The Politics of Oil in the USSR

A review of Baku at All Costs: The Politics of Oil in the New Soviet State, by Sara G. Brinegar.

Industrial civilization needs fossil fuels like we need oxygen. Without carbon-based fuels, it would suffocate, collapse, transform into something else altogether. Coal, oil, and gas allow for sociopolitical formations that would simply not obtain in their absence. Yet energy in its organic components has long been the purview of fields within the social sciences that see it simply as a functional wealth generator (economics), or as an object of domestic and international political struggle (political science). Until recently, historians have seen little point in analyzing something so merely functional and straightforward as oil. Sara Brinegar recovers the power of oil as foundational to new social constructions, and historians—especially Soviet historians—are in her debt for it. She does not think of oil only as economists and political scientists do—that is, in its abstract, commodified form signifying wealth or currency—but rather as a geographically bounded, material object. In her narrative, oil does not simply generate wealth after a political struggle to seize it in its Caucasian sources; instead, Brinegar shows that the deployment of oil as an energy source to power industrial civilization structured social and political settlements as well as the course of Bolshevik state-building efforts.

Brinegar’s dissertation draws widely from archives and libraries in Baku and Moscow, primarily the archives of the Azerbaijan Oil Trust (Azneft’), Azerbaijan state institutions, and the Caucasian Bureau of the Russian Communist Party (Kavburo), as well as the personal archives of Party figures like Georgii Chicherin and Sergo Ordzhonikidze. With additional conceptual help from political theorist Timothy Mitchell, she sets out to illustrate the ways in which the material necessities of regenerating and maintaining an oil industry and its physical infrastructure (transportation, machinery, refining, shipping, expertise) required the generation and maintenance of certain social and political structures that could assure things like an expert labor force, a network of final consumers, and the secured transportation of crude oil to refineries both domestic and abroad (p. 20).

Azneft’ chairman Aleksandr Serebrovskii takes center stage in the first chapter as he comes to Baku with the Red Army in 1920 to try to restart the oil industry there for the benefit of Bolshevik power. The situation he found was predictably dire. Completely cut off from Russia, and feeling the first intimations of the famine that would ravage the new country, he was left to his own devices. An acute lack of food made it difficult for this agent of Bolshevik power to entice labor back into the oil fields and salvage the industry from its utter disorganization. Despite all the privileges his industry received, working conditions were abysmal and life-threatening for workers, and not much better for engineers, who had to work under conditions of extreme suspicion and casual denunciation. And even when some crude was produced, it was difficult to get it to market abroad, where Serebrovskii might have been able to procure the provisions that Moscow was not supplying. It is this center-periphery dislocation that allows Brinegar to argue for a different periodization and for the introduction of a period she calls “Revolutionary Communism,” a period characterized by militarized rule within the context of more permissive economic management and a fair amount of local agency. These dire material conditions also form one half of the most relevant context for understanding the subsequent debate over the creation of the Transcaucasian Republic that ends the chapter. The other, more important half is the region’s built environment. Rather than revolving around considerations of Soviet nationalities policies, Marxist ideological reasoning, and local national sentiment, the debate that Brinegar illuminates is one focused on the existing railway lines, running in a northwesterly direction from the Baku fields to Batumi on the Georgian Black Sea coast. In fact, the debate began as a discussion of the necessity to coordinate the Commissariats of Foreign Trade of the different Transcaucasian republics, especially in relation to the marketing of Baku oil to world (more immediately Turkish) markets. Coordination was all that Moscow asked for, but it was Bolshevik agents on the ground, especially the redoubtable Sergo Ordzhonikidze, who pushed for the region’s institutional unification in 1922. And it was the oil industry’s existing infrastructure, in the end, that proved most persuasive.

The dissertation turns to international politics in the second chapter, which argues for the primacy of the oil industry in Soviet negotiating plans for the Genoa Conference of 1922, while simultaneously positing the conference itself as an important constitutive event in the ongoing redefinition of Bolshevik goals in matters of state formation and international relations. This is because the conference forced the Bolsheviks to crystallize their position on an array of important matters that early declarations of the New Economic Policy (NEP) had left vague. Three matters in particular had to be settled before the conference: the status of Soviet republics and their relations with the Russian Republic and the outside world; Bolshevik foreign concessions policy; and the decision to favor coal over oil, with the latter earmarked in large part for export. Brinegar contextualizes the Soviet strategies in Genoa within the context of an early 1920s global oil scarcity and the concomitant competition among the Western majors that gave the Bolsheviks room for negotiation: “Soviet domestic growth and development, diplomatic overtures to normalize relations with the West, and re-integration into the international economy were thus inextricably linked, and at the center of these projects [w]as the vital resource of oil” (p. 76). After all, Chicherin argued, in order to negotiate with Western oil companies the Bolsheviks in Moscow had to resolve the relationship between the Kremlin and Baku oil that was at the heart of center-periphery politics in Azerbaijan. The discussions on this subject and on concessions were so contentious that Brinegar uncovers a telling occurrence: here is the rare situation in which Lenin actually made use of the Tenth Party Congress’s ban on factions that is usually associated with Stalin. Lenin supported Chicherin and Foreign Trade Commissar Krasin in pushing concessions against the arguments of “local” Bolsheviks like Ordzhonikidze, Serebrovskii, and Sergei Kirov, who thought that the Bolshevik Party could reconstruct the industry on its own. In the end, the “locals” subverted the center by giving a “concession” to the International Barnsdall Corporation that actually looked less like the rest of the concessions and more like the barter agreements for Western technology that became a mainstay of Soviet foreign trade. The American company’s eventual success in restoring production to the oil fields of Baku also obviated further concessions in the oil industry.

