The Rock of Ages

Once the pearl of Azerbaijan's industry, the Oily Rocks rig teeters on the brink of ruin — even as the region ushers in a coming oil boom. Is there a future for the world's oldest drilling platform, and for its workers?Marcel Theroux reports from the Caspian Sea

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.

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.

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