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    Entries in Bolsheviks (4)

    The Black Russian Lives at The Mark Twain House and Museum

    I learned a great deal while working on The Black Russian—not only about Frederick Thomas’s life and times, of course, but also about all aspects of writing a book for a trade publisher (which differs markedly from academic publishing).

    I am very pleased to have the chance to share what I’ve learned at a workshop this coming Saturday, September 6, 1:00 - 4:00 pm, at The Mark Twain House and Museum, 351 Farmington Avenue, Hartford, Connecticut  (see their website to register and purchase a ticket or click on the logo below).



    Entitled “Writing Historical Biography,” the workshop will cover all aspects of creating a non-fiction book—specifically, a biography of a person from the past—for publication by a trade press.  Topics to include:  subjects that trade presses might find attractive, how to research your subject, write the book, write a proposal, find and pitch an agent, work with a publishing house when your book is sold, and publicize the book both before and after it appears. 

    In addition to my experiences with The Black Russian, the workshop will be based on my preliminary research for two possible books dealing with Russia and the American Civil War.  I will also refer to my current project—a biography of Boris Savinkov, the remarkable Russian terrorist, revolutionary, writer, and political activist who waged wars against the tsar, Lenin, and the Bolsheviks.  Winston Churchill, who knew and admired Savinkov, included an essay about him in his book Great Contemporaries, where he said about him: “when all is said and done . . . few men tried more, gave more, dared more and suffered more for the Russian people.”  Another Englishman, the eminent writer W. Somerset Maugham, admitted: “I think Boris Savinkov the most extraordinary man I have ever met.”  In the eyes of the Soviet political police in the 1920s, Savinkov was so dangerous that no effort was spared to neutralize him.

    I gave a book talk at the Mark Twain House and Museum last winter and also participated in a "Writer's Weekend" there last spring.  I’m looking forward to supporting this wonderful institution once again via my workshop.

    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)

    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)

    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.