NEW YORK: Uncle Alex

In 1917, when something happened to most Russians, something strange happened to Alexander Alexandroff. A reticent man, six feet tall, brown-haired, who had served in the Tsar's diplomatic corps, he had wound up with a job in the foreign department of a Manhattan bank. In Russia's great year, as Kerensky gave way to Lenin, Alexander Alexandroff quit his job, moved into a small store building on Manhattan's East Side, and painted a dingy sign, "Steamship Agent," on his window.

It was a good neighborhood for him. On East 4th Street, near the river,...

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