Yale University literature scholar and historian Vladimir Alexandrov introduces The Black Russian— his new biography of a forgotten African American who led an extraordinary life in Russia and Turkey at the beginning of the twentieth century.
The story of this book began six years ago, when I read a sentence that changed my life.
I was reading the memoirs of Alexander Vertinsky, a singer who was very popular in Russia before the Revolution and in Europe in the 1920s, when I came to a remark that made me stop. Vertinsky described how he escaped from the Bolsheviks in the south of Russia in 1920 and landed in Constantinople, where he began to perform in an entertainment garden that belonged, as he phrased it, “to our famous Russian Negro Fyodor Fyodorovich Tomas, the owner of the famous ‘Maxim’ in Moscow.”
I was so surprised that I put the book down. I had never heard of this “Tomas,” and the idea that a black man with a Russian first name and patronymic had been well known for owning an entertainment venue in pre-Revolutionary Moscow seemed wildly improbable. I knew that people of African origin had always been very rare in czarist Russia. In fact, the best-known black person, Abram Hannibal, lived in the 18th century (and is remembered largely because he was the ancestor of Alexander Pushkin, Russia’s great national writer). The well-documented visits by such prominent black Americans as the writers Claude McKay and Langston Hughes, or the actor and singer Paul Robeson, did not take place until the Soviet era years later.
Who was this “Fyodor Fyodorovich Tomas” and where did he come from? Why did he go to Russia? How did he prosper there to the extent of being famous and owning property? How did Russians react to his being black? How did he wind up in Constantinople? And why had he been forgotten?
I started digging through Yale’s rich library holdings, but after considerable effort came up with very little—only a half-dozen brief and contradictory references to this “Tomas.” However, by then I