„In Azerbaijan it is claimed that the oil fields and the air filled with oil vapor are particularly suitable for curing lung diseases.“

Baku 2013 | A photographic record against the background of Essad Bey’s so-called ‚autobiographical report‘ „Oil and Blood in the Orient“ (1929)

Essad Bey alias Leo or Lev Noussimbaum or Nussimbaum was probably born on October 20 105 in Kyiv, although he repeatedly stated Baku as his place of birth. Whether the father was, as Essad Bey said, an oil industrialist and the mother a Russian revolutionary, is open to question. His biographer Tom Reiss suspects that he entertained those present with his fairy tales and legends in his private circle from an early age. On September 4, 1921, Bey registered in Berlin at the end of a long escape route from the Bolshevik Revolution, which had finally reached Baku. In Germany he managed to gain a foothold step by step, taking his Abitur, enrolling at the Institute for Oriental Languages and eventually becoming a recognized commentator on the Soviet and Near Eastern region during the Weimar Republic.

The collection of texts in Essad Bey’s volume „Oil and Blood in the Orient“ contains a series of often ironic sketchy remarks that are fatally up-to-date. If one drives through the settlements surrounding Baku, one encounters the same indifference of the rulers towards the living conditions of the rural population today as then.

In Azerbaijan, it is claimed that the oil fields and oil air are particularly suitable for curing lung diseases. A philanthropically-minded oil owner even wanted to build a sanatorium for lung patients close to his drilling towers.“

Essad Bey (1929). Oil and Blood in the Orient

Oil towers design the most beautiful industrial area in the world. Without the smoke, without the polluted air that all factories and mines have. Hundreds of towers, standing close together, evoke the imagination of a fantastic fairytale forest in the eyes of the spectator.

Essad Bey (1929). Oil and Blood in the Orient

The workers were Azerbaijanis, Daghestans, Persians and Russians, but the Russians were unable to do the hardest work. They were the most troublesome element among the workers. The best workers were the Orientals, because they alone possessed the indifferent fatalism that oil work demanded.

Essad Bey (1929). Oil and Blood in the Orient

An oil baron […] once formulated the following beautiful phrase when workers complained about insufficient food: ‚Only when you are lying with your navel up, and your stomach swells with hunger will you understand what real work means. You Mohammedans should know that for you I am your true father, whose heart bleeds daily like the heart of the Prophet because of the death of the holy Hussein of Karbala.

Essad Bey (1929). Oil and Blood in the Orient

Scattered between the oil fields and the city were several small settlements where thieves, lepers, vagabonds and other hard-to-define people lived. No one seemed to care what was going on in these settlements. No one suspected that unknown, suspicious people had set up a printing shop among the damp, sticky ruins. Every night a newspaper was printed there, which informed its readers in Georgia, Daghestan, Persia and Russia about the circumstances in the oil fields better than the prominent newspapers in the city. The paper was called ‚The Worker of Baku‘. Its editor-in-chief was a Georgian, a former student of the priesthood, son of a shoemaker from Tbilisi, who had only recently escaped from a Siberian prison. […] He had a low forehead, a crooked nose and small evil eyes that saw a lot of murder and blood. It was Jossif Dzhgashvili, the famous terrorist who now calls himself Stalin.

Essad Bey (1929). Oil and Blood in the Orient

There was a constant struggle between the individual oil families, often involving others as well. Then blood flowed in the streets. People disappeared without a trace. The gangs that were always available were paid double. […] Some oil owners were not only industrialists but also regional landlords. The latter, somewhere in the countryside, had the power to decide on the life and death of their subjects and continuously trained protective troops in their villages.

Essad Bey (1929). Oil and Blood in the Orient

The oil towers must never rest, nor must the workers who are suffering beside the towers. The earth around them is also oily, black and inflammable, just like the Caspian Sea, where it borders directly on the oil country. If you throw a burning match into the sea there, the sea begins to burn, for ten to fifteen minutes. For the people of Baku, this sea is a plague. Especially in summer, because you cannot swim in it.

Essad Bey (1929). Oil and Blood in the Orient

The oil towers form a state on their own, subject to special laws and with a particular concept of justice. The rules of the oilfields are unwritten but are respected more than the written laws of the state.

Essad Bey (1929). Oil and Blood in the Orient

Photography: © Stefan Applis (2013)

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