After the Decembrist uprising of liberal officers in Russia in 1825, the imperial government restricted where the young Alexander Pushkin could go and what he could publish. In 1827, he began “The Negro of Peter the Great,” a novella about his great-grandfather Ibrahim Hannibal that he left unfinished. It is not among Pushkin’s best work, but it was his first attempt at fiction in prose.
Pushkin’s story begins with Hannibal, the tsar’s Moor, having been sent in the early eighteenth century from St. Petersburg to Paris to further his military education. The libertine court of the regent, the duc d’Orléans, treats him as a tantalizing freak. After an unhappy love affair, he returns to St. Petersburg, where his promotion at court is swift. Nevertheless, when the tsar chooses a bride for him, her family is distraught that she is to be sacrificed to “a black devil,” “a bought negro.” They are not consoled by the legend that Hannibal is a sultan’s son, captured by Turks and taken in captivity to Constantinople, where the Russian ambassador rescued him. Hannibal hopes that marrying into the nobility means that he won’t be a stranger in his adopted fatherland any longer. A friend from his Paris days cautions that with his thick lips and woolly head, Hannibal shouldn’t expect fidelity from a wife. Pushkin abandons his subject at that point.
Recent biographers agree that Abram Gannibal, as he’s called in Russian, came originally from what is now Eritrea, but contrary to Pushkin’s story, he was brought, by way of Amsterdam, to Russia in 1703, where he caught the tsar’s attention. Peter had purchased a number of blacks himself when in Amsterdam in 1697 to bring back to Russia as artisans. Peter stood as Gannibal’s godfather in 1707. That he was given an education is an early example of an Enlightenment-era experiment. It proved that black people possessed the necessary mental powers. But Gannibal’s fortunes declined after Peter’s death in 1725. He spent three years working on fortifications in Siberia, a type of exile, and was briefly arrested in 1729. He resigned from the military in 1733, but returned under Peter the Great’s daughter, the Empress Elizabeth, who made him major general of fortifications in 1752.
Gannibal’s first marriage to a Greek sea captain’s daughter was a disaster. His divorce took twenty years. He married bigamously the daughter of an army officer from a German family, by whom he had eleven children. One of his granddaughters was Pushkin’s mother. Gannibal retired from public life in 1762, just before Catherine’s coup, and died in 1781, when thought to be in his early nineties. Though Gannibal had known Voltaire and Montesquieu and excelled at mathematics, Vladimir Nabokov, in a lengthy note to his translation of Eugene Onegin, dismisses the notion that Gannibal was anyone exceptional, characterizing him as a typical career-minded, wife-flogging Russian of his day.
Pushkin’s father came from a family of august lineage. Consequently, Pushkin had little trouble throwing his African ancestry back at his critics. His contemporaries described him as having curly hair and a Negro profile. He wrote with passion against Negro slavery in America. To be descended from Peter’s favorite perhaps added to Pushkin’s recklessness. An enemy in the central censorship directorate complained, “Why in the world is Pushkin so proud of being descended from that Negro Hannibal whom Peter the Great bought for a bottle of rum at Kronstadt?”
In Russia and the Negro: Blacks in Russian History and Thought, in 1986 (a study unusual for its time), Allison Blakely notes that there had been villages of black people along the western slopes of the Caucasus Mountains near the Black Sea, maybe going back to the time of Turkish slave routes. These communities had vanished by the mid-1970s when anthropologists who’d read reports about them from the 1930s went looking for them. But Asiatic blacks are not what we think of when we consider the black presence in Russia. Black people in European Russia came primarily as servants, especially in the eighteenth century, when Russians copied the fashion in Western Europe for the rich to have black attendants. Blakely adds that the tiny black population in imperial Russia would have been made up of sailors and entertainers as well.
Nero Prince, a black American, was reported to have been among the Muscovites who in 1812 set fire to the city in order to drive out Napoleon. Prince, a free black, came from Marlborough, Massachusetts. He sailed as a cook to Russia in 1810, where he became a footman in the imperial household. Prince figures in histories of black Freemasonry in the US, having been elected grand master of the Prince Hall Lodge in Boston, in 1808. His considerably younger second wife, Nancy Gardner, scarcely mentions him in her memoirs, though they had been presented to the tsar and tsarina in 1824. He died in St. Petersburg in 1835.
