No. 3, 2006

Alexey Shulgin


Travel to the oil fields of the Apsheron Peninsula was a remarkable event for the French writer Alexandre Dumas

At the end of the 1850s, Alexandre Dumas, the well-known French romanticist and author of the popular novels The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo and many other bestsellers, undertook a nine-month journey round several guberniyas (regions) of the Russian Empire. A visit to the oil fields in the vicinity of ancient Baku left an unforgettable impression on him.

Prohibited by the Russian censor

Alexandre Dumas Sr. (1802-1870) remains to this day one of the writers best loved by readers of different generations throughout the world. His novels The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Ascanio, The Vicomte de Bragelonne and The Forty Five have long since become world literary treasures. The biography of this prolific Frenchman also includes many interesting pages connected with his fruitful literary and journalistic activities.

It is no exaggeration to say that, in mid-19th century Russia, Alexandre Dumas was one of the best-loved and widely-read foreign authors. It was a mutual love affair: Dumas himself, back in his early creative years, manifests an exceptional interest in Russia and, in 1840, publishes his novel The Fencing Master, devoted to the December 1825 coup and the life of one of its participants, Ivan Annenkov (1802-1878), a Lieute-nant in the Life Guard Cavalry. The novel was based on actual historical facts and made use of the diaries of O. Grizier, a fencing master who served at the Main Engineering College in Petersburg and later returned to France. The Fencing Master was met with enthusiasm by Russian readers, but the novel met with a hostile reception from Emperor Nicholas I and for many years the censors banned it. This was also the main reason that, in the mid-1840s, Dumas was refused a visa to visit Russia.

In 1853, in Paris, Alexandre Dumas founded the magazine Le Mousquetaire, which was subsequently renamed Monte-Cristo, which often carried publications about Russian history. In 1859, three years after the death of Nicholas I, the writer received a personal permission from the Emperor Alexander II and was able to fulfill his longstanding dream. He was enthusiastic about the opportunity to travel through Russia and wrote with pathos in an article in the Monte-Cristo magazine that he was traveling to be present at the great cause of liberating forty five million slaves. Anticipating the onset of the reform to abolish serfdom, the world community was closely following the developments in the Russian Empire and Alexandre Dumas wanted to be first, right in the thick of the earthshaking events.

The focus of the capital's attention

On June 23, 1858, Alexandre Dumas arrived by steamship from Stettin to St. Petersburg and stayed at the country house of Count Grigory Kushelev-Bezborodko (1832-1870), the publisher of the magazine Russkoye Slovo. Many men of letters gathered in this house and Alexandre Dumas got to know the famous writers Dmitry Grigorovich (1822-1900) and Alexey Tolstoy (1817-1875), the poets Nikolay Nekrasov (1821-1877), Lev Mey (1822-1862), and others. The arrival of the French writer in Petersburg aroused considerable interest among the Russian public. Soon afterwards, the journalist Ivan Panayev published a review entitled Petersburg Life in the magazine Sovremennik, in which he expressed his overall respect for the well-known novelist: Petersburg greeted Monsieur Dumas genially and hospitably ... and how could it have been otherwise? Monsieur Dumas is almost as popular in Russia as in France The whole of Petersburg was fully preoccupied throughout the month of June with Monsieur Dumas In a word, Dumas is the lion of the hour.

In turn, St. Petersburg captivated the French writer: I do not know if there is another view in the world comparable with the panorama opening up before me, Alexandre Dumas stated in wonder when standing on the granite banks of the Neva.

The persistent attention of the inhabitants of the Russian capital soon began to weigh on Alexandre Dumas, however, as his intention on traveling to Russia was to do more than attend the capital's salons and balls. The main thing for him was to see the most remote corners of the Russian Empire; he wanted to dive deep into the life of the people and thus comprehend their culture and traditions. He soon departed on his distant journey.

Along the Volga River

At the end of July 1858, he arrived in Moscow. There, in the Eldorado entertainment gardens outside the city, Moscow businessmen held a special feast called Night of the Count of Monte-Cristo, with wonderful illuminations and a firework display, in honor of the famous writer.

During his subsequent many months traveling around Russia from Moscow to Baku, Alexandre Dumas was everywhere received most hospitably. The vast Volga expanses, picturesque banks, ancient towns with their sites, and Russian villages and settlements, left an unforgettable impression on the writer.

In September 1858, in Nizhny Novgorod, Alexandre Dumas met with the heroes of his novel The Fencing Master the participant in the December coup Ivan Annenkov and his faithful wife Polina.

The next city on his route was Kazan, where his stay was highly pleasurable. Thus, one day he visited Kazan University, where he was received with ceremony and was invited to take tea with the rector of the University, Corresponding Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences Osip Kovalevsky (1801-1878). He managed to go hare hunting in the city surroundings, which had long been a dream of his. For this purpose, influential new friends of the writer detained the scheduled steamship Nakhimov for twenty-four hours at the quay until the world-famous novelist had satisfied his hunting fever. The hunt was unusually lucky. In Kazan, even the hares are obliging, Dumas joked after the hunt.

