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The Black Russian by Vladimir Alexandrov (review)
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The Black Russian, by Vladimir Alexandrov. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2013, 304 pages.

Vladimir Alexandrov’s biography of Frederick Bruce Thomas, an African American man born in the late nineteenth century in Mississippi, uncovers the peripatetic life of Thomas from the United States to Russia and Turkey by way of London, Paris, France, and Milan and Venice, Italy. An unlikely candidate for extreme wealth in Moscow, Russia, Thomas with his Southern drawl and knack for delivering excellent service and entertaining diversions was [End Page 92] at one time a waiter and later the owner of posh establishments in Moscow and Constantinople, along the way introducing jazz to the Turks. He had made and lost a fortune by the time he died indigent in a Turkish prison in the late 1920s.

He left a sickly widow and children scattered and impoverished in Paris, America, and Russia. Thomas’s story is a remarkable one for an African American man during this time, but also in Russian history, for Thomas had become a citizen of Russia. He was not a learned man but a clever one whose entrepreneurial spirit and flair carried him quite far. Alexandrov does an excellent job of contrasting the intricacies of race, identity, and nationalism in pre-Bolshevik revolutionary Russia with the gnarled race politics of the United States that ultimately became Thomas’s undoing in Turkey.

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