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The Rock of Ages

Christopher Kendall

Photo: Christopher Kendall

The last thing I expected to find in the middle of the Caspian Sea was a library, but there it was, reassuringly filled with the smell of old books and neatly folded newspapers. A dimpled librarian named Raisa told me that her collection numbered 25,564 volumes. As she showed off the shelves of English and American authors in Russian (rich in Ernest Gemingvei and Dzhek London), it was easy to forget that we were 75 miles from shore and that the only thing preventing us and the books from falling into the sea was a network of rusty steel trestles.

It had taken two boats and a lurching nine-hour crossing to reach this haven of bookishness. The first boat from Baku, Azerbaijan's capital, had broken down, and 100 Azeri oil workers and I had to swap vessels on open water. Even the workers looked queasy as they made their way over the shifting gangplank, carrying bundles of clothing and bags of fresh vegetables. I was doubly disoriented when I finally arrived, seasick, on solid ground in the middle of the sea. A driver in a ragged cap ushered me into a run-down van, and we set off along a road that seemed to float upon the water. At last we reached the building that houses Raisa's library, a grocery, and, infrequently, a guest or two. I'd made it to Oily Rocks, once the shining achievement of Azerbaijan's oil industry.

HARD TO PRONOUNCE AND EVEN HARDER TO SPELL, Azerbaijan is a small country of 8 million people on the western shore of the Caspian Sea. It's famous for producing caviar, carpets, and Garry Kasparov. Once part of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan is about to celebrate its 10th year as an independent nation. It's also on the verge of an oil windfall that varies from large to stupendous, depending on whom you talk to. Azerbaijan's share of the oil reserves under the Caspian Sea is estimated to be worth $80 billion but could be much more.

In the old days, this money would have gone straight to Moscow. But now that Azerbaijan is independent, the money is going . . . well, where exactly?I had come here to find out, to anchor a documentary for British television about how the impending oil boom would affect the country. Azerbaijan regularly heads the list of the world's most corrupt nations, jostling for the top spot with Nigeria, Indonesia, and Russia. It's still unclear whether the money will end up in a few numbered foreign bank accounts, controlled by a handful of powerful people close to the state oil companies. In any case, it's doubtful that the general population will see the economic benefits when the oil profits start flowing over the next few years.

This is Azerbaijan's first real taste of nationhood; Russia has dominated the region since the early 19th century. Established as an independent republic in 1918, the year after the Russian Revolution, Azerbaijan fell under Bolshevik control just two years later. The country's fractured history owes everything to its position on the map—right on the fault line between Europe and Asia, and bordering three empires (Russian, Turkish, and Persian). Baku is indebted to each of these cultures.

In the winding alleys of the Old Town, a boy of six with a gold tooth showed me the way to the Shirvanshahs Palace. It was baking hot, but in a quiet courtyard of carved stone two old men were playing music on the saz and the zerb—a stringed instrument and a drum. Even there in the calm it was hard to escape the evidence of the coming boom. Foreign oil companies have infiltrated the area and are renovating early-20th-century Old Town buildings that were originally financed by magnates flush with the country's first oil profits. Back when those early tycoons reigned, Azerbaijan produced half the world's supply of oil.

But Oily Rocks belongs to neither Azerbaijan's cosmopolitan past—when the Nobels and Rothschilds made fortunes here—nor its global future. It was built in the 1940's, when the Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan was part of the U.S.S.R. and oil from the Caspian was helping to establish Communism. Oily Rocks is the oldest, biggest, strangest oil platform in the world, but superlatives fail to capture the overwhelmingly insane spirit of this place. Nothing about it is natural. The whole structure is built on platforms supported by corroded metal poles that stand in about 40 feet of water. At one time, 120 miles of raised roads connected the wells and dormitories and ancillary buildings—including helicopter platforms, a power station, and a bakery—but three-quarters of them have fallen apart.

I visited Oily Rocks twice, the first time on a day trip from Baku with a group of Russian and Azeri sightseers. For Azeris, the place is a matter of both shame and pride. Our boat stopped for a half-hour and we rubbernecked on the quay. Oily Rocks looked like a ghost town. A few bedraggled oil workers stared while we peered at the crumbling viaducts, the buildings that had been flayed and turned inside out by vicious marine winds. I have seen the word Promethean used many times in connection with Soviet industry—I think it's supposed to evoke a spirit of daring enlightenment. Observing the battered buildings on stilts and the roadways that lead nowhere or to a precipitous drop, I was reminded that after Prometheus had stolen fire he had his liver pecked out every day by an eagle.

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