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concerning Le Caucase : Impressions de voyage; suite de En Russie

     On November 2nd, 1858, Alexandre Dumas left Astrakhan, as recounted in his travel book En Russie, and set off by carriage into the Caucasus, then (as now) a lawless, war-torn mountain chain lying north of Iran, east of the Black Sea, and west of the Caspian Sea. His traveling companions included the artist Moynet, and a Russian student (Kalino) to act as translator.
     From time immemorial, Caucasian mountaineers have periodically plundered the Russian and Ukrainian farmers of the plains to the North. A series of Russian generals attempted to secure their country's southern border by "pacifying" the Caucasus, and gradually expanding the zone of military occupation southwards. There followed more than a century of warfare, during which the Russians won most of the major battles, and captured most of the large towns, including what is now Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, and the cities of Erevan, Baku and Tiflis.
     However, the Caucasian tribes retreated into their mountain fastnesses, and continued to fight, kidnapping and murdering travelers, pillaging unwary villages and towns, and fighting pitched battles if necessary.
     In 1858, the Caucasus was definitely not pacified, and Dumas' party traveled armed and with an escort of Cossacks. Departing Astrakhan, Dumas' party traveled southwest to Kizilyar. From Kizilyar, they forded the Terek River, traveled to Khazavyurt, and then penetrated the mountainous interior of Daghestan, where they moved from one Russian military post to the next. Between posts, the party had several encounters with Daghestani rebels/bandits/locals. In one (possibly fictional) engagement, two Cossacks and one Daghestani were killed. Dumas also went on a night patrol with the Russian forces, during which the patrol ambushed and killed a Daghestani returning from a raid carrying a woman kidnapped from a local village.
     After a difficult crossing, they ultimately arrived at the ancient city of Derbent, from which they followed the shore of the Caspian Sea to Baku. At Baku, Dumas witnessed a Parsi (Zoroastrian) religious ceremony illuminated by natural petroleum seepages (a harbinger of the development of the Russian oil industry). The party then turned inland and traveled to the capital of Georgia, Tiflis (now Tblisi). Dumas stayed a month in Tiflis, writing two romances: La Boule de Neige, and Sultanetta. The former is based on a story translated for him by Kalino, and the latter is based on a story told to Dumas in Derbent.
     In December 1858, Dumas tried to return to Russia over the Caucasus, but found the passes closed by snow, getting lost and nearly freezing to death in the process. Dumas then went west to Poti, on the Black Sea coast, and caught a boat to Trebizond (in Turkey) where a French steamer took him home.
     Dumas' trip through the Caucasus was probably his most difficult and dangerous expedition, one of his most exciting pieces of travel literature, and a vivid picture of a moment in the turbulent history of the Caucasus, a history that is mostly unknown to most Europeans and Americans, but which shapes international political developments (such as the Chechen rebellion) today.

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