Email Vladimir Alexandrov
This form does not yet contain any fields.

    WELCOME TO THE BLACK RUSSIAN BLOG--DEDICATED TO TOPICS CONNECTED WITH, AND CIRCLING AROUND, MY BIOGRAPHY OF FREDERICK BRUCE THOMAS, THE SON OF MISSISSIPPI SLAVES WHO BECAME A MILLIONAIRE IMPRESARIO IN PRE-REVOLUTIONARY MOSCOW AND 'THE SULTAN OF JAZZ' IN CONSTANTINOPLE To subscribe to this blog's RSS feed, please click on the icon above

    Frederick’s Hellish Passage to Constantinople

    For most passengers, the conditions on board Imperator Nikolay deepened their emotional suffering. 

    The ship had been built just before the Great War and was designed to carry 374 people in modern comfort.  When the war began, it was transferred to the Russian Black Sea fleet and transformed into a hydroplane cruiser for operations against Turkey; at one point, its planes had actually bombed Constantinople. 

    Now, on its way back to the Bosphorus on a very different mission, it was crammed with 868 refugees, well over double its capacity.  With the exception of some rich Russians who had booked passage on other ships but had been moved to cabins on Imperator Nikolay, the conditions for most everyone else were miserable. 

    The British Consul General in Odessa, John Bagge, was on the ship with the other allied evacuees and reported that the treatment the French meted out to the Russians in particular was “almost inhuman”:

    The filth on board was almost indescribable and nothing could be obtained except by payment.  A glass of water, for instance, cost 5 rubles.  The men had to wash by drawing up buckets from the sea, whilst the women had to pay 25 rubles each to go into a cabin where they could wash . . . the French went out of their way to ill-treat and insult them, and the ill-feeling which had been growing during the French occupation of Odessa has now become one of intense hatred.

    Frederick and his family were under American protection with Jenkins, the American Consul, and were thus likely spared the overt brutality that the French inflicted on the hapless Russians.  Nonetheless, the passage could not have been pleasant or easy, especially for Frederick’s wife, Elvira, and the children. 

    Mrs. Elvira Thomas (née Jungmann) Frederick's third wife

    THE BLACK RUSSIAN—A New Book Trailer for the Paperback Edition

    I’m interrupting the story of Frederick Thomas’s escape from Bolshevik Russia to share a new book trailer I made that I've just posted on YouTube.  I never used Movie Maker before—or any other type of film-making software for that matter—but found it an enjoyable project (I know, I know—I should have been on Facebook instead). 

    I decided to try my hand at a new trailer because The Black Russian was recently published in paperback by Grove Press. 

     

    Frederick Bruce Thomas in Moscow, 1912

     

    The old trailer for my book, kindly made by Yelena Demikovsky, the documentary filmmaker working on “Black Russians – The Red Experience,” has been on YouTube for a while and it was time for a change (or addition).

    I’d be happy to hear what you think of the new trailer via my website or email.

    It’s not too late to tweak or modify  . . .

    Chaos and Mayhem in Odessa, or More of What Frederick Saw in April 1919

    After the French high command announced the immediate evacuation of Odessa, streams of tens of thousands of panicked civilians began to pour into the city’s harbor, trying to get past armed Allied sentries, struggling with their luggage and waving their documents in the air.  The refugees from the north of Russia were terrified that they would be killed by the Bolsheviks if they stayed behind. 

    The French had been so shortsighted that there were not nearly enough ships for everyone who wanted to get away.  A large contingent of troops and some civilians had to set off on foot to the Dnestr River and the Rumanian frontier thirty miles to the west.  The British consul characterized the entire operation as a “colossal blunder.”

    The sudden evacuation further eroded the weak discipline among the French troops.  An Englishman reported seeing drunken soldiers looting that stores they were supposed to be evacuating while their officers watched.  Other soldiers, also drunk even though on guard duty, entertained themselves by shooting at bottles in the water. 

