The Black Russian and the Jews

tags: World War I, Black Russian, George Frederick Thomas, Russian Jews, Vladimir Alexandrov



4-29-13

Vladimir Alexandrov is B. E. Bensinger Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Yale University. His latest book is "The Black Russian," a biography of African American-turned-Russian businessman Frederick Bruce Thomas.


George Frederick Thomas in 1896. Courtesy of the author.

Jews were, in a sense, the “Negroes” of the Russian Empire.  The discrimination and violence they suffered under the tsars -- which forced over a million to emigrate to the United States in the decades around the turn of the nineteenth century -- is one of the reasons their descendants empathized with black Americans and played a major role in the civil rights movement.  Even earlier in the twentieth century, the anti-Semitism that had compelled Jews to emigrate from Western Europe led their leading figures to support black activists and to help found the NAACP and the National Urban League.  American blacks reciprocated, and for much of the twentieth century shared a sense of solidarity with Jews that was motivated by their common goal of social justice.

But there was also a case of remarkable, and now completely forgotten, black solidarity with Jews that occurred in the unlikeliest of places and times -- Moscow in 1915, and that involved the unlikeliest of black Americans -- a man who had become a subject of the tsar. 

Frederick Bruce Thomas had already broken repeatedly with his past before he decided to go to Russia. Born in Mississippi to former slaves, he left the South and went to Chicago and then Brooklyn in 1890 -- or several decades before the Great Migration, which started in earnest only after the First World War  Seeking even greater freedom, four years later he went to Europe -- or several decades before Paris became a haven for black American expatriates. And in 1899, after crisscrossing the Continent, mastering French, and honing his skills as a waiter and a valet, he signed on to accompany a nobleman to Russia, a country where black people were virtually unknown. In Moscow before the Revolution there were probably no more than a dozen permanent black residents out of a population of over a million.

However, crossing the Russian frontier was not routine in those days, and this is where Thomas first encountered the Russian equivalent of the American “color line.” The six European countries in which he had already traveled did not require foreigners to have passports, but the authoritarian Russian Empire did. And because the imperial government wanted to keep certain classes of people out, and to monitor the movements of others who were allowed in, an additional restriction was that no foreigner could enter the country without also having his passport visaed by a Russian official abroad. Hapless travelers who arrived at the Russian border without the proper paperwork were sent back on the same train that brought them. Thomas began the process of securing the necessary documents in Vienna and Budapest in the spring of 1899. 

The treatment he received from Russian and American diplomats could not have been more different.  Unlike American consular officials in Europe, who never failed to note his race in their documents, the Russian consular staff did not care that he had dark skin. If anything, his appearance probably piqued their curiosity. But although they were color blind, the Russians had a preoccupation that Thomas had not seen manifested anywhere else in Europe in such an extreme form -- anti-Semitism. 

The official Russian government handbook for consular officers, by one Baron Alphonse Heyking, was explicit about what a consul’s first obligation was when dealing with an applicant for a visa: ascertain if the person is Jewish or not. As the handbook stipulated, there were two ways of doing this. The first resembles what we would now call “racial profiling”:  the applicant’s “simple declaration” regarding his religious identity would be sufficient, provided “the Consular Officer is in a position to ascertain its correctness.” But if there was any question, the applicant would have to provide documentary evidence that he was not Jewish. 

The purpose of this policy was to restrict the entry of Jews into Russia and to limit their freedom of movement if they were admitted. The imperial government was especially concerned with keeping out Russian Jews who had emigrated, who had become citizens elsewhere, and who wanted to return for a visit. Most foreigners who were granted visas were allowed to go almost anywhere they wanted in Russia for a period of six months. But in the case of Jewish applicants, only verifiable members of business firms were allowed into the country and their stay was restricted to three months. And a Jew with personal reasons for wanting to enter Russia was required to make a special application to the Department of the Police of the Russian Ministry of the Interior, and to provide specific details about the reason for the visit, and about where and for how long he wanted to go. Only if special permission was granted in advance would the person receive a visa at a consulate abroad. 

Thomas could not have been ignorant of anti-Semitism in Western Europe during the years he spent there, especially in France, where the notorious “Dreyfus Affair” raged from 1894 to 1899. But there is a difference between an outburst of hatred that received some popular support and that contravened the laws of the land -- which was the situation in France -- and a system of official laws and widespread public sentiment that recalled the racism of Jim Crow America -- which was the situation in Russia. 

