Sunday, June 25, 2017

Stalin Wanted to ‘Drain’ the Caspian Sea But Was Talked Out of It

Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 25 – In 1952, shortly before his death, Joseph Stalin came up with the idea of “draining” the Caspian Sea so as to be able to get to the oil and gas resources on its bed; but he was dissuaded from trying by water specialists who pointed out that redirecting the Volga, Terek and Kura rivers would be insufficient and that Moscow didn’t have enough pumps.

            This week, the Tolkovatel portal offers a glimpse into this intriguing story by drawing on the comments of Nikolay Baybakov, onetime Soviet oil minister and Gosplan director, and KGB head Ivan Serov in memoirs that were published by Prosveshechniye last year (зачем-сталин-хотел-осушить-каспийско/).

            They are intriguing both as an example of the way in which Stalin was on occasion at least dissuaded from doing something he thought he wanted to do by experts who pointed out the obstacles and costs and as an indication that in that regard he was less willful than some of his successors who became backers of the ill-fated but much-discussed Siberian river diversion plan.

            The idea of draining the Caspian to get at the oil on its seabed arose almost as soon as oil was discovered there, with companies and officials working to reclaim for the land small portions of the sea already at the end of the 19th century and making plans for a bigger “draining” operation in 1909-1912. 

            Those plans were never realized because of the revolutionary turmoil, although in 1927, some 300 hectares were reclaimed from the Caspian Sea and rapidly filled with oil wells. Such small efforts might have continued, but the launch of the first Soviet oil drilling platform in the Caspian in 1949 changed the thinking of some in Moscow.

            That platform proved so expensive and could be used only in shallow water that Soviet planners began to consider more radical solutions. One of these involved “draining” the entire sea so that the Soviet Union could get more oil given that the Western Siberian fields had not yet come on line. Ivan Serov describes what happened in 1952 in his recently published memoirs.

At that time, Serov was deputy minister of state security and curator of the Volga-Don canal construction project. His deputy told him that Stalin had called him to come with a map of the Caspian to discuss the future of the sea.  On his return, the deputy said that Stalin had ordered the preparation of plans to “drain” the Caspian Sea.

“I looked at him with surprise,” Sergov says, “but he looked at me seriously.” His deputy said he had told Stalin that this was “possible” but that he would have to “calculate” how much it would cost. He noted that Stalin had dismissed Mikoyan’s objections that this would cost the Soviet Union hard currency from caviar exports. Stalin said that was irrelevant: “’we need oil.’”

Soviet government exports got to work, calculated the enormous cost of diverting or damming the rivers feeding the Caspian, and recognized that even if that step were taken, there weren’t enough pumps in the USSR at that time to drain the remaining water from the bottom of the sea. 

They reported this to Stalin who said that clearly it wasn’t an idea whose time had come. Everyone supported that, and Serov says that he “thought to himself: ‘Thank God that he didn’t decide to drain the sea.’”

‘If a Bourgeois Revolution is to Start in Russia, It will Begin with Tatarstan,’ Kazan Historian Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 25 – Just as jadidist writers like Yosef Akchura played a key role in elaborating “the Tatar model” that became the basis for Turkey’s post-Ottoman transformation, “if a bourgeois revolution does begin in Russia, it will start with Tatarstan,” according to Kazan historian Rafael Mukhametdinov.

            In thinking about the future, the long-time specialist of Turkic societies at the Tatarstan Academy of Sciences argues in a major article in Kazan’s Business-Gazeta, many are inclined to forget two things: religion plays a continuing role in many societies even now and revolutionary change typically starts from one point and spreads (

            A major reason that the Arab world and Russia have not made the transition to modernity, however great their incomes from the sale of raw materials, is that they have not modernized religion and transformed it from a force ruling society into one that is something personal for each individual, the historian argues.

            “In the Arab world,” for example, “an industrial society and a bourgeoisie as a class have still not been formed,” Mukhametshin says. As a result, “if you discount the income from oil and gas, the GDP of Spain with its 35 million people is greater than the combined GDP of all Arab countries with a population of more than 200 million.”

            The transition to modernity and the rise of the bourgeoisie spread from Holland to the rest of western Europe four and five centuries ago, and the same thing happened further east but still only in part.  In a similar way, “the precursor of the transition to the bourgeois model of society and nationalism in Turkey … was the Tatar bourgeois model of development.”  

            This Tatar model, the historian says, was a new form of nationalism which combined via jadidism Islamic culture and a commitment to national development and was most importantly promoted by Yusuf Akchura who insisted that religion must shift from a societal regulator to an individual one for a modern industrial nation and economy to emerge.

