Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Review: "The Black Russian" by Vladimir Alexandrov

From Goodreads:  The Black Russian is the incredible story of Frederick Bruce Thomas, born in 1872 to former slaves who became prosperous farmers in Mississippi. A rich white planter’s attempt to steal their land forced them to flee to Memphis, where Frederick’s father was brutally murdered. After leaving the South and working as a waiter and valet in Chicago and Brooklyn, Frederick sought greater freedom in London, then crisscrossed Europe, and—in a highly unusual choice for a black American at the time—went to Russia in 1899. Because he found no color line there, Frederick made Moscow his home. He renamed himself Fyodor Fyodorovich Tomas, married twice, acquired a mistress, and took Russian citizenship. Through his hard work, charm, and guile he became one of the city’s richest and most famous owners of variety theaters and restaurants. The Bolshevik Revolution ruined him, and he barely escaped with his life and family to Constantinople in 1919. Starting from scratch, he made a second fortune by opening celebrated nightclubs that introduced jazz to Turkey. However, the long arm of American racism, the xenophobia of the new Turkish Republic, and Frederick’s own extravagance landed him in debtor’s prison. He died in Constantinople in 1928.

My Thoughts:  I received this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I had a Russian teacher in college who taught a lesson on African-Americans in Russia and I thought it was super interesting.  When I saw this book, I remembered that class and felt like I had to read this book.

Frederick Thomas was an African-American who left the U.S. and eventually settled in Russia and made his fortune.  He had a very poor upbringing but managed to become an incredibly wealthy and well-respected figure in Moscow in the early 20th century.  It was fascinating to read about how he was able to make his way through Europe and live in Russia without the threat of discrimination.  It seemed that there really wasn't a color divide in Russia at that period of time and the only instances where he experienced discrimination was when he encountered Americans.  It is really sad that he had to leave his home country in order to obtain the respect of his fellow man and to be able to make a life for himself.  It kind of says something about how backward America's thinking was in regards to race at that time.

The book was so well-researched and very detailed.  I couldn't believe the plethora of information that was included in the book regarding Frederick's early life, his business dealings and his family. There was even information about some of his employees and business partners.  I was also surprised to see that several of the Americans he encountered wrote about him albeit in a very demeaning, racist manner.  

 Overall, this was a really good book.  It did get a little slow towards the end (after the family got to Constantinople) but for the most part it kept my interest throughout.  I typically tend to get a little bit bored when I read non-fiction but that didn't happen with this book.  I would definitely recommend this to people interested in unique historical figures.  3 1/2 stars.

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