    Just before setting sail, a British captain saw drunken Senegalese soldiers grab two young Russian women who were on the dock and push them screaming into a shed.  He intervened and was able to get the women on board his ship.  As he went up the gangplank behind them, one of the soldiers ran alongside waving his rifle and took a shot at him, but missed. 

    Finally, before dawn on Sunday, April 6, 1919, or almost twenty years to the month after Frederick Thomas arrived in Russia, the grievously overcrowded Imperator Nikolay weighed anchor and set its slow course for Constantinople, four hundred miles across the Black Sea. 

    Bolshevik troops were already entering Odessa.  They were a rough and unimposing-looking band of only three thousand men, and even though they were supported by armed workers in the city, the French evacuation in the face of such a weak force seemed ignominious.

     

    Bolshevik Meeting in Odessa After the Allied Evacuation, April 1919

     

    Bolshevik Demonstration in Odessa after the Allied Evacuation, April 1919

    (To be continued)

    Panic, Hysteria, and Greed in Odessa--or What Frederick Saw in April 1919

    Prince Lobanov-Rostovsky, the Russian naval officer who would wind up on the same ship as Frederick, saw what happened at the London Hotel when people heard that the French were abandoning Odessa and realized that they would need exit visas:

    In an instant bedlam reigned . . . The lobby was filled with wildly gesticulating people. The elevators were jammed. Two streams of humanity, going up and down the stairs, met on the landings between floors, where free-for-all fights took place. Women caught in the crush were shriek­ing, and from these landings valises came tumbling down on the heads of those who were below in the lobby. To add to the confusion, a huge and menacing crowd of ruffians had assembled in the street and with shouts of death were trying to force their way into the hotel. The massive doors of the lobby were hastily bolted and the small military guard of the [French] headquarters, with rifles in hand, took up a position be­hind the doors. With the greatest difficulty, risking being crushed on the stairs, I made my way to the upper floor and here succeeded in getting past some hundred people who were hammering at the doors of the rooms occupied by head­quarters, claiming visas. Once inside I got a written order . . . to embark on a steamer leaving that morn­ing. Escaping by a back door, I rejoined my friends, and we hastened to the port. 

     

    Allied Ships in Odessa's Harbor, early April 1919

     

    In a particularly obscene display of greed, especially given how badly the French had botched the evacuation, a number of officials in the French Passport Bureau at the hotel decided to profit from the despair of the civilians clamoring for permits and began to charge them fees of 180 francs a head (a hefty $500 today). 

    Other stories of vile behavior by the French included some officers selling their places on board ships to refugees for large sums and soldiers hiring themselves out as luggage porters.  D’Anselme’s chief of staff, Colonel Henri Freidenberg, was also accused of having “unclean hands” and selling several visas for the whopping sum of 12,000 francs each ($30,000 today).  One report even claimed that he subsequently opened a bank in Constantinople with his accumulated take. 

    In the harbor the situation was even worse than in town because the targets of all the evacuees’ yearnings—the ships that were supposed to carry them to safety—were within sight and almost within reach. 

    Jenkins, the American consul, characterized the confusion on the docks as “indescribable.” 

    (To be continued)

    Frederick Has to Flee for His Life

    General Philippe d’Anselme continued to lie about the French plan to abandon Odessa to the Bolsheviks.  On April 1, 1919, William Jenkins, the American Consul, went to seek the General’s assurances and d’Anselme him told that although it might be necessary to evacuate some of the civilians because of food shortages, there was no question of the French army’s leaving the city. 

    In retrospect, this sounded like a grotesque April Fool’s joke because that same day Paris authorized General d’Espèrey in Constantinople to order d’Anselme to evacuate Odessa. 

    Nevertheless, the following morning, Wednesday, April 2, d’Anselme published yet another note in the local newspapers to the effect that although some civilians would have to be evacuated, the military situation was secure because fresh troops were continuing to arrive. 

    The French had thus successfully set the stage for a debacle that would end in tragedy for thousands of people over the course of the next several days and weeks. 

