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    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

    Entries in Frederick (6)

    Frederick and the Hoover Institution in California

    Actually, the closest Frederick ever got to California was when he started a trip there from Moscow  in 1904.  He said he travelled via Siberia, accompanying a Russian noblemen as a translator, but that they got only as far as Manila when the Russo-Japanese War broke out.  Frederick referred to this story several times in later years, and although I did my best to confirm it when I was researching his life, I was unable to find any corroborating evidence.  Perhaps it was apocryphal.

     

    The Hoover Institution Tower, Stanford University, Palo Alto, California

    However, Frederick's biographer is leaving for California and Palo Alto tomorrow (the Hoover Institution is on the campus of Stanford University) to do research in archives.  My new subject is Boris Savinkov (1879-1925), the terrorist revolutionary, writer, and political activist who waged wars against the tsar, Lenin, and the Bolsheviks.  He led an amazing life and the Hoover archives have a great deal of important information about him.

    I will return to Frederick's real life journey in future posts.

    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 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)

    Frederick Tries to Stay Afloat During the Growing Revolutionary Storm

    In the summer of 1917, under the Provisional Government that took over in March when Tsar Nicholas II abdicated, Moscow theaters specializing in light entertainment were still doing reasonably good business.  They staged some farces that adapted to the times, such as Vova is a Revolutionary (an earlier variant about a draftee into the army was Vova Found a Way;  incidentally, “Vova” is one of the Russian diminutives for “Vladimir”),  but also continued to put on plays and sketches of the familiar, frivolous sort with titles like The Adulteress, Little Cocotte Mumu, and An Unforgettable Night

    However, although variety theaters like Frederick’s Aquarium tried to continue with their “Music-Halls” and “Grand Gypsy Concerts,” they were not as successful, largely because new regulations forced them to curtail hours sharply and to close at the unfashionably early hour of 11 pm.  This was due primarily to electricity shortages in the city, which, in turn, were caused by shortages of coal for the generating plants.  Several owners of variety theaters and garden restaurants came up with an idea that had a tinge of desperation about it—to use candles and kerosene lamps to extend their business hours until 2 am.  The city government eventually disapproved this plan for reasons of public safety but in a gesture toward the owners, did allow their establishments to stay open an hour later after July 1, when clocks were set back one hour to gain more daylight. 

    But Frederick was still a player.  One of the rare published photographs of him dates from this time, indicating that he was still very much a recognized figure in Moscow’s theatrical world:

    Photograph of “F. F. Thomas,” looking dapper, and E. N. Burakovskaya, a popular actress in comedies and farces, holding his arm.  The background and shop sign in the upper left, which reads “Fuel,” suggest that they are actually on a Moscow street rather than “In Aquarium,”as the caption indicates. 

    (Rampa i zhizn’, June 18, 1917, p. 10)

    Frederick Earns the Right to Wear a Sword at the Tsar’s Court

    Despite the widespread revolutionary rhetoric and social upheavals going on in Russia after the first Revolution in March 1917, a number of venerable tsarist institutions continued to function via inertia for a number of months.  And it is striking that Frederick chose to attach himself to one of the most archaic of these. 

    On June 10/23, 1917, he was officially named a Moscow “Merchant of the First Guild” and his name was duly entered in the register for “Gostinnaya sloboda,” or the “Guest quarter,” which was an old Moscow geographical designation dating to medieval times that now referred simply to a specific merchants’ association.  Frederick had paid the necessary fee and applied for this status earlier the same year, and his membership was made retroactive to the beginning of 1917.  He had included Olga, his oldest child, who had recently turned 15, in the petition as well.

    The designation that Frederick received was established in the early eighteenth century and had originally entitled the bearer to some important privileges.  The designation was also honorific and functioned as a kind of title that gave its bearers, who could not become nobles in Russia’s rigid class system, an elevated social status. 

    By the beginning of the twentieth century, however, the designation was little more than an anachronism, even though some of its perquisites were still useful:  first guild merchants received passports without expiration dates.  Other privileges were colorful: first guild merchants were entitled to attend the tsar’s court and wear an official uniform, including a sword. 

    This is a sight that would have been wonderful to see.  But, alas, by the time Frederick became a member, the merchant guild was effectively obsolete and the tsar and his court were no more (Nicholas II had been placed under house arrest in one of his former palaces after he abdicated).  Nonetheless, for Frederick his election was yet another sign that he had succeeded in rising to the top of his profession and that his Russian peers recognized this.  It was also another expression of his faith in the future of the city and country that had made it possible for him to become fully himself.  And the fact that he included Olga in his petition demonstrates his expectation that she, and probably his other children when they were older, would also participate in the businesses that he had established.

    However, once again Frederick’s timing could scarcely have been worse.  By becoming a merchant of the first guild Frederick was publicly and proudly confirming what he in fact was—a prosperous bourgeois capitalist.  But although these terms may have been honorable in old Russia, they would soon become anathema in the growing revolutionary storm.  Frederick was on the verge of discovering that he was no longer merely caught in the flow of history; its forces were beginning to turn against him.