TO FILM OILY ROCKS PROPERLY, WE had to spend time there and fly over it. It took weeks of haggling with the state-owned Azeri oil company to obtain a rarely issued permit to visit by helicopter; the authorities have been reluctant to grant the privilege ever since one of their choppers crashed. But only from the air is the true purpose of Oily Rocks revealed: it is the world's largest sculpture, a gargantuan piece of modern art, full of pathos and audacity. The spindly steel structure, most of it rusted a bright orange, winds over the blue sea. Iridescent streaks of oil are smeared across the water around the wells. As modern art, it is beautiful. As a feat of engineering, however, Oily Rocks is a monster that is slowly retreating to the sea.
It's difficult to make a documentary about oil without getting a few shots of the dirty brown stuff itself, but Azerbaijan's main foreign consortium was adamant that we not film on their rigs, citing safety reasons. Once we got to Oily Rocks, however, things were more laid-back. We were driven out along one of the tentacles of road that spiral from the rig's main hub. Four or five workers sat drinking tea in a wooden shack beside the causeway. I was astonished to see tomatoes and an apple tree flourishing in soil that had made the 75-mile trip from shore.
When I asked if we could see some oil, Latif Murtuzov, a wiry 49-year-old with coke-bottle glasses and a full set of gold teeth, clambered onto the pumping equipment and started opening valves and stopcocks. I scrambled up the ladder behind him, feeling for the rusty steps with sandaled feet, glad that I was up to date on my tetanus jabs.
Sandy sludge slopped from a giant tap onto the deck, swamping the floor and threatening the cuffs of Latif's oddly natty trousers. Then the oil appeared. Inevitably, a vodka bottle was the first container on hand, but someone accidentally dropped it. We filled an old bucket instead. I had expected the oil to be sticky and tarry, but it was light and brown—like nothing so much as Worcestershire sauce. Latif put his hand in and pretended to lick his fingers, and I took a Polaroid of the men around their unlikely treasure. It was hard to believe that the oil in the bucket was of the best quality produced in the former Soviet Union, once used to rocket cosmonauts into space.
THE CHIEF ENGINEER OF OILY Rocks invited a small group of visitors to dinner the evening I was there. We ate fried chicken and Russian salad—peas and carrots in a creamy dressing—and toasted Oily Rocks with copious amounts of vodka. Our host praised the foresight of its founders. We praised the structure's incredible size. Everyone praised its place in history. None of us mentioned that Oily Rocks seemed to be disintegrating before our eyes.
After supper, I went looking for Latif. The dormitory blocks were enormous and bare, reminding me of a low-security penal institution. The overwhelming maleness of the place added to its desolate air. Most of the 5,000 workers here are men, each spending a nine-day shift on the platform and then the same amount of time back home.
It took me 40 minutes to find Latif's room. I kept arriving at room 49 in the wrong building, and had to backtrack down corridors with flickering lights and peeling linoleum, past bathrooms that reeked. By the time I got to Latif's quarters with my gift of vodka and candy, he had already gone to bed. His two roommates were working the night shift. The room was tiny; the three beds filled it. Cold-weather gear hung on the walls. Little stickers of nude women decorated a wall mirror that was crowned with a larger image of Stalin.
Against my protestations, Latif got up, dressed, and started making tea. There was no plug on the kettle, and sparks flew as he thrust the bare wires into the socket. Latif told me that things aren't what they used to be on Oily Rocks; that morale is low and conditions are worsening. He earns about $130 a month, which doesn't go far even in Azerbaijan. But, he said philosophically, at least he gets paid on time. He has worked on Oily Rocks for 22 years, and has a wife and grown son back in Baku.
"Look at this place," Latif said as we peered around the dim corridors. "No one cares anymore." We drank tea and stared at the crackling picture on the television set in his room.
The chief engineer had told me there was enough oil to keep the rig in business for another 40 years, but the output of Oily Rocks has dwindled since the Soviet glory days. Now it produces only about 5 percent of Azerbaijan's oil.
Later that evening, I played a game of pool with a 20-year-old worker named Rasul. Also from Baku, Rasul doesn't share Latif's apparent nostalgia for the Communist past. "Five years ago, they said everything was going to be great in five years," he said. He was fed up with being told that Azerbaijan was going to be the new Kuwait. From the shabby poolroom we could hear the rig's generator humming in the darkness. Rasul's greatest hope: to secure a visa and emigrate to the Netherlands.
THE HELICOPTER CIRCLED OILY Rocks twice on the way back to Baku so we could get a good look at the new Pennzoil gas compressor, which transfers gas from Azeri and foreign wells to the shore. Its bright yellow platform is a stark contrast to Oily Rocks. This operation is said to be run on the American model, with higher wages for workers, strictly enforced safety codes, and better food. The Azeris are proud of it; they say it's the future of the oil industry in the Caspian. I'm sure they're right, but I'd bet it doesn't have a library.