy, established and of course, white competitor-landowners was enough to keep me turning the pages. But I found myself asking: what an inspiring platform for a young Negro boy growing up in such an milieu to place his dreams on?

Alexandrov takes us through Fredrick's (the soon to be the Black Russian) journey through the corridors of ambition, starting as a posh waiter and moving up to Maitre'd' and then on to London, Paris, and finally Moscow--where he prospers as a nightclub/restaurant owner. And there is so much more--I don't wish to give it all away here, except to say this is a must-read on all fronts and it's obvious this would make an excellent film.

A brilliant find.
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