Born in 1799, Nancy Gardner married Nero Prince to escape her family. Her mother had been widowed three times and Nancy had six siblings to help take care of. In St. Petersburg, she ran a boardinghouse and made linen for infants. Because of ill health, she returned to the US in 1833. She would go on to become an abolitionist who fell out with other abolitionists, a missionary who did not get on well with her fellow missionaries, and a believer in women’s rights who opposed women’s groups. Her short book A Black Woman’s Odyssey through Russia and Jamaica: The Narrative of the Life and Travels of Mrs. Nancy Prince (1850) contains vivid recollections of events that she witnessed in St. Petersburg: the flood of 1824—“I grasped again, and fortunately got hold of the leg of a horse, that had been drowned. I drew myself up, covered with mire…”—and the Decembrist revolt the following year:
The bodies of the killed and mangled were cast into the river, and the snow and ice were stained with the blood of human victims; as they were obliged to drive the cannon to and fro in the midst of the crowd, the bones of those wounded, who might have been cured, were crushed.
Nancy Prince inaugurated a minor literary tradition, that of the black American haven seeker in Russia.
In the twentieth century, communism attracted many black Americans. Black pilgrims to the Soviet Union included the Jamaican-born poet Claude McKay, who lived for two years in Lenin’s Moscow and left disenchanted with the Revolution. Langston Hughes, on the other hand, never got over the experience of traveling around what he considered desegregated, classless Russia in the early 1930s. While McKay, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison broke with the Party, some may forgive Hughes, W.E.B. Du Bois, or Paul Robeson their Stalinist sympathies even after 1956, on grounds that the dream of a liberated, advanced society pitted against Western racism could be a blinding one. Moreover, both Wright and Ellison as young men took Tolstoy and Dostoevsky as their antecedents so that they didn’t have to deal with the racism of most nineteenth-century American fiction by white writers and the inferior quality of nineteenth-century African-American fiction that they knew about. Turgenev and Herzen believed that the agitation against slavery in the United States helped to define the argument against serfdom in Russia.
Between Pushkin’s great-grandfather and the black American agricultural workers from the South who settled permanently on collectives in Uzbekistan in the 1930s, the black presence in Russia would appear to be limited to the exceptional visitor. The black Shakespearean actor Ira Aldridge made sensational tours of Russian cities in the mid-nineteenth century. Thomas Morris Chester, a black journalist and noted Civil War correspondent, sent home his impressions of Russia when on a fund-raising tour there in 1869 on behalf of former slaves in the US—he dined with and reviewed troops with the tsar. Langston Hughes remembers in his second autobiography, I Wonder as I Wander (1956), that he met Emma Harris, “the mammy of Moscow,” a black singer born in Augusta, Georgia, in 1875, who got stranded in Russia after the 1905 Revolution. She became a friend of Maxim Gorky’s and somehow also knew Stalin. In 1933, she finally went back to the US, where she died in 1937.
The Soviet Union was a contentious issue in African-American history in the twentieth century but few thought much about blacks in Russia before 1917. Until recently, blacks in Europe were a marginal, unpopular topic, and Russia was by no means its starting point. The Russian Empire had no African or Caribbean colonies and it was one of the most distant places black Americans could go when they wanted to get away from American Jim Crow. Those blacks who found their way to Russia had to be exceptional in some way, because there was little support where they came from for their going there. You were on your own, which was precisely the point.
In The Black Russian, Vladimir Alexandrov tells the extraordinary story of how Frederick Bruce Thomas fled the post-Reconstruction American South and became Fyodor Fydorovich Tomas, a millionaire entrepreneur of Moscow’s nightlife to whom Nicholas II granted citizenship in 1915. His parents, Lewis and Hannah Thomas, “emerged from the anonymity that typified the lives of most black people” in northwestern Mississippi when in 1869 they, former slaves, became landowners and “had to interact with the white power structure.” Hannah may have died giving birth to Frederick in 1872, and Lewis then married a woman named India, who unlike him was literate. As farmers they did extremely well. Their success was the cause of their ruin.
In 1886 a jealous white neighbor swindled them out of their land. Instead of being frightened off by his threat of mob death, they filed suit. The case dragged on for three years in a county chancery court, and in 1889 the Thomases won on all counts. When the Mississippi supreme court took up the case the following year, the Thomases had signed away much of their property to cover their expenses and had moved to Memphis, because of the fury of white landowners that a black landowner had won against a white man in a very public property dispute.
In 1890, Frederick Thomas was eighteen years old, working as a delivery boy in Memphis. His stepmother ran a boardinghouse. When his father intervened in a domestic dispute of a couple who rented rooms there and reported the husband to the police, the boarder retaliated, murdering Lewis Thomas in his bed, in front of his wife, with an ax. The murderer, in turn, was gunned down by police. Frederick Thomas’s widowed stepmother pursued his father’s land claims in the Mississippi chancery court, where the state supreme court had returned the case, even after the death of the white landowner who had cheated them. In 1894, the case was decided. Thomas’s stepmother had already mortgaged most of the land to which she retained title and had to pay compensation to the mortgage holders. She died in the mid-1890s. Thomas never spoke of his father’s murder, Alexandrov writes. In later years, he would say that he left Memphis in 1890 because he wanted to travel.
