THE BIOGRAPHY OF FREDERICK BRUCE THOMAS, THE REMARKABLE SON
OF MISSISSIPPI SLAVES WHO BECAME A MILLIONAIRE IMPRESARIO
IN TSARIST MOSCOW AND "THE SULTAN OF JAZZ" IN CONSTANTINOPLE
THE BLACK RUSSIAN
"Magnetizing and unforgettable . . . In his assiduously researched, prodigiously descriptive, fluently analytical, and altogether astonishing work of resurrection, Alexandrov provides uniquely focused accounts of racial struggles in America and decadence and bloodshed in Europe and Russia while insightfully and dynamically portraying a singular man."
One of "Top 10 Books of 2013"
One of the "Top 10 Biographies: 2013"
Top SALON critics choose the best books of 2013:
Rigoberto Gonzalez includes The Black Russian in his list of Top Ten
"A Best Book of the Month" in history for March 2013 Amazon.com
"an amazing story . . . Thomas' improvisational life . . . filled me with wonder and sadness. . . Alexandrov has done a remarkable job piecing together the puzzle of Thomas' life . . . his story staggered me."
Henry Louis Gates, Jr. The Root, rpt. 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro
"With so much focus on the black experience in America in the 19th century, we might never consider the black experience in Europe at the same time. Vladimir Alexandrov’s The Black Russian rectifies this oversight, and does so with panache. His tale is the biography of an individual who is wholly remarkable, regardless of race, and whose vitality, guile, and charm led him from Mississippi to Moscow, with plenty of adventures along the way . . . With such a rollicking story, it’s easy to see why a biographer would leap at the chance to chart the wild life of Russia’s first black impresario . . . [Alexandrov] does so with style . . . [and] transports the reader to an exotic era. Some of the most memorable parts of Thomas’s life story lie in the incidental grace notes that add color to the lands through which he traveled . . . Through these bejeweled chapels of lateral detail, Thomas’s escapades leap off the page . . . [The Black Russian] cries out to be a Russian Moulin Rouge; it will only be a matter of time before we see Thomas on the big screen. His life was certainly large enough to fill one." The Daily Beast
"[A] gracefully written feat of historical sleuthing . . . The book is the astonishing and, incredible as it seems, previously unearthed account of the spectacularly tragic life of one Frederick Bruce Thomas, the son of an American slave who went on to reinvent himself as a dashing, polyglot multimillionaire in Moscow and Constantinople in the first quarter of the 20th century. . . A century later, we have Vladimir Alexandrov to thank for resurrecting Thomas' story. Through prodigious archival research, historical scholarship and painstaking reconstruction of secondhand accounts, he has drawn a moving and vivid portrait of a remarkable American life."
San Francisco Chronicle, lead review
"Alexandrov . . . combines the nose of a biographer, the eye of a historian, and the imagination of a novelist to tell the exhilarating story of this extraordinary man . . . It is a testament to Thomas’s unlikely success in Moscow, but also to Alexandrov’s frisson-inducing account of myriad adventures along the way, that The Black Russian emerges as deeply satisfying despite its subject’s woebegone end . . . By its very nature, the victory of an underdog has a restorative effect on flagging enthusiasm in life’s opportunities. And what triumph against the odds could prove more rousing than that of Frederick Bruce Thomas, the son of former slaves who leaves the Jim Crow South for the “warmth of other suns” further north, only to wend his way via Paris to freezing Moscow, where he becomes the king of nightlife?"
". . . masterly . . . Alexandrov follows his subject in forensic detail. . . sheds a great deal of light on the plight of many of the Russians who made [Istanbul] their home . . . Raucous accounts of Thomas’s clubs, with their bands of African-American musicians and polyglot audiences, fill Alexandrov’s book: 'the gaiety, the din of the Jazz band, the dazzling luxury, the women amidst beautifully appointed tables decorated with flowers and crystal'.”
Cornucopia: The Magazine for Connoisseurs of Turkey
“a biography as good as a novel . . . The Black Russian is a page-turner . . . [Alexandrov’s] discipline of the imagination brings this astonishing saga all the more to real life.”