To be sure, there were differences as well as resemblances between the racism of the American republic and the Russian monarchy. The Jewish population of Russia had never been enslaved; the Russians had enserfed their own Christian peasants instead. (The liberation of the serfs took place via imperial decree in 1861, or two years before the Emancipation Proclamation, and without the horrific bloodshed of the Civil War.) And in principle, Russian Jews could convert to Christianity and thereby lose their stigma; but there was nothing that American blacks could do to change their status.

Nevertheless, by applying for a Russian visa, Thomas was for the first time seeking to enter a country where his sense of belonging would be very different from anything he had experienced thus far. In contrast to the other European countries where he had been accepted more or less like anyone else (there was little discrimination against blacks in England or France at the end of the nineteenth century), in Russia he would explicitly not be a member of a despised and oppressed minority. As a black American, he is likely to have felt this distinction more poignantly than anyone else; and his subsequent behavior suggests that he did not forget it.

Thomas had not planned to settle in Russia when he went there. In fact, he indicated on his passport application that he intended to return to Paris before long. But his career in Moscow proved to be more successful than he could ever have imagined. In a dozen years he went from being a waiter, to a maître d’hôtel, to a senior assistant in one of the swankiest restaurants in the city, to co-owner of a hugely profitable entertainment garden and sole owner of a popular variety theater. He also put down roots by marrying a white woman and starting a family. And at no time did he encounter any racial barriers.

As a result, shortly after the Great War began in the summer of 1914, Thomas took the remarkable step of applying for Russian citizenship (he may have been the first black American ever to do this). His immediate purpose was not only to strengthen his connection to what had become his adopted country, but also to ward off the new xenophobia that the war’s outbreak inflamed in Russia. His plan worked, and after his application was accepted -- Nicholas II himself approved the document -- Thomas quickly emerged as a prominent supporter of charities in Moscow that collected money and gifts for the frontline troops. It was also during the war that Thomas became a multi-millionaire, in large measure by exploiting the opportunities that prohibition provided, much as bootleggers would do in the United States half a dozen years later.

But the kind of status Thomas acquired with ease was denied to most native-born Jews in the Russian Empire (much as American blacks were denied the rights and privileges that many European immigrants acquired through naturalization in the United States). In fact, the plight of Russian Jews was aggravated during the war.  In the spring of 1915, just when Thomas was waiting for confirmation of his citizenship application, fighting on the Russian front became concentrated in the great Eastern European Jewish homeland -- the area known as the Pale of Settlement. The historical contingency that the Pale lay within the borders of the Russian Empire was a consequence of the late eighteenth-century partition of Poland among Russia, Prussia, and Austria, as a result of which Russia acquired a territory that included the largest concentration of Jews in the world. This was the root of Russia’s notorious Jewish “problem” in the years that followed. For reasons that were fundamentally anti-Semitic, from 1791 until 1915 Jews were largely prohibited from moving out this area and were victims of various other restrictions as well as periodic outbursts of bloody pogroms. 

When the Great War began, the anti-German hysteria that erupted in Russia also turned against Jews in the Pale. The imperial government distrusted its Jewish subjects and suspected them of favoring the Central Powers. Wild rumors circulated about Jews spying for the enemy; and the fact that Yiddish, the language of the Pale, was an offshoot of German seemed proof of the Jews’ predisposition toward disloyalty. Thus, when in the spring of 1915 the great scythe of war changed the direction of its swing and the Germans began their invasion of Russian Poland, the imperial government decided to evacuate the region’s Jews and to resettle them in the country’s interior. Entire villages were given twenty-four or forty-eight hours to clear out, often under brutal conditions, on foot, or in the middle of the night.  However, the German advance was so rapid that the Russians did not have time to expel more than 600,000 Jews and 2,000,000 remained behind. Even so, 100,000 of the evacuees died from starvation and exposure. 

There were protests by the country’s leading liberal political party, the Constitutional Democrats, by deputies of various other persuasions in the empire’s weak, fledgling parliament, the Duma, and by famous writers and public figures -- all to no avail. Only when the Polish territories were effectively lost did the Russian government try to put a good face on its actions by proclaiming that the Pale of Settlement had been eliminated. But rather than being an authentic humanitarian initiative, this was part of the government’s public relations campaign to persuade the United States to grant a much-needed war loan. As during the 1905 war with Japan, in order to get American money, Russia needed to try to overcome American condemnation of its anti-Semitic policies.

