Oil Barons of Baku, 1901-1905

By 1901, Baku was supplying half the world’s oil. It became an international city overnight, and the local Azeris were soon outnumbered by Russians, Georgians, Ossetians, and others from the four corners of the earth. Between 1856 and 1910, Baku’s population grew at a faster rate than that of London, Paris, or New York. The Nobel brothers, who dominated the industry in the first decades, invented the concept of the tanker to handle the demand for Baku oil in the Far East, appropriately naming their first tanker Zoroaster. They made the bulk of the family’s fortune in Azeri oil, though brother Alfred’s invention of dynamite is more famous.

The oilmen came in all stripes—Swedes and Jews and Poles and Armenians—but the dominance of big foreign groups like the Nobels and Rothschilds didn’t last long. By the turn of the century, half of the tanker business and much of the production was in local hands. So-called oil barons arose from both the peasantry and the feudal aristocracy—anyone who dug a hole in the ground and got lucky. (The Nobels tried whenever possible to buy out these new oil barons, along with smaller producers. According to documents in the Baku archives, Abraham Nussimbaum sold the Nobels most of his wells in 1913, on the eve of the Great War, a highly opportune business decision.)

The new oil millionaires became great philanthropists, determined to turn their city from a provincial backwater into the finest Islamic city in the world—a showcase of the possibilities of the positive merger of East and West. As the representative local group, the Muslim oil barons felt the most obliged to make showy public statements with their new wealth. They took grand tours of Europe and hired architects to build copies of the mansions, museums, and opera houses they had seen, all in an attempt to anchor their city in the Occidental future rather than its Oriental past. While some Azeri Muslims were outraged by the education of women or their appearance onstage or in an office building, Baku benefited from having been so long at the crossroads of East and West that people were used to new fashions and change.

Equal parts Dodge City, medieval Baghdad, industrial Pittsburgh, and nineteenth-century Paris, fin de siècle Baku was the last great city built before the First World War spoiled the dream that the West could keep expanding forever in a grand civilizing pageant. It was a place of fantastic extremes of wealth and poverty, where gas lights and telephones made a stark contrast to camel caravans and emaciated Zoroastrian monks. The city’s wild and clashing history came to ahead at the turn of the century, when it was the “Wild East” frontier of Europe, the world’s greatest oil-boom town: A British visitor at the time wrote, “One might almost fancy oneself in an American city out west. There is the same air of newness about everything, the same sanguine atmosphere. Everyone is hopeful.”

Yet by 1905, the entire Russian frontier was bathed in blood, as the empire entered the first of its revolutions. The unrest reached from the coast of Korea to St. Petersburg’s Nevsky Prospekt, and Baku was not spared. The revolution came, as many do, on the heels of a disastrous war, one of the bloodiest in history. The czar’s advisers had dreamed up the 1904–5 Russo-Japanese War in part as a means of diffusing revolutionary tension, by acquiring, via quick victory, an injection of patriotism as well as some much-needed timber concessions on the Korean coast. Instead, the Russians experienced total defeat. The catastrophe in the Far East—against a people the czar called “little, short-tailed monkeys”—made the Russian Empire look fragile and moribund. As the war’s losses sank in—in addition to the hundreds of thousands of dead soldiers, practically the entire Russian Navy was sunk by the Japanese fleet—years of left-wing terrorism and czarist oppression collided in a year of uprisings, ethnic cleansing, and generalized breakdown.

The semi-destroyed Russian military was in no position to quash the unrest. The only part of the vast czarist navy that had not been sunk by the Japanese was the famous Black Sea Fleet, and on its main battleship, the state-of-the-art Potemkin, the sailors rioted in the spring of 1905 and shot their officers. All around the Black Sea and the Caspian, public order broke down. While the staggering numbers of Russian dead, machine-gunned on the icy hills of Manchuria and the Korean peninsula, showed the new lethality of war, the revolutionary terrorism and pogroms that arrived inside Russia that year showed the new brutality of politics—and both foreshadowed what horror might be born through the mediums of modern mass violence.

SOURCE: The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life, by Tom Reiss (Random House, 2005), pp. 11-13

One of the most intriguing photographs reproduced in the book is labelled “Muslim-Jewish Christmas party, Baku, 1913.” Days long, long gone.

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Filed under Caucasus, Central Asia, energy, industry, Japan, military, nationalism, religion, Russia, Turkey, war

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