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18 November 2018

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The Black Russian

Vladimir Alexandrov (Atlantic Monthly, $25)

The biography of Fyodor Fyodorovich Tomas, born Frederick Bruce Thomas in Hopson Bayou in Mississippi to former slaves, is one of repeated escape and reinvention, of the seemingly boundless ability of a man to create his own world out of nothing but hard work and imagination.

The outlines of the tale are simple enough: born into a farming family, Frederick is forced to flee Mississippi after his father’s murder, works for a time as a waiter in the North, then escapes to Europe in search of greater freedom. There, he eventually (in 1899) decides to seek his fortune in tsarist Russia (which was then notably less racist than Europe and certainly America). His success is astounding: he establishes a chain of theaters and restaurants and becomes a Russian citizen and a millionaire. In fact, by the time he and his family flee Bolshevik Russia in 1919, he is worth over $10 million (in current dollars), but, tragically, he has only $25 in his pocket.

Thomas proceeds to rebuild his life in Turkey. But it does not end well, as xenophobia and racism catch up with him in the end. Just as with Lina Prokofiev, 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.

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: May/June 2013