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Russia March 27, 2008
 
There Will Be Krov: Oil-soaked Travels Through Azerbaijan
Blood, Oil, and Borat in Azerbaijan By Alexander Zaitchik Browse author Email
 
The Aliyevs look to the glorious future on a billboard at the entrance to the Balakhani oil fields. Photos by the author.
 

BAKU, AZERBAIJAN — This is it, I thought. I’ve found it. The Holy Post-Soviet Travel Grail

I stood atop a massive concrete block, several feet off the ground deep in the Balakhani oil fields, just north of Baku, the seaside capital of Azerbaijan, just voted the world’s most polluted city. Before me the rolling hills of the city dump smoldered, churning enough fume across the horizon to erase the city skyline. Behind the shrouded Baku apartment blocs I knew spread an improbably blue Caspian Sea. But the Caspian felt like several planets away as I surveyed a deathscape of trash fires, abandoned oil derricks, ghost processing plants, and crumbling concrete structures with no obvious purpose. In every direction, garbage, oil pipes, and the decaying carcasses of Baku street dogs and other mammalian vermin who came here to scavenge and never left.

azerbaijan

For connoisseurs of a distinctly Soviet desolation, Balakhani on a rainy day is a kind of travel delicacy, a place of aching and otherworldly Tarkovskyan beauty. Adding a wholly satisfying Azeri touch to the scene is a billboard on the road into this wasteland. Featuring the logo of the Heydar Aliyev Fund, named after Azerbaijan’s former KGB chief and first post-communist dictator, the sign declares: “Come everyone plant a tree.”

blog_photo
See Alexander Zaitchik's Balakhani Oilfield Photo Essay

In Azerbaijan there’s no reason to choose between laughter and tears. The cursed nation of eight million demands both. An ex-Soviet petro-state with a nominally Shia populaton, Azerbaijan sits on a small but strategically valuable isthmus between Russia and Iran. One-third of Azeris live in hard poverty. Transparency International’s corruption index places the country between Belarus and Nigeria. If people know anything about Azerbaijan, it is likely one of three things: that it has a lot of offshore oil; that the 2003 power hand-off from Heydar Aliyev to his son Ilham was the first dynastic succession in the post-Soviet space; and that Baku is routinely ranked the most polluted city on earth.

This isn’t exactly a dream troika for the national tourist bureau, and few foreigners outside the oil biz ever visit Azerbaijan. Even expats based in the South Caucuses avoid the country if they can. Every foreign press desk save AFP and most NGO’s working in the region are based in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, which has become the Prague of Transcaucasia. The foreigners in Baku are thus an almost uniformly oily lot, just as they were a century ago, before the Red Army showed up to nationalize the oil fields and scatter the oil barons to Europe, Turkey, and Iran.

Sit on a bench along the posh shopping boulevards in downtown Baku and you’ll soon spot the only two species of western Baku expat: the well-heeled consultant talking oil jargon to his Blackberry, and the Cockney-accented offshore rig worker. Both gather in the same British pubs at night to drink ale, watch rugby, and trade stories about the Russified Shia whores who are as much a part of the oil economy as BP. It is arguably the most depressing expat scene in the world. Even the Riyadh compound rats have clear skies and breathable air.


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Zaitchik
Browse author
Alexander Zaitchik is an editor at The eXile. Email him at zaitchik@gmail.com
 
 
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