From the reconstruction of the oil industry Brinegar turns to its protection, which informs the core of Chapters 3 and 4 on Soviet relations with Persia. Here oil is once again at the center of Soviet revolutionary and diplomatic policies in the region as the young Bolshevik government tried to create space between Baku and British imperial power. She presents two little-known episodes that really should be better known among scholars, if only because they seem so formative of such crucial future Stalinist leaders as Ordzhonikidze, Kirov, and especially Anastas Mikoyan. The first involved the Red Army’s invasion of Persia’s northern province of Gilan. Brinegar argues that rather than seeing this invasion through the prism of some revolutionary excitement that spilled beyond the borders of Azerbaijan, it should be seen as part and parcel of a Bolshevik attempt to consolidate power in the Caucasus and protect the Baku oil fields. The settlement, seen as a betrayal by Baku Bolsheviks who hoped to spread Bolshevism to the East, arrived only when the Kremlin received assurances that the British would not be prospecting for oil in North Persia. This was followed by the creation of Kevir-Khurian, a joint-stock company shared by the Soviet and Persian governments, which was created in order to find and exploit oil sources in the region. The endeavor to secure, finance, and manage the company is the focus of Chapter 4. Here we find the Bolsheviks collaborating with a shady Georgian businessman to establish a company that would generate relationships with business and political leaders in Persia, and ultimately help to manage diplomatic relations with that country. The Bolsheviks were nothing if not flexible in their early days.

The fate of the most important of the local Azeri leaders, the intellectual and statesman Nəriman Nərimanov, is the subject of the final chapter. Brinegar returns to more domestic concerns in the context of a restored oil industry to find that, with the oil flowing into Russia and abroad, the Bolsheviks had little use for local power brokers. Nərimanov had long held that he had made a pact with Lenin soon after the Revolution according to which he would ensure that oil flowed north to Russia in exchange for cultural autonomy and help in revolutionary Persia. As the NEP cemented itself in 1923-1924, however, so did the politics of state centralization. This brought into conflict and disarray the Oil Trust and local institutions like Baku’s city government, institutions that still needed to cooperate in order to organize the economic life of the industry’s workers. Brinegar personalizes these centralizing processes against local voices in the figure of Nərimanov, a formerly powerful figure reduced by this time to sending complaints to Moscow that eventually spelled the end of his political life.

Brinegar has gone to the periphery and returned with fresh insight into the early political history at the center of the Soviet Union. Her peculiar insights owe much to an approach that does not comport with the more conventional lines of inquiry employed in studies of the periphery. She centers her narrative instead on one of the foundations of industrial society and finds that it was integral to the most essential questions prompted by the fluid socio-political developments of the early Soviet period. She finds that the conventional periodization of Soviet history is difficult to maintain in the periphery; that foreign policy was at the very center of domestic policy, and vice-versa; and she finds oil at the core of state imaginaries in Bolshevik discourse. It is to be hoped that this fine dissertation will inspire many more like it.

Oscar Sanchez-Sibony
Assistant Professor
Department of History
University of Macau

Primary Sources
Republic of Azerbaijan State Archive (ARDA) fond 28, Foreign Affairs Commissariat of Azerbaijan SSR; fond 412, Higher Economic Council of Azerbaijan; fond 1610, Azneft’
Russian State Archive for Social and Political History (RGASPI) fond 64, Kavburo; fond 85, Personal file of Sergo Ordzhonikidze; fond 159, Personal file of Georgii Chicherin
Russian State Archive of the Economy (RGAE) fond 270, personal file of A. P. Serebrovskii; fond 3429, Supreme Council of the Economy (VSNKh); fond 4372, Gosplan; fond 5740, Azneft’ Moscow Office
State Archive of the Russian Federation (GARF) fond 8350, Main Concessions Committee
Newspapers: Krasnyi Baku, Neftianoe khoziaistvo, Bakinskii Rabochii, The New York Times

Dissertation Information
University of Wisconsin-Madison. 2014. 296 pp. Primary Advisor: Francine Hirsch.

Image: Document and Photography Archive of the Azerbaijan Republic, AR DFSA İ. 5009, s. 2. Camel caravan on the streets of Baku, circa 1917.

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