Born in Mississippi in 1872 to former slaves, Frederick Bruce Thomas is the virtually indomitable title character of Vladimir Alexandrov’s “The Black Russian” (Atlantic Monthly Press, 306 pages, $25). Drawing upon an abundance of sources ranging from government documents to periodicals to personal travelogues, Alexandrov recounts how Thomas’ unquenchable wanderlust inspired him to start traveling around the United States to work at age 18 and ended up in Russia about 10 years later, where his race was virtually a nonissue and he created a long, successful career for himself.
Alexandrov is nothing if not thorough, telling Thomas’ story from even before its beginning to after its end (where he provides a few details on his children). He begins with Thomas’ somewhat unusual family background: His mother was literate, and his parents were among only a handful of prosperous black landowners in their county. He then discusses the decade Thomas spent starting his career in the service and hospitality industries (waiter, bellboy, valet) in several large U.S. cities, continuing this career in Europe in 1894, and finally heading to Russia in 1899.
The moment Thomas arrives in Russia, the narrative gains new life. Over the course of almost 20 years, Thomas steadily moves up the ranks in his field (including becoming maître d’ hôtel at a couple of renowned establishments), adapts to the changes of two major revolutions, and ultimately becomes a well-known, respected, savvy proprietor of several high-end social clubs. In 1918, with his venues significantly choked by the Bolshevik regime and finding himself slated for arrest by the Cheka, he fled to Odessa, then in 1919 to Constantinople, where he rebuilt his career.
In Russia, Thomas’ race is rarely an issue; when it is, it’s usually in the context of American travelers thrown by the sight of a successful, popular black businessman. (Citizenship juggling becomes more of an issue for Thomas than his race.) There are stretches when Thomas’ race drops out of the picture entirely, leaving simply the story of a shrewd entrepreneur who loves to travel and excels in the industry. While this feels refreshingly progressive (although as Alexandrov points out, Russia may not have had a problem with blacks, but it did with Jews), it can also make the book feel more generic; plus, sometimes Thomas’ successes can become a bit monotonous.
From a certain angle, “The Black Russian” could be seen as 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.
Kim Hedges is an editor and book reviewer in the San Francisco Bay Area.