    In my book I describe in detail how on the night of April 2 Jenkins accidentally found out about the French plans before they were made public and how he managed to secure passage aboard a ship for the Americans in the city.  I also describe the elaborate deception that Frederick Thomas used to get himself and most (but not all) of his family onto that ship, a decision that saved their lives but that would have major repercussions for Frederick for years afterwards.

    Working most of the night, Jenkins was able to round up the entire small group and by early morning on Thursday, April 3, they were aboard the Imperator Nikolay, a Russian ship that had just arrived from Salonica in Greece and that the French had secretly placed at the disposal of several Allied countries to take their civilians to Constantinople. 

     

    “Imperator Nikolay I,” originally of the Russian Steam Navigation and Trading Company (R. O. P. i T.), on which Frederick Thomas, his wife Elvira, and his sons, Mikhail, Bruce, and Fyodor, left Odessa for exile in Constantinople on April 6, 1919.


    The same night that Jenkins was mustering his Americans, a Russian naval officer with the resplendent name Prince Andrey Lobanov-Rostovsky, whom chance would also soon place aboard the Imperator Nikolay (and who may thus have interacted with Thomas, although there is no record of it from either man), glimpsed a line of well-dressed people on the sidewalk outside a bank, apparently planning to camp out in order to be the first inside when it opened on the morning of April 3. 

    That Thursday in fact proved to be the last day when any Odessa banks were open and clients could make withdrawals.  Not that this necessarily represented financial salvation for everyone who had waited in line.  When the rush on the banks started in the morning, some quickly ran out of cash; others never even bothered to open.  There were some bankers who stole their foreign currency deposits and tried to escape abroad with them.

    The following morning, on Friday April 4, d’Anselme finally published the official announcement about the immediate evacuation of the city.  The effect it had was like someone shouting “fire” in a crowded theater.

    A refugee from Moscow, the famous writer Ivan Bunin who would go on to win the Nobel Prize in 1933, recalled how incredulous he was when he got the news.  Around noon, his maid summoned him to the telephone—it was a friend calling from the office of a newspaper that they had optimistically begun to publish only two days earlier.  The friend announced that he was in a hurry to pass on some “unbelievable news:  the French are leaving!”

    “How, what do you mean, when?” Bunin exclaimed.

    “This very minute,” the friend replied.

    “Have you gone mad?”

    “No, I swear to you.  It’s a panicked flight!”

    Bunin dashed outside, got into a cab, and could not believe his eyes: donkeys loaded with gear running by . . . French and Greek soldiers with full field packs . . . rumbling wagons filled with military equipment.  It looked like a rout rather than a military withdrawal. (To be continued)

    Frederick Trapped, or the French Betrayal in Odessa in 1919

    The French occupation of Odessa in 1918 had awakened fervent hopes among anti-Bolshevik Russians in the city and throughout the rest of the ravaged country that this was the beginning of the end for Lenin’s and Trotsky’s bloody reign.  But the fates that always seem to rule over Russia’s tragic history decided otherwise.

    It turned out that the French had no real interest in fighting the Bolsheviks and had placed unrealistic expectations on the Whites and on popular anti-Bolshevik sentiment in Russia.  The Allied troops were tired after four years of the Great War and wanted to go home.  For the North Africans especially, fighting Russians made even less sense than had fighting the Germans. 

     

    Views of Odessa at the beginning of the 20th century

     

    The French also did not fully understand the complexities of the political situation in Russia or the differences among the various anti-Bolshevik factions.  The tactless and hectoring attitude of the French high command toward the Whites, which stemmed from a kind of neo-colonial disdain for the “natives,” alienated the leaders of the Volunteer Army, who, in turn, aggravated the situation by squabbling among themselves.  Finally, the Bolsheviks in the Odessa underground lost no time in propagandizing the French sailors and colonial soldiers against their white commanders, thus driving a demoralizing wedge between them.

    By the end of March 1919, much of Odessa’s population—scores of thousands of refugees from the north like Frederick Thomas, the local bourgeoisie, officers of the White Army, stranded foreigners, the intelligentsia—was looking with increasing nervousness to the French as their only salvation and hope.  No one knew, however, that the French had already betrayed them.