"Thomas’s story is a remarkable one for an African American man during this time . . . Alexandrov does an excellent job of contrasting the intricacies of race, identity, and nationalism."
“поразительная биография, которая ‘так и просится на экран’/an amazing biography that is ‘destined for the big screen’”
"удивительное жизнеописание человека/an amazing life story"
"Thomas's life is one of cinematic proportions, and Alexandrov tells it brilliantly, and in exquisite detail. Mining interviews, family memoirs and contemporaneous accounts, he reconstructs the truly extraordinary, colorful life of a man who defied all convention."
"[A]n important book in Mississippi black history . . . Very well-detailed and extensively researched, 'The Black Russian' is a book sure to enthrall and engage anyone interested in reading about unique historical figures, particularly those with Mississippi roots."
"Biography best captivates when, as here, it emphasizes personality. . . It also doesn't hurt that its subject, turn-of-the-century African American Frederick Thomas, was witness to . . . some of the most dramatic events of early 20th-century history, including the First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution . . . a remarkable story about a formidable man. A story Alexandrov has uncovered, and masterfully told."
"Although Alexandrov constructed this vessel with sturdy timbers of historical research, it sails lightly on a swift narrative current that transports us from Reconstruction Mississippi to Memphis, New York City, London, Paris, Moscow and, finally, Constantinople. . . . Alexandrov excels at recreating the various worlds Thomas inhabited -- from his restricted existence during Reconstruction to his glittering fast-lane life on the Continent. . . . What [Thomas’] life illustrates, as Alexandrov skillfully and gracefully shows, is that when people are unshackled from slaveries – of whatever sort – freedom's buoyancy can lift them to surprising heights, can offer miraculous views."
"The Black Russian vaults breathlessly from set-piece to set-piece as it traces the journey of its hero . . . Grand tableaux of 19th-century America and late-tsarist Russia are rendered in crisp, compelling prose . . . Most evocative of all is an account of 1920s Constantinople, which Alexandrov describes with dizzying relish . . . the narrative teems with wonderfully unsalubrious characters . . . panache and engaging detail. Like Thomas’s midnight cabarets, it provides a thoroughly enjoyable display."
". . . a remarkable tale of rags to riches, tragedy, success against the odds and subsequent failure . . . Alexandrov has brought [Thomas] vividly to life . . . and also painted the background of a world undergoing major upheavals in commendable detail. . . it makes for an enthralling if turbulent story . . . The author is to be congratulated for shining a light on this extremely interesting, sometimes inspiring and sometimes tragic life."
Chosen as the "non-fiction book of the month" for May 2013.
"True stories can often be more unbelievable than the most fantastic fiction. The life of Frederick Thomas . . . begs for cinema’s sweeping scope — if the average moviegoer would accept the incredible number of leaps of fortune for one man’s life. . . Alexandrov has written a compelling narrative of an extraordinary life that would be impossible for most to replicate in current times. Frederick Thomas is a case study in perseverance and fortitude; 'The Black Russian' is your textbook."
"[a] fascinating, long-overlooked story . . . The chapters in The Black Russian on Moscow’s frenzied nightlife are especially valuable in rounding out our understanding of the social circles Thomas moved in . . . it’s a testament to Alexandrov’s narrative skills that he seamlessly pairs enormous events with lesser but memorable details . . . [Thomas’s] life and career have been brought to light in this excellent book."
Memphis Magazine (plus related article)
"an amazing (and forgotten) rags-to-riches story of little-known Delta native Frederick Bruce Thomas. . . His journey from a Mississippi cotton patch to the heights of Moscow society and ultimately to the skids of Constantinople is an improbable epic, portrayed here with much flavor and fascinating contextual history, describing an extraordinary Mississippian in a momentous age."
"Not many people have heard of Frederick Thomas yet, but his story is surely destined for the big screen. The true tale of the son of former slaves who became one of Moscow’s richest early twentieth-century entrepreneurs is delightfully unexpected. . . Vladimir Alexandrov has spent years researching Thomas’s extraordinary adventures and produced a pacey and readable account of them in his book . . . [his] descriptions of places in Frederick Thomas’s story are vivid, from the sun-warmed honeysuckle in Coahoma County to the church bells and wood smoke of Moscow."
