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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 Thomas (109)

    Frederick Suffers “Delousing” at the Hands of the French

    Once ashore in Turkey, Frederick Thomas and the other Russian refugees had to go through “delousing” to rid them of any disease-carrying vermin they might be carrying.  The process was painfully slow, primitive, and deeply degrading.

     

    Russian Refugees During the Civil War

     

    Men and women were separated and made to enter a barrack-like building through different doors; no one was spared and small children had to go with their mothers.  Inside, they were ordered to undress completely, to put all their clothes in mesh bags they were given, and then to proceed into what proved to be a large communal shower room.  There they were told to wash—it was a matter of luck if the water was hot or cold, and the guards were brutal about forcing everyone through, no matter what their age or state of health—after which they moved into a third hall, where, eventually, their mesh bags were tossed back to them through a window.  There were no towels of course and everyone had to get dressed as best they could.

    One vicitm recalled how shocked he was when he saw what had happened to his clothing.  The delousing process consisted of putting the filled mesh bags through a chamber filled with high temperature steam that was supposed to kill any vermin that might be in the clothes.  But the heat and moisture also warped and scorched leather shoes, shrank fabrics, and baked wrinkles into garments that could not be smoothed out.  Women in particular were distressed to see their dresses ruined, which stripped them of the last vestiges of their dignity. 

    Outside the delousing station, long lines formed as the masses of refugees overwhelmed the inefficient system.  The crush was so great that one of the ships that arrived from Odessa with a thousand passengers, including fifty orphans, spent eight days at Kavak without allowing anyone on shore.  Even with armed guards posted on deck, many passengers still risked trying to slip overboard to escape the horrible conditions. 

    Because of confusion and miscommunication, other ships that arrived from Russia later in April of 1919 evaded French controls and let their passengers off without any controls. Inevitably, bribes smoothed the way to Constantinople for anyone who had the money, allowing various shady characters and political undesirables to enter the city unhindered, to the annoyance of the French military gatekeepers. 

    But Frederick had only some twenty-five dollars to his name out of the millions he had lost.

    THE BLACK RUSSIAN Paperback Trailer 2.0

    Once again, I pause my narrative about Frederick Thomas's escape from Russia to Constantinople in 1919 to release the new and (I hope) improved trailer for the paperback edition of THE BLACK RUSSIAN--one I have designated "Version 2.0."  By now I've either exhausted Movie Maker's potentials for making a film, or at least my own abilities using this very simple program.

    My aim was for something more striking in all respects.

    I welcome comments and especially . . . REPOSTS!

    To see the trailer, please click on the image below:

     

     

    The Misery of Frederick Thomas’s Evacuation to Constantinople

    On the evening of April 7, 1919, after a voyage of some forty hours, Imperator Nikolay entered the Bosphorus and anchored a few miles from the Black Sea, near Kavaka, a small town on the Asian shore now called Anadolu Kavagi.  The site was then, and still is, dominated by the ruins of an ancient castle, with its twin, also ruined, on the European side.  

     

    Anadolu Kavagi, on the Asian side of the Bosphorus

     

    These enigmatic monuments from the Byzantine past were among the first signs the Imperator Nikolay’s passengers had seen of how far they had traveled from home.  Other steamers from Odessa arrived that night and by morning there were a half dozen, all overflowing with evacuees. 

    Reaching Turkey was not the end of the ordeal for Frederick and his family, however.  French officers came on board the Imperator Nikolay and posted black Senegalese sentries everywhere.  Rather than being made to feel that they had finally arrived in a safe haven, the passengers were treated like prisoners and were ordered to disembark so that they could undergo medical examinations and quarantine on shore. 

    Together with the British and the Italians, the French were one of the main occupying powers in Constantinople and took charge of processing arrivals from south Russia.  The Allies were alarmed by the typhus epidemic in Odessa, and since lice spread the disease, “severe delousing” had been made mandatory for anyone arriving from Russia.  They were also much concerned about political and criminal undesirables sneaking in with the refugees and did what they could to screen passengers.

    Although the French procedures were driven by legitimate public health concerns, they were also humiliating and the guards treated the passengers very harshly.  An eyewitness recalls what Frederick and others endured:

    It was a pathetic sight to see the barges, overloaded with men, women, and children, leaving for the Kavaka quarantine station. Old men and women of good families and wealth, accustomed to luxury and courteous treatment, were stumbling down the gangway under the oaths and coarse shouts of French sergeants who were treating them like cattle.

    And Constantinople itself, the fabled capital of the Ottoman Empire, was still miles away.

    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)

    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)

    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)