Economy

Baku's Oil Glory, From Stalin To The Rothschilds And Nobels

The old city of Baku
The old city of Baku
Richard Werly

BAKU — Amid the crashing and banging of dumpster trucks loaded with ballast, Fazil Gazi is a prime witness to one of the most famous oil hills in the world as it enters a new era.

In all the books dedicated to the black gold of the Caspian sea, this maze of small streets with rutted sidewalks, still congested with old Ladas and Soviet buses, had an evocative nickname: “Black City.” That’s because just below Fazil’s humble home in Baku, Azerbaijan, there was nothing but petroleum.

“The ground was black. Workers had their bodies covered with stinky oil while clouds of filthy smoke covered everything else,” says Fazil, who is now a quantity surveyor on Baku’s most emblematic construction site. “The smell of petroleum was everywhere.”

But forget about “Black City” and say hello to “White City,” a massive shopping mall under construction that will reproduce the architectural extravagance of Dubai, the emirate that the black-gold-endowed current Azerbaijan regime wants to imitate.

Petroleum and gas has been extracted by multinationals such as BP, Total or ENI in the fabulous offshore platforms of Azeri–Chirag–Guneshli and Shah Deniz since the late 1990s. The oligarchs recycle their revenue into luxury shops and residential buildings. As the city glitters in the autumn night, President Ilham Iliev basks in the glow of his Oct. 9 re-election to a third term, despite aggressive marginalization of the opposition and persistent human rights abuses.

The European countries, who depend on Azerbaijan for part of their energy and welcome its investments, are sparing the Westward-looking Azeri regime, stuck halfway between Russia and Iran. Although petroleum serves mostly the elite in power, it nevertheless creates growth, which in turn creates jobs and higher standards of living.

A colorful history

Baku, however, has more to offer than simply this Dubai-like shopping window. The history of the city is inseparable from the oil that became indispensable to the industrial world in the late 1800s and that has been springing from the soil since time immemorial. Baku has seen some major historical moments. There were the years between 1906 and 1910, for instance, when a certain Georgian revolutionary named Ioseb Jugashvili, also known as Stalin, conspired in bars as dark as the soot that covered them with workers from the fields of Balakhani and Sabunchi, on the oil-producing Absheron peninsula.

The Nobel Brothers' oil facility around 1900 — Tekniska museet

Baku is an oil city. These words are written all over the place, like on the white wall that still circles the old part of the town built on the top of the Black City by the Nobel brothers, Ludvig and Robert. The Nobels’ “Villa Petrolea,” overlooking the Caspian shore that back then was adorned with an entanglement of traditional derricks and wells activated by harnessed horses, was a symbol of the success and vision of the Swedish brothers who had come down from Saint Petersburg. Their third brother Alfred, inventor of dynamite and father of the Nobel prizes, stayed behind to take care of the family’s armament company at the service of the Tsar.

In the meantime, Ludvig and Robert, who had initially come to Baku to look for wood in the forests of South Caucasus to make gunstocks, swore only by black gold.

“Villa Petrolea was the embodiment of their plans as big-time capitalists who were already globalized,” explains historian Parvin Ahanchi, archivist for the oil giant Socar. “They lived for nothing by hydrocarbons: how to refine them and transport them — first on camelbacks, then with their first oil pipeline built in 1878. And finally how to export them — on their first oil tankers, the Zoroaster and its sister-ship the Nordenskjöld.

Baku's port — Photo: David Davidson

“Between 1879 and 1918, the Petroleum Production Company Nobel Brothers (Branobel), played for the rest of the world a role similar to that of Saudi Arabia.”

Now the Villa Petrolea is nothing more than an isolated, almost abandoned relic of this first oil boom whose theater was Baku. All that remain behind the freshly painted surrounding wall are the Nobel mansion — renovated by Sweden — the small park adjacent to the house where a barbecue restaurant established itself, and an ill-kept garden decorated here and there with bronze chests to the glory of Russian engineers of the 1950s.

Before the Nobels

To understand the changes in Baku, one must go to the museum at the former Taghiyev palace. Hajji Zeynalabdin Taghiyev is there, on one of the sepia pictures exposed in the dining room of his palace.

The Nobel Brothers' oil facility in Baku — Photo: Tekniska museet

“Between the 1880s and 1900s, Baku belonged to the Nobels, the Rothschilds and more generally to the British financiers,” explains historian Leila Aliyeva. “But those who really shaped it were the Azeri oil barons like Taghiyev, Musa Naghiyev or Murtuza Mukhtarov.”

Taghiyev’s story is eloquent. He started as an illiterate farmer. Then, in 1872, he managed along with a few others to buy oil-rich patches of land that the Tsarist administration was auctioning for the first time, and almost immediately made a fortune. Beyond its outside wall, the medieval Ottoman old town of Baku was surrounded by avenues with tramways where there were huge and expensive mansions, shops, and official buildings of European style constructed by French, Polish or German architects.

Baku's old town — Photo: David Brewer

Under the surveillance of the Tsar, Taghiyev and his peers became the masters of a cosmopolitan town were Turkish, Jewish, Russian and Armenian people gathered. The registers of some 2,000 workers from Branobel, found by the historian Parvin Ahanchi, tell the story of this multi-ethnic and multi-religious “Oil Babel,” where in the mud of the derricks workers spoke Persian, where the supervisors spoke Russian, the bankers English, the diplomats French.

The Nobels controlled one-third of the oil production despite the 30 different companies sharing the market. Baku prospered before animosity between Azeris and Armenians degenerated into massacres in 1905. But the city became emancipated: “Taghiyev was the first to finance a girls’ school, where my great grandmother went,” says the historian Leila Aliyeva.

Other magnates launched newspapers or built libraries. “At the beginning of the 20th century, it went from a military town to a modern European metropolis,” says Anar Valiyev, with Azerbaijan’s diplomatic academy.

Baku around 1900 — Photo: Tekniska museet

The peak occured with the Russian revolution of October 1917. A few months later, Azerbaijan gained its independence, and Baku became the capital. A parliament was established, and the oil magnates, including Taghiyev, financed this market democracy. “These philanthropist billionaires understood that freedom and education could earn them a lot,” Aliyeva explains.

Could black gold really have been a means of emancipation, considering how it led to so much oppression, corruption and destruction in other oil-producing countries since then? “What happened in Baku is unique: Our oil was civilizing,” she says, disgusted by the overdone construction of the current regime, known for buying itself a respectability by throwing money around.

Although an oil museum was considered for a time, it seems that it will not come to be. Taghiyev was dispossessed of his land when the Soviets took power in 1920 and died in his provincial dacha four years later. Ludvig and Robert Nobel, who died respectively in 1888 and 1896, did not live to see their company Branobel nationalized in 1920.

Oil is still being pumped out of Baku's heart, but the dreams of the Villa Petrolea are history.

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Coronavirus

Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."


Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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