interview with Vladimir Alexandrov - author of THE 2014 PUSHKIN HOUSE PRIZE shortlisted book 'The Black Russian'
What is your link to Russia?
My parents are Russian. I was born in Germany and grew up in New York. We spoke Russian at home. I recommend this as the way to learn a difficult language—on your parents’ laps.
What inspired you to write The Black Russian?
My day job is teaching Russian literature and culture. While reading for a graduate seminar on Russian émigré culture between the two wars, I came across a passing reference by Alexander Vertinsky, a crooner well known in Russia during the Great War and afterwards in Europe, to “our famous Russian Negro Fyodor Fyodorovich Tomas”. It was a reference that so surprised me, I put everything aside to try to dig into it. That was 7 years ago.
What was so special about Frederick Thomas?
All the steps in his life were really path-breaking. For a black person from the American south, even leaving Memphis in 1890 and heading north was very unusual decades before the great migration when millions of black people started moving north that only began in earnest after the first world war. The idea to go to London was very innovative. Then moving to Russia and succeeding there was even more of an exception.
What most surprised you most in his life?
That Thomas became himself in Russia. He lived there for close to 20 years, mostly in Moscow. Until then he had been a successful itinerant waiter, valet, maitre d’hotel in western Europe. Russia allowed him to develop his skills and to become owner of two of the most popular light entertainment venues in pre-revolutionary Moscow. This could only have happened in Russia.
Did he experience racism?
When he came to London in 1894, there was no colour line against people with black skin. The only white people who objected to seeing white and black people interacting were visiting American tourists. In Russia there was no bias because black people were virtually unknown. The attitude from employees and employers was very accepting. I think racism in Russia against people of colour began in the early 1960s, when the Soviet Union began to bring students from Africa and other parts of the world to give them an education and indoctrinate them. When there were sufficient numbers, it began to elicit some kind of negative reaction.
What difficulties did you face in researching the book?
Thomas wasn’t a writer, he was a businessman. He left no diaries. I found a couple of dozen letters by him in various archives, as well as numerous reminiscences about him because he was such a colourful figure. I searched everywhere for information in half a dozen countries. To get a sense of him as a person was more difficult than for better documented people, but I was able to piece together a mosaic from big pieces as well as small ones. Thomas was also virtually forgotten after he died in 1928 in Constantinople. I was very lucky that he left a paper trail of sorts in the United States, France, Russia, and Turkey
What did you find in the archives?
The greatest source was the American National Archives. When Thomas was in Constantinople, he initially kept getting into trouble with wholesalers and merchants who supplied his nightclubs because he couldn’t pay his bills on time and was borrowing money at usurious rates. All of these people saw him as an American, so they made complaints to the American Consulate General in Constantinople. The US diplomats, who were mostly racist, wanted him to explain himself to them, so he wrote letters to them.
Did you meet any of his descendants?
I found his grandson via his ex wife, a very famous Parisian lingerie designer. He was very welcoming, very generous. Most of what he had been told was invention of a really elaborate sort, including that his grandfather was a native American of mixed race ancestry. The grandson was rather crestfallen when I first told him what I had discovered.
What appealed most to you about Thomas?
I really admire him and what he did. He didn’t just reinvent himself once. He kept doing it. He made and lost a fortune in Russia, then reinvented himself in Constantinople. Even though he was finally ground down by forces of history, there was a tragic heroic dimension to him. He really tried to buck the forces of history and he won several times. There’s an admirable dimension to his personality.
How challenging was it to write a non-academic book?
I’ll never find another subject like Frederick Thomas. It was chance that led me to him and it changed my life. Before, I was writing rather standard academic monographs – analysing writers, using literary theory. Researching his life was fascinating. I tried to write in a very different way, accessible to a non academic audience. That was very challenging but now I’m now addicted to it.
Has your book been translated into Russian?
So far nobody has taken the bait. I hope the Pushkin Prize nomination will help increase the chances. I think a Russian reader should find Thomas’ life as implausibly fascinating as anyone. The reactions from readers there have been very similar to American and English readers: they find it difficult to believe something like this is true. The memories of him have evaporated. Vadim Sokolovsky, the Russian American film director, has said he would like to see if he could arrange to make my book into a movie or TV mini-series.
Do you have another book project?
I’m writing a biography of Boris Savinkov, the “good terrorist” who waged a war against the Tsar, Lenin and the Bolsheviks. He was a socialist revolutionary involved in some spectacular attacks, who later tried to assassinate Lenin and Trotsky, and continued his fight until 1925 when he threw himself out of window at the Lubyanka prison. He was a remarkable figure. I want to try to understand him and his terrorist milieu, especially given how much terrorism there is around the world today.
Vladimir Alexandrov is professor of Slavic languages and literatures at Yale University.
Interview by Andrew Jack