The forced evacuation of the Pale also underscored a grotesque parallel between Russian military policies and what the United States did with some of its black citizens when it entered the Great War in 1917. Jews were drafted into the Russian army just as blacks would be into the American. At the beginning of the war, there were between 350,000 and 400,000 Jewish soldiers under Russian arms; a similar number of black Americans were in the Expeditionary Force sent to France to fight the Germans (although the percentages of these minority troops were very different because the Russian army was much larger than the American). Thus it happened that in both countries young male members of minorities that had been oppressed for generations, who had themselves been denied basic freedoms, and whose wives, children, siblings, parents, uncles, aunts, and grandparents continued to be brutalized at home, were expected to help fight an “enemy” that had never done them any harm, and to risk being maimed or killed for their “homeland.” (Blacks in the American army would suffer the same fate in the next world war as well.) In one especially striking way, the plight of Jewish soldiers in the Russian army was even worse than that of blacks in the American. Because the territory of the Pale was in the war zone, Jewish soldiers constrained by military discipline could be near their home towns where their families were being rounded up for deportation, but could do nothing to visit, much less help them.

Even against the background of widespread civilian atrocities during the Great War, the number of Jews who died in the Pale was appalling. To make matters worse, those who survived the expulsion found themselves completely ruined, with nothing to live on except charity, which came largely from their own organizations. Although the edict “abolishing” the Pale had allowed Jews to settle in the interior regions of the empire, it prohibited them from the Moscow and Petrograd, some outlying areas that were under military jurisdiction, and anywhere imperial residences happened to be located.  Nevertheless, some Jews did come to the two capitals, together with a flood of other refugees from the western provinces.  As a result, during the summer of 1915, Moscow’s population swelled by over 300,000, many of whom were destitute, with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Their presence was another sign of the maelstrom of suffering and destruction into which Russia was sinking as the war progressed.

The questions about where a person belongs, and to whom he owes allegiance, would have been very much on Thomas’s mind at this time. His petition for citizenship was approved on May 28, 1915. On June 1, he made Aquarium, his large entertainment garden in Moscow, available as the main staging area for a citywide patriotic manifestation called “Tobacco for the Soldier.” On June 10, anti-German riots broke out in central Moscow, quickly metastasized into attacks on any establishment that looked foreign, and caused over a billion dollars’ worth of damage. The expulsion of the Jews from the Pale, which had been going on since March, peaked at the end of May. 

It was in this charged atmosphere that Thomas’s colleague, Simon Saburov, the long-time director of the theatrical troupe that performed in Aquarium’s theater, made the remarkable decision to stage a Jewish American comedy, of all things. He was not driven exclusively by altruism or philo-Semitism.  Potash and Perlmutter had been a big hit in New York and Chicago, which had sizable Jewish populations; but it had also been very successful in London and elsewhere in England, which suggested that it had good crossover potential for different kinds of audiences (it would later prove popular in Paris as well). Nevertheless, choosing to bring this play to Russia during a period of passionate chauvinism and aggravated anti-Semitism was, at the very least, politically provocative and financially risky.

Potash and Perlmutter grew out of a series of short stories by Montague Glass about a pair of Jewish businessmen in New York’s garment industry who had originally emigrated from Russia. The success of the stories led Glass and a collaborator, Charles Klein, to rework them into a play in 1913, which also proved very popular and generated several sequels, including a string of films in the 1920s. As numerous reviewers noted, central to the play’s appeal were the humanity of its protagonists, Abe Potash and Mawruss Perlmutter; their humorous, Yiddish-inflected English; and the entertaining and fantastical -- plot, which has the pair facing financial ruin because they decide to support a Russian Jewish émigré and employee who was accused by the imperial government of murdering the chief of police in Kiev. However, the accusation proves false, the employee gets the boss’s pretty daughter, and all ends happily. 

American vaudeville had long used a repertoire of stereotypes to portray Jews, and Potash and Perlmutter did not abandon these altogether. But for all its naiveté and stock formulas, the play also broke important new ground by complicating the protagonists’ characters and showing their good as well as their comic sides. Glass and Klein’s depiction of Potash and Perlmutter was actually a direct response to the efforts of several prominent Jewish organizations to eliminate caricatures of Jews from American popular entertainment. 

This fact makes Saburov’s importing Potash and Perlmutter even more striking against the background of Russian anti-Semitism. After the Pale had been officially “eliminated,” some comments did appear in the Russian press about the desirability of modifying the way in which Jews were portrayed on stage. For example, the editor of a Moscow theatrical journal, Andrey Z. Serpolleti (real surname, Fronshteyn), who knew Thomas personally, recommended that variety artists should stop making fun of Jews via humorous poems and skits. But he did so timidly and quietly, which was very different from the loud campaign waged in the United States by organizations such as the “Anti-Stage Jew Ridicule Committee in Chicago,” the “Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith,” and the “Associated Rabbis of America.” Nevertheless, Thomas must have decided to take a principled stance like Serpoletti’s because Saburov would not have brought Potash and Perlmutter to Aquarium’s stage if Thomas, as the garden’s owner, had opposed it. 

