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In Azerbaijan’s National Archives

November 17, 2014

I’m back in Stockholm after ten days in Baku, Azerbaijan’s fascinating capital city and probably the richest spot in the Caucasian region. To the north is wartorn Chechnya, to the south Iran and Iraq, where the Islamic State is advancing, but Azerbaijan, just like Armenia and Georgia, sees its future linked to Europe and, by way of possible oil and gas flows, to Central Asia. Baku was once an oil center of far-reaching importance, with a share of some of some 50% of total world production. The key people who made this happen were Swedes: Ludvig and Robert Nobel, brothers of the more famous Alfred Nobel, came here in the 1870s, invented new, superior methods for refining and transporting oil, and soon conquered the Russian and large parts of the world market. Their son Emmanuel later on took on what by then had become a vast industrial empire, and earned a reputation as the richest man in Europe.

I went to the National Archives of Azerbaijan to find out more about this unusual Swedish foreign history, which is also crucial to understanding Azerbaijan’s, Russia’s, and the Soviet Union’s industrial history. The material looks very fine, is in good shape, and would clearly make it possible to write not only one or a few articles, but a couple of books as well – if one could find the time to do that. The collections of the Nobel Brothers Company (Branobel) are clearly underutilized. The only scholar who has so far actually used them in earnest is Parvan Ahanchi of Azerbaijan’s National Academy of Sciences, who, apart from being an expert on the archive’s Branobel collections, has written several articles and books about the Swedish-owned company’s story in Russian language. I was lucky to meet Parvin while in Baku, learn from her experience, and discuss possibilities for future cooperation.

I also paid a visit to the recently restored Villa Petrolea, which served as Branobel’s Baku headquarters in the old times and where I was generously received by the Baku Nobel Heritage Fund’s Chairman Tugril Bagirov, a professor of political science, UN energy expert, and oil businessman with far-reaching philantropic ambitions and historical interests.

What makes Baku so fascinating today, however, is the way in which this historical oil capital has experienced a second oil boom after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Industrial oil producers have done their best to quickly exploit the region’s oil for about a century and half, but in the outskirts of Baku you can still marvel at whole forests of active oil pumps, oftentimes small ones awkwardly placed in backyards and other unexpected places. And in the Caspian Shipyard the enormous towers of offshore drilling platforms compete with minarets and skyscrapers for dominance in the skyline. When will the age of oil finally come to an end?

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