Boomtown on the Caspian

Article/Op-Ed in Virginia Quarterly Review
Oct. 27, 2016

Gideon Lewis-Kraus wrote for the Virginia Quarterly Review on Baku:

The nation of Azerbaijan, wedged into the Caucasus Mountains between Russia and Iran, is small, geopolitically vulnerable, and relatively new to the contrivance of nationhood. Most of its history has been spent on the fringes of someone else’s empire; millennia of successive imperial occupations ended with the crumbling of the Soviet Union, and, over the twenty-five years since, Azerbaijanis have been experimenting with novel forms of national pride. Their patriotic boasts have the tentative feel of an audition: Locals like to try out the claim, for example, that within their borders one might find no fewer than nine different climates, as if to suggest a surprising capaciousness. One of the nine, and by far the most important, is the dominant natural ecosystem of the Absheron Peninsula, home to the Azerbaijani capital of Baku. The peninsula holds almost half of the nation’s 9 million people and, though it accounts for only 4 percent of the country’s mass, produces more than 80 percent of the nation’s industrial output. The Absheron biome, rich in oil and natural gas and their apparatuses of removal, might be described as one of the Earth’s great hellscapes: Tracts of its ground are permanently on fire; shallow black pools of crude oil seep through contusions in the sand; small volcanoes disgorge bubbles of cold, thick mud, whose slow rivulets peter out across the plains of barren rock. But this variegated purgatory is the chief reason for Baku’s astounding wealth. Some cities come into prominence at the confluence of great rivers, in the safety of generous harbors, or by their nearness to wheat. Others are planted by political fiat. Baku has come into its own extractively.