    The high command in Paris and Constantinople had recently concluded that the entire Odessa adventure was a mistake and that the Allied forces faced disaster if they did not leave soon.  Realizing that this decision would cause panic if it got out, the French commander in the city, General Philippe d’Anselme, decided to lie:  he not only kept the news from the civilian population, but also from his Greek comrades-in-arms and from the Whites, his ostensible allies. 

    Moreover, to dispel rumors, on Tuesday, March 25, 1919, he published an announcement in Odessa’s newspapers that he would not give up the city without a fight and that more troops and assistance were on the way. 

    In secret that same day, however, he prepared a detailed plan for the evacuation of all of his forces and began to wait for final authorization from Paris.  (To be continued)

    The Black Russian at MOSCOW 57 on Delancey Street in NYC

    Before returning to the twists and turns of Frederick Thomas’s life in Odessa in 1919, I want to digress to my hero’s surprising “second life” today on New York’s Lower East Side.

    Moscow57 is an attractive new Russian restaurant that opened last month at 168 ½ Delancey Street, near the intersection with Clinton. Its owners have embraced The Black Russian and are featuring Frederick in their restaurant in several ways: they’ve put up photographs from my book (which are also on my website), have an insert about him in their menu, and have invented a signature cocktail named “Frederick Thomas” (it’s not the same as the well-known “Black Russian”!). They are also planning future events about Frederick and his world. What appeals to the owners of Moscow57 is how Frederick’s amazing life bridged the United States and pre-Revolutionary Russia.



    The partners behind Moscow57 are Ellen Kaye, whose parents, Faith Stewart-Gordon and Sidney Kaye, owned the fabled Russian Tea Room on West 57th in Manhattan from 1947 to 1996, and Seth Goldman, a Restaurateur/Catering Chef & Events Planner. Together with Ethan Fein, who is a Musical Producer/Director/Guitarist, they run a catering and entertainment business that is also called Moscow57.

    In addition to serving delicious Russian, Central Asian, and Georgian dishes and beverages (a full menu will be available soon), Moscow57 is a live music venue. Ellen Kaye is a wonderful singer herself, and there is a lineup of other talent, with performances every night. I greatly enjoyed my visit a couple of days ago, when I heard Ellen and the terrific Laura Foulke, and look forward to returning soon. Frederick would have loved the place.

    Frederick and the French African Invasion of Odessa in 1918

    On December 17, 1918, a week after the Ukrainian nationalist troops of Simon Petlyura had entered Odessa and began their depredations, the French warships from Constantinople finally reached the city.  The Whites, who numbered 1,500 men by then, got the French commander’s blessing to begin.  Under the cover of the French flotilla’s guns they attacked Petlyura’s troops, driving them out of the city in ten hours of street fighting that left residents cowering and scores dead on both sides. 

    With the city now cleared, an advance guard of 1,800 French troops came ashore the same day.  The following day, the first waves of what would be a 70,000-man army, magnificently equipped with all the hardware of modern warfare—tanks, artillery, trucks, armored cars, and even airplanes—began to disembark from the transports.  The enormous quantities of materiel seemed confirmation that the French were in Odessa to stay.

     

    French Troops in Odessa, 1918-1919

     

    People rushed out onto the streets leading to the harbor to cheer the arriving troops as saviors and liberators.  After months of anxiety, the joyful unreality of the scene was magnified by the exotic appearance of the soldiers, few of whom, it turned out, actually came from mainland France. 

    Most were from French colonies in North Africa, including black Muslims from Morocco and 30,000 Zouaves from Algeria, who wore picturesque baggy red pants and fezzes.  There was also a large contingent of tough-looking Greeks in khaki kilts and caps with long tassels. 

     

    French Zouave Troops

     

    After the African troops set up camp, Odessites gathered to gape at them and were especially struck by their music—the mournful, repetitive melodies, the choked sound of their singing, and their strange-looking, stringed instruments.  This was the largest number of black men that Odessa had ever seen. 