But first the play had to undergo some small, albeit very weighty modifications. It was inconceivable that the Russian censorship would pass a foreign play containing remarks by Jewish characters that denigrate Russia and Russians, that allude to a pogrom, and that includes the (false) accusation of terrorism directed against an imperial official. Accordingly, the play’s translator changed all of the problematic references to Russia into references to -- Romania (a small, relatively innocuous, neutral country at the time that would join the Entente in 1916). The name of the young man accused of being a terrorist was also changed from the more or less Russian-sounding “Boris Andrieff” to the Romanian-sounding “Boris Andreescu.”

Saburov’s gamble with a “cleaned up” Potash and Perlmutter paid off in a way that was without precedent in wartime Russia. He first staged it in Petrograd in March 1915, where it played to full houses and good reviews. In May, he brought it to Moscow, where it went on to have one of the most successful runs of any play during Thomas’s entire tenure as the Aquarium’s director and owner.  Thomas did not shrink from associating himself with Potash and Perlmutter in advertisements for Aquarium. He placed these in a variety of publications, including, paradoxically, Moscow’s leading monarchist and openly anti-Semitic newspaper, Moskovskie vedomosti (Moscow News). The newspaper was quite happy to take Thomas’s advertising rubles even though the play was openly billed as “a comedy about the life of American Jews.” But when the play premiered in Moscow on May 26, 1915, the same newspaper attacked it in a review, complaining about its overtly Jewish subject matter and language, and about what it claimed was its unconvincing acting and implausibly virtuous characters. The newspaper also insisted that the play appealed only to Moscow’s Jews and that its future was very bleak because the Aquarium theater was far from full on opening night.

Both statements were wishful thinking, and Moskovskie vedomosti failed to dampen the broad public’s enthusiasm for Potash and Perlmutter, which had a long and successful run. Thomas and Saburov were also very canny about enhancing the play’s popularity. In a move that is not only ironic but seems positively surreal, on June 13, 1915, they donated part of the income from a performance of the play to a daylong charitable event on behalf of victims of the war that was under the patronage of Grand Duchess Tatyana Nikolayevna. In other words, a play about Jews that includes a Jewish émigré falsely accused of terrorism was used to raise money for a charity that supported Russian and ignored Jewish victims of the war and whose titular head was one of the tsar’s daughters! (Moreover, there had been so many acts of political terrorism in Russia during the years preceding the Great War that it is unlikely everyone in the audience was fooled into thinking Romania was really the country in question.) Opposition to the imperial regime’s policies was growing in Russia as the war progressed, and the success of Potash and Perlmutter suggests that a parallel development was new sympathy for the country’s Jews, at least in some quarters. With interruptions, Potash and Perlmutter continued to appear for the rest of the war; and a sequel that Glass wrote was performed in Aquarium as late as June 1918, or more than half a year after the Bolshevik Revolution.

Although Thomas had not suffered from racism in imperial Russia -- he encountered “no color line” there, as he put it -- everything changed after November 1917. In the new Soviet state everyone was redefined by their socioeconomic class; and despite the perversity of the practice, the Marxist and Communist conception of “class” functioned as a quasi-racial label. In the eyes of the Bolsheviks, you were indelibly marked by what you did or had done for a living, and people with money, people who owned property or businesses, as well as the nobility, the clergy, the police, the judiciary, educators, army officers, government bureaucrats -- in short, everyone implicated in maintaining or serving the old regime was on the wrong side of history. Frederick’s past oppression as a black man in the United States was thus trumped by his having become a rich man in Russia, and nothing could mitigate this class “sin.” In the end, he could no more escape how the Bolsheviks saw him than he could change the color of his skin. 

To save himself, Thomas would have to flee Soviet Russia. In 1919, after hair-raising perils, he found refuge in Constantinople, where he successfully reinvented himself, becoming the city’s preeminent nightclub owner and celebrated “sultan of jazz.” However, after he left Russia, he was never again free of the burden of race. To the Turks and other natives of Constantinople, his skin color was of no concern; the Ottoman Empire was racially heterogeneous and did not parse the world the way white Americans did. But Thomas could not avoid dealing with the American Consulate General in Constantinople or escape the long arm of the State Department’s racism. When he most needed help, the American government turned him down, leaving him to die in Constantinople, sick and penniless, in 1928.


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