In Chicago, he became a waiter at the Auditorium Hotel, “the most important new building” in the city. The Panic of 1893 was worse in Chicago than it was in New York, where he became “head bell boy” at a fashionable Brooklyn hotel. Then he was valet to an owner of vaudeville theaters. At every step, Alexandrov is careful to explain that these were not menial positions, that service of this elevated kind required real skills. But Thomas had something else in mind and in 1894 sailed for London in order to study singing. Frederick Thomas at this point is much like the narrator of James Weldon Johnson’s novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912), who is encouraged by a sympathetic white employer to find his freedom abroad. The difference is that Johnson’s hero is musically gifted, while Thomas was rejected by the conservatory he applied to and gave up trying to have a musical career. In 1895 he left for the Continent.
Thomas picked up French quickly and worked his way as a waiter from Paris, through Brussels, Ostend, and on to the Hôtel des Anglais in Cannes. When he applied for his first passport at the American embassy in Paris in 1896, he said he was traveling for two years, evidently considering it prudent not to admit he had no intention of ever returning to the US. He was back in Paris in 1897, but was soon again off to Cologne, Düsseldorf, Berlin, and Leipzig, before taking a big job at the Hôtel de Paris in Monte Carlo. He was on the road again in 1898, finding work in Venice, Trieste, Vienna, and Budapest.
In 1899, he crossed the Russian border, eventually settling in Moscow, perhaps because it was unlike any place he’d ever been. Alexandrov tells us that Thomas’s homes and businesses over the years were located in the “same northwestern sector of the city, in the vicinity of Triumphal Square.” There were probably not more than a dozen other blacks living in Moscow in the years he was a resident, but the city’s population of more than a million represented a great mix of languages and other races. It did not escape Thomas’s notice that Jewish people in Russia faced the kind of violence and official discrimination that black people experienced in the US.
Thomas was good-looking, dark-skinned, a dandy, successful with women, and by 1903, he was maître d’hôtel at Aquarium, “an entertainment garden occupying several park-like acres,” a fantasyland of columns and arches, as Alexandrov describes it, of bands in pavilions, barkers, games, booths, electric lights, walkways, a concert stage in a garden, a restaurant in a Moorish palace, a large enclosed theater for fashionable operettas, and a “café chantant,” an open-air theater and restaurant, for variety acts. The public was invited to stay from dusk until dawn. Chorus girls and alcohol were in ample supply. An atmosphere of license hung over entertainment gardens; the governor-general of the city, the tsar’s uncle, frequented Aquarium. Yet in 1907 Thomas’s boss was on the verge of bankruptcy. Thomas went to work at Yar, the restaurant garden where Rasputin later exposed himself—to many, a public confirmation of his depravity.
Thomas had learned the entertainment business, and, in 1911, he and two others took over Aquarium. In one year they made enough to purchase a variety theater where rich men watched belly dancers while sipping Turkish coffee laced with Benedictine, Alexandrov says. In 1914, Thomas and one of his partners set up what could have become “the biggest popular entertainment company in Moscow,” with a “total capitalization” of “650,000 roubles, the equivalent of $12 million today, consisting of 2,600 shares priced at 250 roubles, or about $4,600, each.” His success came as the world he catered to and flourished in began to fall apart.
When the 1905 Revolution reached Moscow, barricades went up in his street. The government crushed the revolt, but the violence did not subside. The imperial government executed thousands of terrorists in the years before World War I. The revolutionaries killed officials and police officers in their thousands:
The business risks that Frederick faced could not be separated from the bigger ones threatening the entire country, although the energy with which he pursued his personal ambitions suggest that he thought Russia would somehow get through it all.
After 1910, Russia was convulsed by strikes, even though it was a boom time. Thomas’s bold plans for Aquarium included exhibition boxing matches featuring Jack Johnson, the black heavyweight champion of the world whose victory over a white former heavyweight champion in 1910 incited white mobs in fifty US cities to kill scores of black people. Professional boxing had been forbidden in Russia until Thomas signed up Johnson. War interrupted their growing friendship. With Thomas’s help, Johnson hurried out of Russia. A decade later he published some tall tales in his autobiography about Thomas as a confidential agent of Nicholas II.
War brought Prohibition, but the tsar just disguised his cognac and lemon and many others found ways around the ban. Thomas paid bribes, Alexandrov speculates, and had an important clientele. The inflated price of booze made him a millionaire in three years. He staged highly publicized benefits for Russian soldiers and his patriotism was perhaps not entirely calculated. He had been an American in Russia at a time when the US supported Japan in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905. Foreigners had been a large part of the Russian business community ever since Peter’s time. Thomas’s blackness got deemphasized in the mix and his Russian was good enough. “He was changing the very terms by which the world knew him.” Though he renewed his American passport at the US embassy, again declaring that he was planning to spend only two years abroad, once war was declared he applied to become a subject of the tsar. He had to say where he belonged, after all.