Russia Beyond the Headlines, Listed as a Great Book of 2013
Praise for the unabridged Audiobook:
"Peter Marinker's narration of how the restaurant and nightclub entrepreneur gained and lost fortunes sounds like a novel. Gripping from the start, Thomas's story is told from the viewpoints of tourists, government officials, and Thomas himself—as well as through published reports. Marinker's voice proves flexible as he conveys the attitudes of bureaucrats, condescending American tourists, Thomas's friends and loyal employees, and Thomas's correspondence. Vladimir Alexandrov gives listeners a short course in the racial attitudes and changing politics of Russia and Turkey during this time period. This is a fascinating life story that few listeners will have heard of."
"It is always a pleasure to discover any tale that grips you from the first page and leads you along the byways of history . . . This biography flows as well as any novel, packed with adventure, romance and drama. The writing and research are exceptional, and the reader will be enthralled . . . Most highly recommended."
"[A] fascinating account of Frederick Bruce Thomas . . . Vladimir Alexandrov manages his narrative superbly. . . and has filled in the background, particularly hedonistic Moscow of the 1900s, with such skill that not for a moment do we feel the narrative has been padded."
The Times Literary Supplement (UK)
"[An] extraordinary story . . . [interpreted] with great sensitivity."
The New York Review of Books, rpt. Darryl Pinckney's Busted in New York and Other Essays
"Про такие книги принято говорить, что они «читаются как роман» и в данном случае это, вероятно, не будет преувеличением. История Фредерика Брюса Томаса . . . обладает всеми чертами полновесной литературной драмы, похожей одновременно на «Хижину дяди Тома», рассказы Бунина, «Золотого теленка» и русскую эмигрантскую прозу. . . Владимир Александров пишет с приятной дотошностью и вместе с тем с обезоруживающей любовью к своему противоречивому и сложному персонажу."
Одна из "пяти важных книг этой осени в жанре нон-фикшн"
(One of "five important non-fiction books of this fall") meduza
"Настоящий плутовской роман, при этом полностью документальный."
Одна из "55 книг, которые нужно купить на non/fiction"
(One of "55 books that you should buy at the Non-fiction Book Fair")
"Сказочная — по богатству деталей и общему колориту — биография"
Одна из "30 книг, которые стоит купить на non/fiction"
(One of "30 books you should buy at the Non-fiction Book Fair")
Черный русский: История одной судьбы в списке "самых интересных книг ярмарки Non/fiction": "29 книг, которые объясняют окружающий мир"
(One of "29 most interesting books at the Non-fiction Book Fair")
Черный русский: История одной судьбы включен в список "20 самых интересных новинок документальной и художественной литературы" на ярмарке Non/fiction:"Александров создал удивительную биографию"
(One of "20 of the most interesting new books at the Non-fiction Book Fair")
One of "Eight most anticipated books of 2017"
One of "11 important books" of 2016
"В рассказываемой истории особенно наглядно видно, как маленький человек не только является жертвой или объектом неких «больших процессов», не только оказывается под властью тех или иных порядков, экономических, культурных и политических, но и использует их."
"Книга Владимира Александрова о Фредерике Томасе – добросовестный, документально достоверный, написанный на высоком художественном уровне труд, который объединяет разнообразные исторические и культурные контексты . . . Ценность произведения в том, что оно является уникальным историческим документом и вместе с тем свидетельством силы личности чернокожего русского подданного."
"Vladimir Alexandrov's new book, The Black Russian, tells Frederick Thomas's life story, and - hold on to your eyelids - it's quite a tale. Indeed it's so colourful and improbable that it reads more like a novel than a work of historical biography. . . The book's author . . . has painted such a vivid and touchingly sympathetic portrait of his 'diamond-bedecked' hero that I was rooting for him from the first page to the last. Alexandrov . . . has clearly spent many hours in the archives; but his knowledge is lightly worn, his writing elegant and his story endlessly fascinating. His book opens a window onto a world enmeshed in war, revolution and racism, yet it was a world that offered boundless opportunity to those with enough bravura to seize it."
