In 1899, Frederick Bruce Thomas arrived in the Russian Empire after five years of working in some of Europe’s poshest restaurants and clubs. Thomas quickly found success in Moscow, where he became a nightclub owner and went on to bring some of the most popular jazz and vaudeville acts of the time. It was a new life. He was very successful and well-connected. He even took on a Russian name Fyodor Fyodorovich Tomas, and became a subject of the Russian empire. Thomas became Russian, and an incredibly rich one that that.
What makes Frederick Bruce Thomas’ story unique is that he was also a Black American. Born in 1872 to former slaves from Mississippi, Thomas’ journey was one of repeated self-transformation that led him out of the deep South to Chicago and New York City, and then throughout Europe to Russia. His blackness meant different things in each place. But it was in Russia that it seemed to matter less. So, who was Frederick Bruce Thomas and what does his life say about blackness, race and racism, and Imperial Russia in the early 20th century? What happened to him after he was forced to flee the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917? Here’s Vladimir Alexandrov with Thomas’ incredible story.
Vladimir Alexandrov is the B. E. Bensinger Professor Emeritus, Slavic Languages and Literatures at Yale University. He is the author of several books including Nabokov’s Otherworld and Limits to Interpretation: The Meanings of Anna Karenina. His most recent book is The Black Russian published by Grove Press.
James Brown, “I’m Black and I’m Proud,” 20 All Time Greatest Hits, 1999.