Rise and Fall of Baku as Oil Capital

From Caucasus: An Introduction, by Thomas de Waal (Oxford U. Press, 2010), Kindle Loc. 2945-2989:

Oil was first exploited commercially in the mid-nineteenth century. The industry took off in 1871 when the Russian government allowed in private enterprise and the first wells were drilled. Two of the Swedish Nobel brothers, Robert and Ludwig, invested in the new industry and by the end of the decade had the biggest refinery in Baku and were shipping barrels of oil across the Caspian Sea to the Russian port of Astrakhan in the world’s first oil tanker, the Zoroaster. By the 1880s, oil fields such as Balakhany had sprouted hundreds of brick wells extracting the oil from the ground, and Baku’s new northern industrial suburb was nicknamed the Black Town because of the clouds of dark oil smoke hanging over it from two hundred refineries. In one generation, Baku turned from a forgotten desert citadel into a modern metropolis. The population skyrocketed from 14,000 in 1863 to 206,000 forty years later. “Baku is greater than any other oil city in the world. If oil is king, Baku is its throne,” wrote the British author J. D. Henry in 1905. You could become a millionaire literally overnight if an “oil gusher” appeared on your land. One man who got lucky was Haji Zeynalabdin Tagiev, the illiterate son of a shoemaker, who turned into one of Baku’s most famous businessmen and benefactors after a gusher appeared on his land. Tagiev was unusual in being a native Azeri. Most of the businessmen were European, Russian, or Armenian. Tensions between Armenian bourgeoisie and Azeri workers were an underlying cause of the brutal “Tatar-Armenian” war in Baku in 1905 in which hundreds were killed and thousands of oil wells destroyed.

Henry asked rhetorically, “Why is Baku rich? The answer is simple—because it produces a commodity which has a market wider than the civilised world, for it is carried on camels into the innermost parts of the Asian Continent, and on yaks into the wild regions of the Himalayas.” But camels and yaks were insufficient to export a major new world community to the wider world. Baku faced the same problem as it would a century later—how to export the oil from the land-locked Caspian basin to consumers. In the 1870s, the geography of the Caucasus was such a barrier that Tiflis imported more American kerosene by ship than it did Baku oil. The Caspian Sea was stormy and dangerous for several months of the year, limiting how much could be sent to Russia. So in 1883 the new oilmen, with financing from the Rothschild family, built the first cross-Caucasian railway from Baku to Batum on the Black Sea. In 1906, Baku oil made another leap forward when the world’s longest “kerosene pipeline” was completed, running for 519 miles along the same route to Batum.

In the years 1914–21, oil wealth was a major factor in the international scramble for the Caucasus. In 1918, German commander Erich von Ludendorff saw Azerbaijani oil and its route via Georgia as a key reason to move into the South Caucasus. In the end, the British took control of Baku, and in 1919 British foreign secretary Arthur Balfour identified its oil as Britain’s major priority in the region. He said, “I should say we are not going to spend all our money and men in civilizing a few people who do not want to be civilized. We will protect Batum, Baku, the railway between them and the pipe-line.” When the British had gone, the oil-starved Bolsheviks made Baku their first target in the Transcaucasus. Having captured the city in April 1920, Trotsky declared that the new oil resources would win the Reds the Civil War and would be “our hope for restoring the economy, for ensuring that old men and women and children do not die of cold in Moscow.”

Only in the late 1920s did Baku oil production climb back to its prewar levels, but in 1941 Baku was vital to Stalin’s war effort against Germany and produced around three-quarters of the Soviet Union’s oil. When Hitler’s Germany invaded the Soviet Union, the Germans again identified Baku oil as a vital asset. In August 1942, the Germans occupied the western side of the North Caucasus and planned a push south to Azerbaijan. Saying “Unless we get the Baku oil, the war is lost,” Hitler diverted divisions away from the battle for Stalingrad toward the Caucasus. That summer, Hitler’s staff famously had a cake made for him that had the shape of the Caspian Sea in the middle. Film footage shows a delighted Hitler taking a slice of the cake, which had the letters B-A-K-U written on it in white icing and chocolate made to look like oil spooned over it.

The debacle at Stalingrad in the winter of 1942–43 meant that Germany never invaded the South Caucasus, but even the threat of attack was a death-sentence for the Baku oil industry. Stalin, who knew the Baku oil fields from his revolutionary days of 1905, had the oil wells shut down so they would not fall into German hands. Almost the entire Azerbaijani oil industry and its experts were transferred to the oil wells of the Volga and the Urals. After the war, Russia’s oil fields received the major investment, and Azerbaijan suffered. The on-land fields had dried up, and in order to reach the trickier offshore fields, a small town named Oily Rocks was built thirty miles out in the sea—reached across a causeway built on sunken ships. Cramped and polluted, Oily Rocks eked out what could still be drilled of Azerbaijan’s oil within the capacity of Soviet technology. But increasingly, the existing expertise was not up to the challenge. By the time the Soviet Union ended, Azerbaijan was producing only 3 percent of the Soviet oil output.

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Filed under Caucasus, economics, energy, Germany, industry, Russia, USSR, war

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