"Drawing upon an abundance of sources ranging from government documents to periodicals to personal travelogues, Alexandrov [presents] . . . a detailed, readable history of Gilded Age America and the politics and cultural life of early 20th-century Russia — one whose common thread is a man with expansive dreams who was lucky enough to be able to leave his homeland to realize them."
"A spirited tale of boundary-crossing and history-bucking, every bit as colorful as it seems improbable."
Stacy Schiff, Pulitzer Prize winner, author of the New York Times best-seller Cleopatra: A Life
"This well-written book is about one of the most fascinating black men of modern times. Like Jack Johnson, Frederick Thomas was a brilliant, proud and ambitious black man who experienced the heights of success and the depths of failure – in a foreign land. Don't miss this masterful work!"
Cornel West, public intellectual, author of Race Matters, The Rich and the Rest of Us (with Tavis Smiley)
"As a reader, I found myself fascinated by this well-written story. As a writer, I found myself envious of Vladimir Alexandrov for having discovered such a remarkable man whose life, both triumphant and tragic, spans continents, wars and a revolution—and whom no one seems to have noticed before. An extraordinary and gripping book."
Adam Hochschild, prize-winning author of the New York Times best-seller To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918
"A fascinating tale of culture clash and historical change, researched with energy and written with verve."
Anne Applebaum, Pulitzer Prize winning author of the international best-seller Gulag: A History
"Beginning his account with a daring escape from 1919 Russia to Constantinople, Alexandrov . . . promises a wild life of intrigue, deception and beating the odds for his subject . . .Thomas’ story is certainly interesting, particularly since he was able to thrive in Europe in a way most African-American men of his generation couldn’t dream of . . . a good choice for those who enjoy reading about life’s underdogs."
"A compelling narrative of [a] powerful and complex man."
"Hang on for the ride of a lifetime. With the verve of a novelist . . . Alexandrov takes one on an adventure through pre-war Mississippi, London, Paris, Tsarist Russia and the Bolshevik Revolution, ending up in decadent Constantinople."
John Bailey, author of The Lost German Slave Girl
"In The Black Russian, Vladimir Alexandrov tells the keenly researched and vividly written story of one of the more extraordinary characters in African-American history. Alexandrov deftly brings to life the succession of complex milieus in the United States, France, Russia, and Turkey in which Frederick Bruce Thomas achieved both his improbable successes and his haunting defeats. This is a tale to remember."
Arnold Rampersad, award-winning and best-selling biographer of Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, and Jackie Robinson
"That truth is ever stranger than fiction is underscored by the story of Frederick Bruce Thomas. The highs and lows of Thomas's unlikely life journey are skillfully unfurled by Vladimir Alexandrov."
Elizabeth Dowling Taylor, author of the New York Times best-seller A Slave in the White House
"As the granddaughter of a family that escaped from Russia because of the Bolshevik Revolution, I read The Black Russian in one sitting. Vladimir Alexandrov has done more than tell the story of a forgotten man, he has woven a fascinating tapestry of Moscow life before the October Revolution. The reader is offered a unique front-row seat to Moscow's Pre-Revolutionary beau monde and a hair-raising escape days before the Bolshevik takeover. Frederick Thomas’s unlikely ascent from Mississippi farmboy to Moscow impresario is a surprising tale with those most American of themes: tenacity and self-invention."
Olga Andreyev Carlisle, author of Solzhenitsyn and the Secret Circle
"Vladimir Alexandrov provides a powerful counter-narrative to the conventional Great Migration story of southern blacks migrating North en masse in the decades after the Civil War. . .In assembling the facts of Thomas's story, Alexandrov relates in vivid detail the political, financial, and emotional highs and lows of this man's incredible life."
Carla L. Peterson, author of Black Gotham: A Family History of African Americans in Nineteenth-Century New York City