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Excerpt from "The Black Russian" by Vladimir Alexandrov. Copyright 2013 by Vladimir Alexandrov. Reprinted here by permission of Atlantic Monthly Press. All rights reserved.

Excerpt from "The Black Russian" by Vladimir Alexandrov. Copyright 2013 by Vladimir Alexandrov. Reprinted here by permission of Atlantic Monthly Press. All rights reserved.

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Excerpt from "The Black Russian" by Vladimir Alexandrov. Copyright 2013 by Vladimir Alexandrov. Reprinted here by permission of Atlantic Monthly Press. All rights reserved.
Excerpt from "The Black Russian" by Vladimir Alexandrov. Copyright 2013 by Vladimir Alexandrov. Reprinted here by permission of Atlantic Monthly Press. All rights reserved.

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PROLOGUE: Life or Death
 The catastrophe should never have happened. On the morning of April 1, 1919, William Jenkins,the American consul in Odessa, a major Russian port on the Black Sea, walked from his office tothe London Hotel, where the French army of occupation had set up its headquarters. He wasalarmed by the previous day’s setback on the front—Red Guards had driven Greek and Frenchtroops from yet another town to the east—and by the hysterical rumors that were sweepingthrough the scores of thousands of refugees who had fled to Odessa from Soviet territory. Hewanted to meet with the French commander himself, General Philippe d’Anselme, and to askhim point-blank what he was going to do in the face of the deteriorating situation. Shortages of food and fuel in the city had become critical. A typhus epidemic was breaking out. Radicalizedworkers were mutinying and stockpiling guns. And Odessas notorious criminal gangs vied withthe Bolshevik underground in robbing homes and businesses, and murdering anyone who got intheir way. Jenkins had compiled a list of twenty-nine Americans in the city, including, against allodds, a black man from Mississippi accompanied by a white wife and four mixed-race children.As consul, Jenkins was responsible for the entire group’s safety and was beginning to doubt theresolve and reliability of the French.Although he would not know it for another thirty-six hours, Jenkinss fears were well founded. The French high command in Paris had concluded several days earlier that their militaryintervention in the Russian civil war had been a mistake. However, General d’Anselme skillfullyconcealed this behind his blunt military manner and proceeded to lie to Jenkins’s face.He began by pretending that he was sharing a confidence with Jenkins, who was, after all, theofficial representative of an important ally, and admitted that it might perhaps be necessary toevacuate some of the old men, women, and children in Odessa because of food shortages. Butwhen Jenkins pressed the crucial point of a general evacuation of the city, d’Anselme assuredhim that there was absolutely “no question” of the French army abandoning Odessa. Jenkins left French headquarters reassured. The following day, Wednesday, April 2, he receivedwritten confirmation of what d’Anselme had told him. The French commander also broadcast hismessage to the city at large by publishing announcements in the local newspapers to the effectthat although some civilians would have to be evacuated—he used the strangely callousexpression “all useless mouths”—the military situation was secure.In truth, however, the French had already decided to withdraw all forces from Odessa. But ratherthan organize an orderly evacuation that might take two weeks—which would have been theonly way to accommodate 70,000 troops, their equipment, and anywhere between 50,000 and100,000 civilians—d’Anselme and his staff decided to keep their decision secret as long aspossible. The city was dangerously overcrowded and they hoped to prevent panic. What theyachieved instead was the exact opposite and would become known around the world as the
 
