Dancing with the Tsars


You probably won’t have heard of Frederick Bruce Thomas. He doesn’t feature in history books and failed to make the cut for the American National Biography. He doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry but that may be about to change. Vladimir Alexandrov’s new book, The Black Russian, tells Frederick Thomas’s life story, and – hold on to your eyelids – it’s quite a tale. Indeed it’s so colourful and improbable that it reads more like a novel than a work of historical biography. It begins as a classic rags to riches story: poor boy leaves downtrodden parents and seeks to make his fortune. But Frederick Thomas’s point of departure is already far from ordinary. He was the son of ex-slaves who farmed in America’s Deep South. His life might easily have ended in the grinding poverty that was the lot of so many of Mississippi’s freed slaves. But a remarkable set of circumstances enabled him to escape his roots and reinvent himself as an entrepreneurial millionaire. Bizarrely, he made his fortune not in America, the land of opportunity, but in tsarist Russia, a reactionary autocracy riddled with obscurantism.

more from Giles Milton at Literary Review here.