In 1901, Thomas married a German woman from West Prussia. She died in 1909, after giving birth to their third child. He hired a nanny, a German from Latvia, whom he married in 1913, largely because the children were fond of her and he was so busy. But not long after his second marriage, Thomas fell in love again, with another German, a singer and dancer, and by 1915 they had two sons. Alexandrov argues that he may have been protecting her from the anti-German sentiment then prevalent in Moscow.
“By 1916, Frederick’s and Russia’s fates had diverged dramatically.” His businesses were still raking in money, but his “new homeland” was “bleeding men.” The success of the 1916 Brusilov Offensive alone cost the Russian army 1.5 million casualties. “Frederick did not see the coming cataclysm.” He leased his theaters, and in 1917 purchased six adjoining rental properties in Karetny Ryad Street. One week after he paid 425,000 roubles for the buildings, the February Revolution broke out.
Thomas didn’t think the Bolsheviks would last, Alexandrov concludes, but he took advantage of the radical changes in marriage law to divorce his second wife, marry for a third time, and make legitimate his two youngest sons. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, by which the Bolsheviks got out of the war, brought the Germans to the Ukraine, where Thomas with great difficulty sent his German wife and four of his five children. His second wife and her commissar boyfriend somehow prevented his youngest daughter from joining them. In 1918, the Bolsheviks nationalized his establishments and introduced theatrical productions they thought would be of more benefit to the masses than French farce. He was reduced to running a cheap restaurant in a building he once owned. In August 1918, having heard that the Cheka was going to arrest him, he managed to conceal himself on a train out of the city, which was being ravaged by famine, cholera, typhus, and class warfare.
Many people in Odessa, where he took refuge, believed that once the Armistice had been signed, the Allied forces would aid the White army. Thomas had the connections to get his family on board one of the few ships in the harbor before the French plan to evacuate their forces became public and caused panic. He couldn’t get word to his eldest daughter that the ship was boarding, and she was left behind. In 1919, Thomas set sail from Russia, with not much more in his pockets than what he had when he arrived two decades earlier. Constantinople was his second chance, although it was the pit of despair for thousands of penniless White Russians.
He found partners of different nationalities, and by 1921 they owned a restaurant theater and the preeminent nightclub in the capital. Thomas became a prince of its jazz life. But the Ottoman Empire was in a state of collapse and once again Thomas was caught up in historical change. In 1923, Turkish nationalists overthrew the sultanate, and little was left of Jazz Age freedom. The Turkish Republic made it increasingly difficult for foreigners to live in Constantinople and for businesses like Thomas’s clubs to stay open. The government imposed taxes on alcohol and even on shop signs in a foreign language. To stay ahead of competition, he’d opened an even swankier place, but in the nationalist mood in the society he couldn’t get customers. He fled to Ankara in 1927, where he was arrested, and died in debtors’ prison the following year, aged fifty-five.
Alexandrov tells us that all along Thomas had been trying to repatriate himself to the US, but a racist official at the American consulate in Constantinople sought to punish him by sabotaging his application. Officials believed he was American, but denied him the protection of being one. Thomas never told them that he had become a Russian citizen; the Turkish Republic rejected him for citizenship as well. He was, in effect, a stateless White Russian. His eldest son, whom he’d sent to a Russian school in Prague, settled in Paris and was in the Resistance during World War II. By the time of Thomas’s last contact with his eldest daughter, she was in Paris, pleading for money. Nothing is known of her after 1926. His youngest daughter committed suicide in Luxembourg some years after her father’s death. His wife died in poverty in Turkey and his two youngest sons scraped by as waiters. One got to the US in 1938 and the other in 1950, and they lived far apart.
Frederick Thomas was not a writer. He was quite unlike Richard T. Greener, a black Harvard graduate and the American consul in Vladivostok in 1904, who sent detailed reports to Washington assessing conditions in western Russia. Phillip Jordan, valet to the US ambassador, had been taught to read and write from years before by the ambassador’s wife. He wrote colorful letters from St. Petersburg in 1916 and 1917. The few letters by Thomas that Alexandrov quotes are touching in their awkwardness, given the debonair impression he made on journalists throughout his career. Publicity was a part of his business. Then, too, like his parents, he had to deal with the “white power structure,” and thus entered the official records. His story was retold by the white journalists and passport officials he encountered, all of whom he had to try to manipulate in order to survive. The remaining records are biased against him, but Alexandrov interprets them with great sensitivity. Thomas’s personal solution to the problem of being black in America was to get away. It worked for a while, until what had been the right place for someone like him got torn apart.