French “debacle” in Odessa.Wednesday passed relatively calmly. All the government offices were open and working. Afterthe sun set, the only disturbances were the occasional, familiar crackle of gunfire and detonationsof hand grenades as the city’s criminals and Bolsheviks began their nightly depredations. In theinner and outer harbors, the French and other Allied warships rested reassuringly at anchor. Thebivouacs of the Greek, Senegalese, and Algerian Zouave regiments were quiet. Then, almost bychance, Jenkins learned the incredible news. Around 10 p.m., Picton Bagge, the Britishcommercial attaché in the city, came to him with urgent and confidential information. He hadheard from the captain of HMS
Skirmisher,
a British torpedo boat in the harbor—the captain inturn having gotten it from a French admiral in Odessa—that the French had decided to give upthe city. Jenkins was stunned: not only had d’Anselme lied to him, but the French withdrawalmeant that the Bolsheviks would be in Odessa in a matter of days. Jenkins also realized that assoon as word got out, the hordes of White Russian refugees from Moscow, Petrograd, and otherplaces in the north would stampede out of terror that the Bolsheviks would massacre them. Withescape by land cut off, the only way out was across the Black Sea, and there were not nearlyenough ships for everyone. He would have to rush to get his flock aboard a ship while there wasstill time.Most of the Americans trapped in Odessa were in Russia because of business and charitableventures with which Jenkins was familiar. But the black man who had recently come to see himwas unlike anyone he had ever met in Russia before. The man gave his name as Frederick Bruce Thomas and claimed he was an American citizen who owned valuable property in Moscow. Heexplained that his passport had been stolen from him several months earlier during his harrowingescape by train from Moscow and that he had no other documents to prove his identity; neitherdid his wife, who he said was Swedish, nor his four children. He was presenting himself at theconsulate to claim the protection for himself and his family to which his American origin entitledhim.As Frederick anticipated, his black skin and southern drawl identified him as convincingly as anyofficial piece of paper could have done. But as he also surely knew, any assistance that Jenkinswould give was risky: it could be a return ticket to the world of American racism. During thepast twenty years, every time Frederick had filled out an application to renew his passport inWestern Europe or Russia, American consular officials had noted his skin color on it; theEuropeans and Russians, by contrast, seemed never to care about such matters. However, thistime Frederick was facing an even bigger risk. He had concealed something very important abouthimself when he met Jenkins and could not be sure he would not be found out. Four years earlier,soon after the Great War began, in a move that may have been without precedent for a blackAmerican, Frederick became a citizen of the Russian Empire. He had thus automaticallyforfeited his right to American citizenship, and this meant that he no longer had any moral or
 
legal claim on American protection. But Frederick never told the United States consulate inMoscow what he had done; and, as far as he knew, the Imperial Russian Ministry of InternalAffairs, which presented his petition to Tsar Nicholas II for approval, had also not informed theUnited States embassy in Petrograd. As a result, neither Jenkins nor any other American official,in Russia or in Washington, was likely to have known the truth.It was Frederick’s good fortune that Jenkins had no reason to doubt his story. During the pastyear, many people escaping from Bolshevik Moscow had experienced far worse than stolendocuments. Trains lumbering across the lawless and war-torn expanses of Russia constantlyrisked attacks by armed bands, both political and criminal, who robbed and murdered civilians atwill. And because black Americans were hardly known in Russia, Jenkins could never haveimagined that Frederick was anything other than what he claimed to be, even if Jenkins hadnever heard of Frederick’s fabulous career as a rich theater owner in Moscow. The consultherefore accepted that the smooth-talking, sophisticated, middle-aged black man with the bigsmile was an American, although he would qualify this in his official report to the StateDepartment by noting that “Mr. Frederick Thomas” was “colored.” Jenkins also dutifully addedhim, his wife, and their four children to the list of people he would try to get on board a ship. The choice for Frederick had been stark: to lie to Jenkins and escape or to stay in Odessa and riskdeath. When, in the first months of 1919, it became increasingly obvious that the French werenot going to succeed in nurturing a White Russian crusade against the Bolsheviks—a prospectthat had originally made refugees in the city delirious with joy—the hopes of people likeFrederick that they would be able to return home and reclaim their former lives and propertybegan to sink. In a paradoxical reversal, the Russian citizenship that had provided Frederick withvaluable protection in Moscow during the outburst of patriotism at the beginning of the GreatWar had now become a liability. The Bolshevik Revolution had destroyed the society that hadembraced him and allowed him to prosper. His theaters and other property had been nationalizedand his wealth stolen. In the poisonous atmosphere of class warfare that the Bolsheviks created,he risked arrest and execution simply for having been rich. By contrast, nationals of the UnitedStates and the other Allied powers who had succeeded in getting to the French-controlledenclave in Odessa could turn to their countries’ diplomatic representatives for help. And becauseafter the war the Allies had sent a large fleet to Constantinople, the capital of the defeatedOttoman Empire, and transformed the Black Sea into their dominion, the diplomats were backedup by military strength. The hour was late, but the news Jenkins had gotten was so shocking that he decided he could notwait until morning. He immediately began to contact all the Americans in the city, instructingthem to gather their belongings as quickly as possible and get to the harbor while they could stillfind cabs. He also started burning all the coded telegrams in the consulate and packing the secretcodebooks. By working through the night, Jenkins was able to round up the entire group. And by

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