After a short stay in Saratov, in the middle of October 1858, Alexandre Dumas sailed into Astrakhan. And here the same thing happened again a multitude of invitations to balls, parties and functions, with gifts of wonders of local production.

Yet, in spite of all the worldly temptations, during his travels on the Volga Alexandre Dumas worked hard and systematically. He regularly sent his notes on what he saw in Russia to the editors of the Monte-Cristo magazine in Paris. We believed, according to the rumors, Ivan Panayev wrote in Sovremennik, that Monsieur Dumas, when setting up a novel factory, simply set down his tools and enjoyed life. What nonsense! It is hard to imagine a more active an industrious person than him.

On the shores of the ancient Caspian

Alexandre Dumas left Astrakhan by carriage for the Caucasus. He knew of the area from the ancient plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles. The grandeur and epic peace of the mountain peaks that hid the Titan Prometheus, the ancient traditions and local culture of the mountain people attracted the writer like a magnet and inspired his imagination. He devoted a whole book of essays, entitled The Caucasus, to the region. When viewing the Caucasus, first of all you see a huge range of mountains, the gorges between them harboring representatives of all nations is the somewhat dry beginning of his report. Yet the very next line is filled with poetry and amazement: This was the Caucasus the theatre where the first dramatic poet of ancient times set his first drama, with its hero a Titan and the gods as actors. After traveling all through the Caucasus (Abkhazia, Cirkassia, Ossetia and Chechnya) and visiting Tiflis and Poti, Dumas proceeded through Derbent to Baku, the ancient capital of Azerbaijan. The panorama that opened before him captivated him immediately. It appeared as if the city were divided in two: the black city and the white city. The black city was the old part of Baku, on the seashore, where the oil industry was located. At a distance of 26 versts from Baku was the famous Ateshgag fire sanctuary, with its eternal flame. Having heard of the fire-worshippers' temple, Alexandre Dumas immediately wanted to see this wonder of nature and ancient craftsmen with his own eyes: The carriages were ready. The idea was to see the Baku flames known to all, with the exception, perhaps, of the French, as the least traveled nation. After visiting the temple, he wrote: This fire is maintained with oil, that is, kerosene, which is easily inflammable, light and transparent.

The writer's inquisitive mind could not ignore the practical use of oil or black gold as it is called. The scale of the Russian oil fields on the Apsheron Peninsula fired his imagination. Like a scientist, he began describing what he saw in detail and with great precision. Oil is the disintegration of dense mountain tar, produced by subterranean fires. There is oil in many parts of the world, but the greatest abundance is to be found in and around Baku. In the environs of Baku, along the entire shore of the Caspian Sea, wells have been dug to a depth of from 3 to 20 meters; black and white oil seeps through the marl earth, which is soaked in oil. Almost 100,000 centners of oil are produced every year. This oil is sent to Persia, Tiflis and Astrakhan.

Alexandre Dumas continued: Take a look at a map of the Caspian Sea and draw a straight line parallel to Baku to the opposite shore, and then imagine, right next to the shore, an island named Cheleken or 'oil island,' inhabited by nomadic Turkmen. From the other side, the Apsheron Peninsula stretches out into the sea, forming, along the same line, a large number of oil and brea beds. At the tip of Apsheron, creating a bay, is an island considered sacred by the Guebres and Persians because it also has gas and oil wells. And it thus spreads under the sea as far as the region of Turkmenia.

To conclude his account of the Baku oil, he makes economic calculations in favor of yet another economic application of oil: A big company is currently being created to make candles from oil. A pound of the finest candles, like our sun candles, would cost 15 kopecks in silver, instead of 50 kopecks a pound for stearic candles in Tiflis and 35 kopecks in Moscow.

A Parisian epilogue

The French writer's travels round Russia came to an end in March 1859 at the port of Poti on the decks of a steamship heading for Turkey and Constantinople. From the moment you are recognized or are supplied with good references, a journey through Russia becomes one of the most pleasant and the cheapest that I know, Alexandre Dumas wrote when recalling his trip and he was being perfectly frank in this.

The impressive outcome of Alexandre Dumas voyage was nine volumes of travel notes, called Impressions of the voyage to Russia, published in France soon after his return, from 1858 through 1862, in which he presents a fancy mix of reality and invention, the history of guberniyas and territories and the cuisine of different peoples inhabiting the Russian Empire. Many interesting stories, human characters and geographical descriptions found their way into the multiple volumes of his notes.

In addition, a separate volume came out in 1860 entitled From Paris to Astrakhan. In 1861, part of his travel notes The Caucasus came out in Russian in Tiflis.

Today, almost one and a half centuries after his voyage, one realizes that, to a certain extent, his travel notes promoted a change in West European public opinion and initiated the collapse of the stereotype of Russia's profound backwardness, of the ignorance of its population and tyranny of the authorities. The great French novelist witnessed the eve of the Great Reforms in Russia, which provided a powerful impetus to development of the Russian economy, culture and education in the second half of the 19th century.

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Oil of Russia, No. 3, 2006
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