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    Entries in 1918 (4)

    Frederick Thomas and Armistice Day

    When the Great War ended with the signing of the armistice between the Allies and Germany on November 11, 1918, at Compèigne, France, Frederick had been in Odessa, Russia, for the past four months, following his harrowing escape from the Bolsheviks in Moscow.  Although far from the momentous event near Paris, Frederick and scores of thousands of others like him knew that their lives were now also changed because the Germans occupying the north coast of the Black Sea would have to leave and the French would replace them.  It seemed at the time that this would be the end of the Bolsheviks.

    I was reminded of this today in Paris when I went to watch the Armistice commemoration that takes place on November 11 at 11 am every year, with a parade of some one hundred and fifty cavalrymen of the Garde républicaine on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées while wreaths are placed on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier under the Arc de Triomphe.


    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 Thomas Flees the Bolsheviks to Save His Life

    Several months after Frederick’s wife, Elvira, and the four children managed to leave Moscow for Odessa, Thomas decided that he had to escape as well.  His businesses and properties had been stolen by the new regime, or “nationalized” in the euphemism of the time.  All that he was allowed to do to make a living was run a cheap canteen for theatrical workers in the basement of one of his former properties.  And, most importantly, in the spring of 1918 Frederick learned that he was slated for arrest by the “Cheka,” the notorious political police that Lenin had established shortly after the Bolshevik coup d’état in November 1917.  The Cheka’s standard punishment for infractions of any kind by “class enemies” like Frederick was death.


     Frederick Thomas looking prosperous in 1913


    Given the looming arrest, Frederick knew that he could never get official permission to leave Moscow, but he also knew that he could buy any document that he needed if he had the cash; in 1918, the going rate for a passport from a police station in Moscow was around 1,200 rubles.  With Soviet money replacing Tsarist and Kerensky (or Provisional Government) rubles, which were also still in circulation, and the situation in the German-occupied territory in the south even more confused because of yet other currencies, the surest value and safety lay in gold coins.  The Bolshevik regime had tried to confiscate all that it could get its hands on, but one could still buy gold on the black market.  In Moscow in 1918, tsarist ten-ruble gold coins, and even some German gold coins, sold for approximately ten times their face value.  These could prove invaluable if one needed to bribe a border guard, or buy one’s way out of an arrest or other threat. 

    Frederick was very lucky because he was able to get out of Moscow in a friend’s train compartment, which implies that the friend had influence or connections.  Travelers with neither had to manage with any space they could find and conditions were brutal.  One army officer who was hiding from the Cheka left Moscow in 1918 from the same Kursk and Nizhny Novgorod station that Frederick used, and recalled that the only space into which he could squeeze in one of the passenger cars was a bathroom that was already occupied by a woman and her brood of small crying children.  Whenever the slowly moving train stopped anywhere on its journey south, people on the platforms would try to climb aboard, but the passengers were packed together so tightly that there was nowhere for anyone to move.  Eventually, the officer was able to shift to the corridor, which was a great relief because even though he had to stand he at least had fresh air.

    What happened on the journey south also varied depending on one’s luck.  Some trains made it from Moscow to the border of German-occupied Ukraine in only a couple of days, despite the long stops at intermediate stations.  A political fugitive who was traveling under a false name in 1918 was surprised by the quickness and superficiality of the three searches to which he was subjected.  When Bolsheviks stopped his train and forced everyone off, he was able to conceal a matchbox containing his stash of gold coins in the grass near the rails and to pick it up after the search was over.  However, other trains heading south were blocked at remote road crossings by bands of armed men who were either Bolsheviks or criminal gangs—it was frequently hard to tell—and who would open fire on the cars to chase everyone out; they would then loot the passengers’ belongings before letting them back on.  Conditions on the trains themselves were miserable:  they were not only overcrowded but dilapidated and unsanitary; windows were broken; thefts were rampant; food and water were hard to come by; and stops at stations that were usually pillaged failed to provide relief.  Young women traveling alone were especially at risk. 

    The reactions of passengers once they reached the frontier of German-occupied Ukraine would typically be a mixture of elation and resentment.  On the one hand, they were finally getting out from under Bolshevik control.  On the other, the Germans acted like the conquerors they were:  soldiers herded disembarking passengers across the border with little wooden switches, as if they were farm animals; officers checked the passengers’ papers at tedious length; and then, in an attempt to stop the spread of typhus, influenza, smallpox, and other diseases, sent everyone off for days of quarantine in hideous temporary barracks before allowing them to continue on their way.  But this was a small price to pay for freedom from the Bolsheviks.

    Frederick Thomas’s Wife, His Mistress, and the Bolshevik Commissar

    The October 1917 Bolshevik Revolution also changed Frederick’s strained relations with the two women in his life. 

    Shortly after he had married his second wife, Valli, in 1913 (which was clearly a marriage of convenience for him) he began an affair with a beautiful, young, German singer and dancer, Elvira, who had performed on one of his stages.  Elvira quickly bore Frederick two sons, in addition to the three children he had had with his first wife, Hedwig (after Hedwig died of pneumonia, Valli helped raise the children). 

    Elvira--Frederick's mistress and later his wife.


    Valli--Frederick Thomas's second wife.

    Until 1917, Frederick had managed to have a stable if awkward arrangement with his two families.  But after the Bolshevik Revolution, this arrangement was transformed into a poisonous mixture of the personal and the political.  In the crazy inversion of Russian norms that the Revolution caused, it was as if Valli were an American woman who suddenly decided that her estranged husband was a “Negro.” 

    Frederick had known for over a year that Valli had taken a lover herself.  Neither the man's name nor occupation before the October Revolution is known.  However, he must have been an ardent supporter of the new regime because he emerged as a “Bolshevik Commissar,” in Frederick’s later characterization.  As such, he had become a powerful figure in Moscow’s new government, and his involvement with Valli became dangerous because he could now give teeth to the animosity that she harbored toward her estranged husband.  It would not take long for Frederick to be confronted by Valli’s wrath. 

    Given how badly things were going in Moscow, in early 1918 Frederick decided to send all five of his children with Elvira to the port city of Odessa on the Black Sea where he had a villa.  But this required him to visit Valli because his three oldest children still lived with her.

    On the eve of Elvira’s departure, Frederick went to his apartment at 32 Malaya Bronnaya Street in central Moscow to fetch the children.  Valli was not expecting him.  When he walked into the bedroom he was shocked to see that her lover was there with her.  The scene left nothing to the imagination:  “I caught her upstairs of my eight-room flat, in bed with one of them commissars,” was how Frederick described it later. 

    Valli was infuriated by Frederick’s sudden appearance as well as by his reason for coming to the apartment.  Turning toward her lover, she began to goad him to avenge the humiliations that she had suffered at Frederick’s hands.  This was not an idle threat.  Commissars at this time carried guns and were free to use them.  Moreover, Frederick was not only an adulterous husband but also a class enemy because he had been a rich entrepreneur.  

    (To be continued)