    This was also the largest number that Frederick Thomas had seen since he left the American South twenty-four years before.  He could have spoken French to them.  But who would have been more curious about whom—Frederick about the Africans, or the Africans about a prosperous-looking black gentleman who sounded like one of their white officers?

    As the Allied troops continued to pour in, they spread out from Odessa in a semicircle twenty miles long and with the Black Sea at their backs.  This was the solid barrier that the French Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Army in the East—an especially grand title that echoed the allies’ imperialistic ambitions in the region—General Franchet d’Espèrey, who was based in Constantinople, promised would allow a White Russian army to grow until it was strong enough to move against the Bolsheviks.  (To be continued)

    Frederick in Odessa, 1918-1919, or Russians Fighting Ukrainians while Waiting for the French

    Everything suddenly changed throughout Europe after November 11, 1918.  At eleven in the morning on this eleventh day of the eleventh month, in Compiègne, France, Germany surrendered to the Allies and the Great War was finally over.  Shortly thereafter, as the armistice agreement stipulated, the Germans started to evacuate the territories they had occupied, including the south of Russia and Odessa. 

    And then came news that made the Russians’ heads spin:  an Allied naval squadron had arrived in Constantinople and was heading for Odessa. The French were going to land an army in the city. White Army forces would gather in the resulting enclave to start a crusade against the Bolsheviks, whom the French saw as the Germans’ stepchildren and as traitors to the Allied cause.  Excited crowds began to gather daily on the boulevards above the harbor to search the horizon for the ships of their saviors.  For Frederick Thomas and the other refugees from the north, returning home now seemed just a matter of time.  

     

    The famous Richelieu Steps in Odessa leading from the city to the shore

     

    Before this could happen, however, history staged an unexpected sideshow that sent a wave of panic through the residents when an entirely different force occupied Odessa for a week (the city was such a desirable prize that it would change hands seven times during the three years of Civil War in southern Russia).  An eyewitness likened the whirl of unlikely events that followed to a “kaleidoscope.” 

    Even before the Germans had finished evacuating Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, a nationalist leader, Simon Petlyura, seized power, declared independence, and formed his own army.  He would eventually fight both the Bolsheviks and the Whites in an attempt to keep his country autonomous, but in the meantime marched on Odessa. 

    This was an unnerving development because the city was now virtually defenseless.  Moreover, no one knew exactly what to expect from Petlyura, except that his troops were notoriously anti-Semitic and approximately one third of Odessa’s population was Jewish.  On December 11, following the German evacuation, Petlyura’s 4,000 men occupied most of the city, with the exception of a neutral zone cordoned off by several hundred Polish soldiers who happened to be passing through and who were in touch with the French. 

    Odessites were bemused by the Ukrainians’ appearance, which imitated eighteenth-century Zaporozhian Cossack garb:  shaved heads with long topknots curling down, big astrakhan fur hats, caftans, and curved sabers.  A Russian naval officer who saw them enter the city wondered where they managed to get such things.

     

    Officers and enlisted men in Ukrainian uniforms, 1918-1920

     

    However, the threat Petlyura’s force represented was quite real, as they quickly showed by beginning to rob Jewish jewelry stores. 

    Volunteers for the White Army began to gather in the Polish zone and prepare for battle.  (To be continued)

    Frederick Thomas Faces New Dangers in the South (of Russia)

    Although the act of crossing the border into German-occupied territory immediately removed the class stigma and threats that had dogged Frederick on the Bolshevik side, new problems appeared at every step, beginning with his having to insist that he was—Russian.  The United States had been at war with the Central Powers since April of 1917 and an American entering their territory would have to register as an enemy alien and would be their nominal prisoner.  Frederick’s appearance and the way he spoke English—if he revealed that he could—would have given him away to any German who had ever met other American blacks.

