The New York Times, November 15, 1884, p.3:|
BAKU AND ITS PETROLEUMNOTES ON A VISIT TO THE FAMOUS RUSSIAN FIELDS.
DRAWBACKS TO THE BUSINESS--
OVERPRODUCTION OF LUBRICATING OIL--
PIPES AND MACHINERY FROM AMERICA.
BALAKHANI, on the Caspian Sea, Oct. 10.--There is a well-known story--none the worse for possessing the somewhat rare merit of being true--of a French sea Captain who, when describing a midnight shipwreck in the Channel, was asked how he could tell on such a pitch-dark night that is was the English coast upon which he was stranded. "I knew it at once," answered he, "by the brisk way in which the lifeboats came out to help me."
In the same way, were I asked how I can be certain that we are now in Russia, I should answer that I know it by the hearty welcome that we have just been receiving. Both Englishmen and Americans appear to be rare guests in these parts. The last visitor from New-York, I am told, passed this way more than a year ago, while--as a friend informed me last night in somewhat Irish phrase--"the only Englishman in Baku is a Scotchman, and he's never here."
But if the "Western heretics" knew what a hospitable reception awaits them here they would certainly come more frequently. From our genial Mayor himself, M. Despote Xenovitch, to the overseers of the most distant factories on the surrounding hills, every one has been as eager to oblige us, to tell us whatever we want to know, as if the competition between Russian and American petroleum were nothing more than a dream.
But it is not easy to fancy it a dream in a spot like this, where the all-pervading petroleum asserts its presence at every turn. The fresh breeze which steals through your open window at daybreak bears with it the fragrant breath of the countless factory chimneys, whose smoke hangs in one eternal cloud over our entire suburb of Baku. From Cape Bailoff, on the other side of the town, to our location on these ridgy uplands, nine miles beyond it, the hillsides are furrowed not with "purling streams," but with seemingly endless lengths of iron tubing, through which flow unseen rivers of petroleum.
Lakes of the precious liquid reflect the sun from every hollow, and the mighty resevoir, which towers above the "Black Town" like a modernized Coliseum, containing, as the residents proudly tell me, 10,000,000 gallons, is filled to the brim, not with water, but with petroleum, suggesting unpleasant thoughts of a possible deluge that would combine all the terrors of the flood with those of the destruction of Sodom.
Whether the exquisites of the town have their boots "shined" with lubricating oil, and scent their handkerchiefs with naphtha instead of "Jockey Club" or "Mille Fleurs," I have not yet inquired. But after being offered clarified oil to taste as a great treat at one of the factories yesterday I should scarcely be surprised to see petroleum selling in the grocers' stores in place of molasses, and to find my opposite neighbor at dinner pledging me in a brimming glass of kerosene or seasoning his fish with "residue fat" instead of melted butter.
I wonder what the ancient fire worshipers of Baku would say if they could come to life again once more upon their own sacred hill and see how modern civilization has transformed it. One can fancy how amazedly the poor Zoroastrians would stare at smoke-breathing chimneys, monster boilers, clanking engines, reservoirs as big as a barrack yard, distilling machines, and steam-worked pumps, lines of rail running down to the sea from the principal factories. And great would be their dismay to see the "eternal fires" of their ancient worship going out one by one from the draining of the naphtha springs that feed them.
"Foreigners keep on saying," remarked a local expert to me the other day, "that so long as we have to import our tubing and our machinery and all that, the high rates charged for freight transport by the Black Sea and Caspian Railway must eat up a good deal of our profits. But they forget that this is not the only line of transportation open to us. When we get anything from England, or Belgium, or America we can have it sent up the Baltic to Riga, carry it southeastward across Russia via Smolensk and Orel to Tsaritzin or the Lower Volga, and then run it down here by steamer."
Among the recent imports iron tubing from America holds a prominent place, great quantities of it having been required for the construction of the pipes which bring down the petroleum from the hills to the seashore.
As regards exports, the following list, which I have just copied from the official report for August, will give some idea of the progress of the local chief industry: "Exported by sea during the month of August--Kerosene, 2,579,923 poods, the pood being 36 pounds English; residues, 4,072,900 poods; raw naphtha, 187,160; lubricating oil, 136,305; benzine, 15,376; other distillations, 1,040; total, 6,992,364 poods."
Baku, being proverbially short of freah water, that which is required for the working of the machinery is obtained from the sea, and distilled in the factories themselves, which are consequently placed as close to the shore as possible, this congress of chimneys forming the "Black Town" of which I have spoken, lying about half an hour's drive from Baku itself. But the actual petroleum wells lie several miles further to the northeast, on the hill of Balakhani, (a name signifying "Home of Summer," though it might more justly be called "Home of Petroleum,") which is connected with the Black Town by the pipes above mentioned.
This grimy suburb fully deserves its ill-omened name when we enter it from the Baku side, for here several small factories owned by Tartars come close together, filling the air with a mass of foul black smoke sufficient to stifle an analytical chemist. But further on the "smoke consumers" are already in action, and our lungs are as much relieved as if they were now only filled with cotton instead of mud.
Our first visit is to the Shibaieff factory, which, although small compared to the giants beyond it, is in very good order, and evidently managed by men who know what they are about. It is chiefly devoted to the manufacture of various forms of machine oil, which has been until very lately one of the chief local industries, but is now, as the residents tell me, coming to a standstill, the supply having already far exceeded the demand.
