The Black Russian–a true story of a black American’s amazing adventures

The Black Russian

The Black Russian

Vladimir Alexandrov, of Hamden, grew up in New York City in a Russian emigre family and wanted to be a scientist from an early age. However, after getting Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Geology from Queens College and The City College of New York, he decided that he’d learned enough about the natural world but didn’t understand himself or other people. His solution was to switch to studying literature and the humanities, which resulted in his getting a Ph. D. in Comparative Literature from Princeton. After teaching in the Slavic Department at Harvard, he moved to Yale University in 1986, where he continues to teach courses on Russian literature and culture.

He is the author of a new book out this month, a book that is garnering plenty of advance praise. Booklist, in a starred review, called the book “magnetizing and unforgettable.” And Stacy Schiff, winner of the Pulitzer prize, said it was “a spirited tale of boundary-crossing and history-bucking, every bit as colorful as it seems improbable.

We are thrilled here at Books New Haven to welcome Vladimir Alexandrov to our pages, where he has graciously told us about the process of writing and researching this fascinating book about a character who was very real but whom most of us have never heard about.

Vladimir Alexandrov will be giving talks throughout the country. For more information about his interview schedule, click here for the events page of his website.

And now, Vladimir himself:

Tell us about THE BLACK RUSSIAN.

This is a biography of Frederick Bruce Thomas (1872-1928), the remarkable son of former slaves in Mississippi who became a millionaire impresario in pre-Revolutionary Moscow and was the first to import jazz to Constantinople. Although famous during his lifetime, he is now almost completely forgotten.

How did you come across the original story of Thomas, and when did you know that you were going to write his story?

Seven years ago, while preparing to teach a graduate seminar at Yale on Russian émigré culture between the world wars, I was reading the memoirs of Alexander Vertinsky, a singer who was very popular in Russia before the Revolution, when I came to a remark that made me stop. Vertinsky described how he landed in Constantinople in 1920, which was the first stage on the bitter road to exile for many Russians fleeing the Bolsheviks, and then began to perform in an entertainment garden that belonged, as he put it (I translate from his Russian), “to our famous Russian Negro Fyodor Fyodorovich Tomas, the owner of the famous ‘Maxim’ in Moscow.”

I remember that I was so surprised that I put the book down. I had never heard of this  “Tomas,” and the idea that a black man with a Russian first name and patronymic had been famous for owning an entertainment venue of some sort in pre-Revolutionary Moscow seemed wildly improbable. People of African origin were always very rare in Imperial Russia; in fact, the best-known one, Abram Hannibal, lived in the 18th century (and is well known because he was the ancestor of Alexander Pushkin, Russia’s great national writer). The well-documented visits by such prominent black Americans as the writers Claude McKay and Langston Hughes, or the actor and singer Paul Robeson, did not take place until the Soviet era years later.

Who was this “Fyodor Tomas” and where did he come from? Why did he go to Russia? How did he prosper there to the extent of owning what sounded like a theater? How did Russians react to his being black? How did he wind up in Constantinople? And why, if Vertinsky said that he was “famous,” had he been forgotten?

I started digging through Yale’s vast library, but after considerable effort came up with only a half-dozen brief and contradictory references to this black man. However, I was fortunate in having a year-long sabbatical ahead of me, and dedicated it entirely to a hunt for information through a labyrinth of archives and libraries in five countries.

What I found far exceeded my expectations.

But I didn’t know that I’d actually be able to write Thomas’s biography until I reached a  tipping point in my research—finding two dossiers about him in the National Archives in College Park, MD, after the archivists there had given up and told me that what I was looking for had probably been destroyed. These dossiers led me to sources about Thomas’s youth in Mississippi, and to archives in France and elsewhere.

What did you most want to get across to readers that they might not have known about before you wrote this book?

How a person refused to accept limitations imposed on him by others, and how he repeatedly reinvented himself in exotic settings far from home. How a black American could find acceptance in tsarist Russia at a time when Jim Crow was on the rise in the United States. How, in the end, the long arm of American racism did manage to reach Thomas in distant Constantinople after he had survived wars and revolution in Russia.

Did this book come to you easily, or did you have to wrestle it to the ground once or twice? Did you ever give up on it?

