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    Entries in Lenin (3)

    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.

    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.

    A Digression from Frederick Thomas to a Revolutionary Terrorist

    The twenty years that Frederick spent in Russia, starting in 1899, were marked by ever-increasing violence and social upheaval—political assassinations, strikes, pogroms, the imperial regime’s executions of revolutionaries and demonstrators, the revolution of 1905, millions of deaths during the Great War—all culminating in the revolutions of 1917 and the civil war of 1917-1921.

    I’m in London now to do research on a person who played a role in much of this violence, the revolutionary terrorist Boris Savinkov—the subject of my next book.  An implacable foe of the imperial regime, he orchestrated the assassination of a prime minister in 1904 and of a grand duke, the tsar’s uncle, in 1905 (who was literally blown to bits inside the Kremlin).  Although a socialist himself, Savinkov hated the Bolsheviks, whom he saw as betraying the needs of Russia’s largely agrarian population.  Thus, after the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917, he started uprisings against them in several cities near Moscow and plotted to assassinate Lenin and Trotsky.  He also did not trust the Whites who were fighting the Reds in the Russian civil war and organized a Russian army in Poland to fight the Bolsheviks. When this failed, he tried to get several European leaders to help him in his campaign, including Churchill and Mussolini.  However, in the end, the Soviet political police managed to lure Savinkov back to Russia, and he died under murky circumstances in the notorious Lubyanka prison in Moscow in 1925.  The official version was that he committed suicide by throwing himself out of a window. 

    This is a very incomplete sketch of just some of the activities of this remarkable man.  Among other things, he wrote novels, poetry, journalism, and a memoir, all of which are extremely interesting sources of information about him.

    The British paid keen attention to Russia during the Great War and afterwards, as a result of which the National Archives in London hold a rich store of documents about this period.  There are also some valuable documents about Savinkov’s activities from 1917 onward.  The National Archives are a wonderful place to work—comfortable, efficient (you get the documents you want in 40 minutes or less), very user-friendly in all respects.  I had worked in them before, when I was researching Frederick’s life.

    It is remarkable to think that Frederick and Savinkov were contemporaries.  Although there is no evidence that they met, one could easily fantasize about their passing each other on a street in Moscow in 1905.  And there is no doubt that Frederick had heard of Savinkov because of how notorious the latter had become after Frederick settled in Moscow.

    The National Archives, Kew, London, England