The Black Russian by Vladimir Alexandrov

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The Black Russian by Vladimir Alexandrov

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Category: Biography
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A biography of the Mississippi-born entrepreneur who found a new life as an entrepreneur in Russia and Turkey during and immediately after the First World War.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 306 Date: May 2013
Publisher: Head of Zeus
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781781855195

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Until I read this book I had never come across the story of Frederick Bruce Thomas, 'the Black Russian', before. It is a remarkable tale of rags to riches, tragedy, success against the odds and subsequent failure.

Thomas was born in 1872 to former slaves who had become wealthy farmers in Mississippi. In the aftermath of the American civil war racism was widespread. When the family was swindled, it meant years of protracted litigation to see justice done, and when Thomas was eighteen his father was murdered. Soon afterwards he travelled widely around the United States in an effort to better himself and find employment, but after working as a valet in New York, he became convinced that the opportunities in Europe would be greater. In 1894 he sailed for London. It was the start of several years in which he worked in hotels and restaurants, travelling through France, Italy, Austria, Hungary and then in 1899 to Russia.

Throughout his life there are frequent gaps in the existing documentation, and what he did during his first few years in Moscow is uncertain. It is however beyond doubt that in 1903 he began working as a maitre d’hotel at Aquarium, an entertainment complex which catered for the nightlife of the more wealthy members of Russian society. At first it seemed that he was in the right place at the right time. Alexandrov observes that at the turn of the century that there was very little if any racial prejudice in Russia, except from the white Americans who settled there. Unfortunately the tottering empire was living on borrowed time. From 1905 onwards, following a catastrophic defeat in the war with Japan, a conflict it had been confident of winning, and the unrest which was recognised with hindsight as the first Russian revolution, it was not a place in which one’s future could be assured. Nevertheless Thomas proved adaptable, especially when it came to learning new languages wherever he went, and a reliable employee wherever he worked. By his thirties he was comfortably settled with a family – although he lost his first wife to pneumonia when their third child was less than a year old.

Always ready to take a risk, in 1911 Thomas, now calling himself Fyodor Fyodorovich Tomas, reopened the Aquarium as its owner and manager. A year later he took over the ailing theatre Chanticleer and relaunched it as a night club, Maxim. Still officially stateless, in 1914 he applied to become a Russian citizen. Despite food, alcohol and fuel shortages during the first two years of the First World War, his business continued to prosper. Ironically, his luck began to run out at about the same time as that of the tottering empire in which he had put down his roots. In 1917, just one week after he had purchased a block of six adjoining buildings in Moscow, revolution broke out in Petrograd.

It was a blow from which he never fully recovered. As the Bolsheviks strengthened their hold on post-imperial Russia, life became increasingly insecure for wealthy businessmen. He and his family had to flee to Odessa and then Constantinople, where he opened further nightclubs and introduced jazz to Turkey. However, the latter country gradually proved just as inhospitable as Russia. Under the new regime of continually shifting legal restrictions and higher taxes, to say nothing of new laws and regulations being passed at a bewildering rate, immigrants who ran their own businesses in the country soon fell foul of the system, with no redress against penalties without endless litigation which was often doomed to fail. Although he considered returning to his homeland, he found himself on the wrong end of wrangles with authority as to whether he was or had been an American citizen. Moreover the business climate became increasingly harsh, his debts mounted, and he ended up in a debtor’s prison.

It was a sad ending to an industrious life, a man whose humble beginning had spurred him on to become one of nature’s go-getters. As a businessman and employer he made mistakes; fortunate, and rare, is the one who never puts a foot wrong. Yet he was an active personality, keen to learn and always ready to grasp any opportunities which came his way. It was largely bad luck at a time of massive political upheaval which brought him down.

With the aid of printed sources and also archives from, it seems, every country in which his subject ever set foot, Alexandrov has brought him vividly to life – no mean feat in the case of a character for whom the paper trail is sometimes scanty – and also painted the background of a world undergoing major upheavals in commendable detail. From racism in America to the ever-shifting, often hostile conditions in wartime and post-war Europe, it makes for an enthralling if turbulent story which I for one found quite fascinating. The author is to be congratulated for shining a light on this extremely interesting, sometimes inspiring and sometimes tragic life.

If this book appeals then we can also recommend:

The Love and Wars of Lina Prokofiev by Simon Morrison

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Booklists.jpg The Black Russian by Vladimir Alexandrov is in the Top Ten Autobiographies and Biographies of 2013.


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