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concerning Le Maître d'armes

     A thinly fictionalized Russian travelogue in the style of Madame Giovanni or Gil Blas en Californie. In one of his (highly unreliable) introductions, Dumas writes that at a moment when he was desperate for a manuscript, the fencing master Grisier handed him a memoir of a three years' stay in Russia during 1824-1826.
     The book is a first person narration of Grisier's travels. Grisier hears that fencing masters are well recompensed in Russia, so he sets off for St. Petersburg in 1824. He describes the city, including a disastrous flood in the winter of 1824-1825, uses the occasion to describe how Russian nobles went bear hunting armed only with a knife. While in St. Petersburg, Grisier meets and befriends the expatriate Frenchwoman Louise, and her lover Count Alexis, an enervated Russian nobleman who becomes involved in the Decembrist conspiracy.
     In 1825, the Tsar Alexander died, and the Tsar's eldest son, Constantine having renounced the throne, which then devolved upon the Tsar's younger son, the Grand Duke Nicholas. The Decembrists subverted several military units in Moscow by telling them that Constantine's renunciation was fraudulent, and then Nicholas was an usurper. However, most of the army remained loyal to Nicholas, and, after several tense confrontations, in which a number of people were killed, the coup was put down and the conspirators arrested. Count Alexis was arrested for his role in the conspiracy and sentenced to death, later commuted to exile in Siberia on the plea of Louise.
     Louise decides to follow her lover into exile, and Grisier escorts her across the Ural mountains and into Siberia, which is the occasion for more travelogue and the opportunity fight off a marauding wolf pack. Louise is reunited with Alexis in Siberia, they marry, and Grisier returns to France.
     Curiously, the Decembrists are known to history as Russia's first liberals and democrats, the Russian children of the French revolution, who sought a constitutional monarchy for Russia. Dumas, a staunch republican, might have been expected to feel sympathy for the Decembrists, but he does not, painting them as a sinister combination of power-hungry manipulators and fools. The Tsars are portrayed relatively sympathetically, though Dumas does note the mental illnesses of Tsar Alexander, his father, and his eldest son. None the less, Le Maitre d'Armes was banned in Russia, which immediately assured it a wide readership.
     When Dumas himself visited Russia for the first time, eighteen years later (in 1859) he met the actual hero and heroine of his story in living in Kazan (Louise's real name was Pauline), and discovered a thriving trade in handkerchiefs and other kitsch bearing scenes from his story, as he described in En Russie.

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