Searching for information about Thomas was fascinating because it was a detective-like hunt that took me to foreign countries. The process was also addictive because every time I found some nugget of information, the thrill of it made me want to re-experience that thrill again. I recall moments in various archives when I held a folder of documents in my hands that might contain information (I didn’t know for sure, but I was following a lead)—and savored the moment before opening the folder.

Do you have a writing process you could share with readers, a way you like to proceed when you’re writing a book?

To make it easier to get started in the morning, I don’t stop work the previous evening until I’ve briefly sketched the next paragraphs in the narrative, or in the argument, that I’m fashioning. Rereading that on the following morning helps me re-saturate myself with the ideas, words, and phrases that filled me when I stopped, and functions as a kind of ski jump into the future passage.

If I’m writing a narrative, I put together a detailed chronology that is several hundred pages long, consisting of the events that are my focus, as well as whatever I am correlating them with from history. This linear “story” can then be rearranged into the book’s “plot,” or the actual sequence of events in the final narrative, which will frequently differ from the “story” (which can be useful to do for effect). But if I’m writing an analysis of literary works, or making a literary theoretical argument, I use hundreds of index cards that I sort into little stacks by category, and arrange on a large dining room table, in as big a grid as necessary. Then I shuffle, reshuffle, and rearrange the cards and stacks until the sequence works.

Was the research fairly easy to come by, or did you have trouble finding the sources you needed?

I searched everywhere I could think of, and often followed what seemed to be promising leads that turned out to be dead ends. For example, I asked or hired people to check archives for me in places as far flung as Rotterdam, Rio de Janeiro, and Ankara; and I was prepared to go there myself if it turned out that they had materials related to my quest (they didn’t). But by being as thorough as I could—by weaving my research net as finely as possible, and by casting it as widely and deeply as possible—I was able to enhance my own “luck” and found a lot of information.

Your book reads like a novel, and tells a story that most people never knew existed. How was that process of weaving together the facts to make a story?

It’s very gratifying to hear that readers find the narrative compelling, which was/is a very important goal for me.The abstract principles of building interest and tension are well known; but achieving this successfully in practice is difficult. It’s of course essential to suggest that something important is coming, and then to withhold the details to make the reader want to find out—in short, to create curiosity. It’s also essential to give the reader a sense of the people or person you’re writing about in a way that will make the reader care. This is also something that is easy to set as a goal, but hard to achieve. I also wanted to understand the kinds of cultural and historical forces that buffeted Thomas and that he had to overcome, struggle with, or escape. For example, I was able to explain why he chose to apply for citizenship in Russia in 1914 by looking at the reactions of Russians to the outbreak of the Great War during the summer of 1914. It was thus very important for me to grasp the timing of certain large-scale events through which Thomas lived.

What has been the most satisfying thing about compiling this information and getting the book written?

That I was able to bring back to public memory one of the most remarkable black Americans in history. And more broadly, that I was able to tell the story of a man who reinvented himself repeatedly in most unlikely locales in order to become himself as fully as possible.

Were there any surprises along the way—either in the research or in the writing? Did you find sources who were unexpected?

All the time. For example, just being able to find Thomas’s grandson in Paris was a surprise and an adventure. And so was discovering that much of what he believed he knew about his grandfather was sheer invention (probably by the grandson’s father, i.e., Thomas’s oldest son, who was born in Moscow). Another example of a surprise was when I went to the French Diplomatic archives in Nantes, hoping to find information about Thomas in Constantinople, and found a cache of letters from a lawyer who tried unsuccessfully to get Thomas to pay royalties for the French music that was played in his Moscow establishments. The letters showed how cunning Thomas was as a businessman who wanted to protect his interests (and how he ran circles around the lawyer).

When did you first know you were a writer?

“Publish or perish” has been the mantra of academics forever, so I’ve been writing ever since graduate school. However, what I tried to do in The Black Russian differs greatly from the kind of writing I did in my academic books and articles. I could no longer assume that my audience would be other academics with an a priori interest in what I wanted to say (if they were in the same field as me and wanted to “keep up” with the scholarly  literature in it). Now, I would be vying with all sorts of books trying to capture the general-interest reader’s attention. Trying to write in a way that would appeal to a general reader was a challenge, but an exciting and compelling one (even when I despaired that I wouldn’t be able to pull it off).

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