"We could easily make five times as much lubricating oil as we do," says one of our party, "but if we did we could never find a market for it just now. Germany is our chief foreign customer at present, and she's fully supplied for the time being. In fact, we've made enough oil within the last year to grease the whole world."
"The polar axis included, I presume? You might make a good thing of it by getting an order for that."
"Well, I don't know about the polar axis," answers the Russian, laughing, "but at all events we've made more than we can sell just at present. That factory which you see yonder has left off making it altogether for the time, and that other has 1,250,000 gallons in stock which it can't get rid of. But here's breakfast ready--shall we go in?"
The table talk is quite a Babel, being carried on simultaneously in Russian, French, German, and English, with a dash of Persian here and there. But the meal itself is a genuinely Russian one. On a side table stand the little glasses of liqueur and corn whiskey, the slices of white and brown bread, the plates of caviar, (sturgeon roe,) cheese, and sardines which, under the various names of "schnapps" and "zakusa," are the preliminary articles of food at every well-ordered breakfast or dinner in Russia. The talk, as might be expected, turns chiefly upon petroleum, and I am soon furnished with statistics faster than I can write them down.
"In some points the Americans have the advantage on us," says a keen-looking man on my right, and in other points we have the advantage on them. For example, the American raw material yields, if I recollect right, 75 per cent. of pure petroleum and 25 per cent. of residues, whereas ours gives 72 per cent. of residues and only 28 per cent. of pure petroleum. But then, on the other hand, the Russian petroleum is much the heavier of the two, and consequently the less dangerous in the way of explosions.
"Then, to counterbalance our great difficulty in boring, labor is far cheaper here than in America, and our workmen--who are mostly Persians or Tartars, although the foremen are generally Russians--can live very well upon one-twelfth of their day's wages, small though they are.
"The actual getting out of the raw naphtha costs us far more than theirs costs the Americans, but I think we make it good in other ways."
"When you go back to America, Mr. Ker," chimes in another, "you must tell them not to laugh at what we're doing here, for this is only the beginning. If we see you here again in a year or two, as I hope we shall, you'll see a wonderful advance. We're good customers to your side of the water, too. One of our firms alone has 300,000 rubles' worth ($225,000) of American tubing laid down between this and Balakhai to carry the petroleum, and nearly all of our machinery is either American or English.
After breakfast we complete our inspection of the factory under the able guidance of the director--who, lame though he is, displays an untiring energy that might shame many a stronger man--and the pleasant and well-informed analyst, Dr. Schmidt. After mastering as thorougly as our unscientific minds can do it the process by which the mineral oil is separated from the water, and the various consistencies of oil from each other, we depart well satisfied, in order to pursue our researches elsewhere. But these need not be described at length.
I must not, however, leave unnoticed the factory of "Mirzoeff's Sons" in the town itself, which deserves mention if only for the sake of its well-kept laboratory, which might satisfy a Cambridge Professor of Chemistry. The director of the works is an inventor likewise, and he showed me an excellent temperature gauge of his own devising, as well as a glass tube containing alternate layers of clay and sand, as a kind of chart of the soil through which the borings are being carried.
One of the guests at dinner was an inventor of another kind, viz., M. Dmitrieff, the self-taught author of The Calendar of Illumination. While we were at table a friend of our host entered with the news that a compact had just been concluded with Austria by which the Baku petroleum might be sent through to Vienna without hindrance or delay--a piece of news eagerly seized by my obliging introducer, Dr. Panchenko, who is a leading contributor to one of the two daily papers which Baku possesses.
On the fourth day after our arrival we drive out to Balakhani to see the petroleum wells themselves. Of these no fewer than 58 belong to the firm of Nobel Brothers, the Rothschilds of Baku, who, if the Custom House register can be depended upon, must be exporting as much as all the other firms put together.
Despite the glorious sunshine above and the bright blue sea below, the whole landscape is desolate in the extreme, for king petroleum, like most other monarchs, announces his presence by desolation.
Along a "road," which is nothing more than a dusty, uneven ditch, we bump and jolt up and down in succession of bare parched ridges, freckled with tufts of that prickly tamrisk which met me at every turn three years ago in Afghanistan.
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The Republic of Azerbaijan occupies the southern part of the isthmus between the Black and Caspian seas, bordered on the north by Russia, on the east by the Caspian Sea, on the south by Iran, on the west by Armenia, and on the northwest by Georgia. The Azerbaijani exclave of Naxç[van (Nakhichevan) is separated from Azerbaijan proper by Armenia, and is also bounded by Iran and Turkey. The capital of Azerbaijan is Baku. The area of Azerbaijan is 33,400 square miles (86,600 square km). The estimated population of Azerbaijan for July, 2008 is 8,177,717. The official language is Azeri.
Azerbaijan became part of the Russian empire in the 1800s, then was independent for 2 years, from 1918 to 1920, before becoming part of the Soviet Union. As the USSR broke up, Azerbaijan declared sovereignty on Sept. 23, 1989, and independence Aug. 30, 1991.
Despite a 1994 cease-fire, Azerbaijan has yet to resolve its conflict with Armenia over the Azerbaijani Nagorno-Karabakh enclave (largely Armenian populated). Azerbaijan has lost 16% of its territory and must support some 800,000 refugees and internally displaced persons as a result of the conflict. Corruption is ubiquitous and the promise of widespread wealth from Azerbaijan's undeveloped petroleum resources remains largely unfulfilled.
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