    When the Germans and Austrians occupied southern Russia in early 1918 after the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty with the Bolsheviks, they set up a puppet state in Ukraine, including Odessa, which they garrisoned with thirty thousand troops.  Their presence put an end to the reign of terror that the Bolsheviks had unleashed in the city after their October takeover.  But not all the Bolsheviks fled.  Some went underground instead, plotting how to expel the occupiers and their local allies, and waging a persistent, low-grade guerilla war that marked daily life in Odessa.  Ukrainian police bristling with guns stood on every street corner and could kill on sight any civilian carrying a firearm.  Despite this, the city regularly echoed with the sounds of gunfire and explosions, as Bolsheviks sniped at sentries and blew up supply depots. 

    There was an even greater danger for Frederick and other civilians than being accidentally caught in crossfire.  In Odessa as in Moscow, the Bolsheviks had thrown open all the prisons after their putsch and several thousand thieves and murderers had spilled out onto the streets.  Thus reinforced, the city’s notorious criminal gangs—which were comparable in their larger-than-life brazenness to Chicago gangsters from the 1920s—instituted their own reign of terror against the city’s inhabitants, whom they burglarized, robbed, and murdered on the streets, in their homes, and in their businesses.  The “king” of Odessa’s underworld was nicknamed “Mishka Yaponchik,” or “Mikey the Little Jap” (real name, Moisey Vinnitsky) and crimes committed by his gang and their ilk were so numerous that most remained unreported. 

     

    The “king” of Odessa’s underworld “Mishka Yaponchik,” or “Mikey the Little Jap”

     

    Odessa was especially dangerous at night.  Many eyewitnesses recalled how gunfire that began on the city’s outskirts at dusk gradually crept toward the center as the darkness thickened; after midnight, small arms fire, grenade explosions, and even machine guns would erupt in the city’s heart. 

    A prominent lawyer who risked walking to the well-known London Hotel late one night counted 122 gunshots from various directions during the 12 minutes that he was outside.  The firing lasted all night long and it was hard to tell who was shooting at whom—Bolsheviks at soldiers, or criminals at barricaded homeowners; most times, it was both. 

    Frederick owned an expensive villa in Odessa located in an outlying, sparsely populated area that would have been easy prey for thieves who would not hesitate to kill anyone who got in their way.  Frederick was also sufficiently prominent to have been mentioned in local newspapers when he arrived in the summer of 1918, together with other notable entrepreneurs and entertainers from Moscow and Petrograd, which increased the chances of his becoming a target.  Between Bolsheviks on the one hand, who were still eager to finish settling accounts with the “bourgeoisie,” and traditional thieves on the other, he would have found it prudent to move himself and his family to the city center, where there was at least some safety in numbers.

    But even with bullets and other threats swarming around them, Odessites were still free in ways that had become impossible in the Bolshevik north.  The Germans and Austrians had no interest in establishing a radically different social and economic order or in reengineering human beings, and thus largely left the local population to its own initiatives.  As a result, the city’s residents could pursue all their favorite pastimes and forms of dissipation, which they did with a feverish zeal that contemporaries likened to a feast during a plague. 

    During the day, the handsome streets overflowed with colorful and polyglot southern crowds.  People filled the elegant stores, restaurants, and popular cafes like Robinat and Fanconi, which also doubled as exchanges for hordes of speculators trading currencies, cargoes from abroad, abandoned estates in Bolshevik territory, anything of value.  At night, people flocked to theaters, restaurants, café-chantants, gambling dens, and dives specializing in sex or drugs, throwing money around as if it had lost all value, trying to grab as much pleasure as they could from life and to forget its horrors. 

    As the champagne corks popped and singers warbled indoors, businesses and homeowners bolted their iron shutters and locked their entrance doors.  The city center took on an eerily empty appearance late at night, as if the entire population had died out.  The sudden noise of a crowd leaving a theater or cinema and scattering rapidly broke a silence that was otherwise punctuated only by sporadic gunshots.  Cabs were hard to find and drivers demanded enormous fares to venture out, which forced people to take special precautions if they had to walk any distance. 

    One naval officer recalled being instructed as follows:  if you see someone on the street, and especially two or three people, cross over to the other side immediately and take the safety off your revolver.  If the person or persons follow you, open fire without warning.

    Page 1 ... 3 4 5 6 7 ... 15 Next 10 Entries »