            In the decades preceding the 1917 revolution in Russia, Mukhametshin points out, “Tatar society from the point of view of the development of bourgeois style of life and modernization was the leader of the Muslim world and its leading intellectuals – men like Musa Bigiyev, Zyya Kamali, Rizaetdin Fakhretdinov and Galimdzhan Barudi – set the pace for Turkey and for many in the Arab world.

            Tragically, this rich intellectual tradition was interrupted by “the Bolshevik genocide against Muslims,” an action which has left many Muslims in Russia with the sense that the Islam they see around them began “from a blank slate.” But that is beginning to change as many Muslims in Russia recover the pre-1917 past.

            A major contribution to this recovery, Mukhametshin says, is the preparation, which is near completion, of a 12-volume set of the works of the jadidist thinkers of pre-1917 Tatarstan translated from the Arabic and Old Tatar and that will hopefully be translated into modern Tatar in the near future.

            This publication and the growth of interest in the ideas of Akchura and the others will naturally play a major role in the future direction of thinking in Tatarstan, but these things will also have a significant impact on other countries like Russia and the Arab East which have not escape from the pre-modern status of religion and thus moved into modernity.

            “If a bourgeois revolution is to begin in Russia, then it will start in Tatarstan, just as in Europe, a similar revolution began with little Holland,” Mukhametshin argues.  “We Tatars desperately need an influx of new intellectual forces in the sphere of Islam.” Rereading the classics will help; applying them will make all the difference.

‘Daghestan Needs Nogay Lands Not the Nogay People,’ Movement’s Leader Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 25 – Echoing the infamous remark of a 19th century Russian general about Armenia, Rustam Adilgireyev, the chief organizer of the All-Russian Congress of the Nogay People earlier this month, says that it is becoming obvious that “Daghestan needs the lands of the Nogays but not the Nogay people.” 

            The more than 100,000 Nogays of the Russian Federation, a Turkic people centered on the steppe in northern Daghestan and adjoining territories, he says, are seeking to get support against Makhachkala’s offensive policies from “the leadership of the Russian Federation and … the subjects of the federation” (

                “We Nogays,” Adilgireyev says, “are a devoted people of the Russian state and we will defend the sovereignty of the Russian state.”  Pointedly, he did not say that the Nogays are devoted to Daghestan. In fact, in his article, he makes it clear that his people view Makhchakala almost as an enemy.

            The Nogay people, he continues, “have been and are being subjected to the destructive impact of the incorrect socio-economic and nationality policy of the Government of the Republic of Daghestan,” which among other things has taken away two thirds of Nogay territories from Nogay local administrations and failed to fund these agencies adequately.

            The much-ballyhooed Makhachkala program for the development of the Nogay district has “practically collapsed.”  According to Adilgireyev, this is shown by five developments in recent years:

·         Every year, the local budgets have been cut by Makhachkala, thus making it impossible for the self-governments of the Nogay to do their work.

·         Only people with money or connections are able to take an active part in economic activity as a result.

·         Thousands of young Nogays have been forced to move elsewhere in the search for work.

·         Nogay lands that Makhachkala has given to other peoples have been over-farmed and are now turning into “sandy deserts” of little use to anyone.

·         “In the higher organs of power of Daghestan, there is not a single representative of the Nogay region, not a minister, not a deputy minister, not even a chief of an administration, and only one who heads a small department of the apparatus of the chief of the republic and government.”

All of this, the Nogay leader says, “demonstrate the indifference of the powers that be of Daghestan to the Nogay region and their ignoring of the interests of the population of the district in favor of the population of the mountainous regions.” Still worse, Makhachkala has taken control of the elections and imposed its own people on the Nogay steppe.

As a result, anger among the Nogays is increasing, Adilgireyev says.

            Moscow must ensure that power to make decisions about the Nogays return to the Nogays and not be usurped by the Daghestani authorities.  “We must not allow a new redivision of our small Motherland,” the activist says, “or changes of the administrative-territorial borders and integrity of the Nogay district.”

            If that process isn’t stopped, the Nogay land will be reduced to “an isolated reservation” for a people oppressed by the republic government.

            Adilgireyev says he isn’t posing any challenge to Daghestan “because Daghestan and its leadership are not synonymous.” But of course, that is exactly what he is doing. And his invocation of Moscow to help the Nogays against Makhachkala sets the stage for a most dangerous game.

            Moscow is hardly likely to agree to give the Nogays all that they want, but it may use their demands as the basis for ousting the current leadership in Makhachkala. Unfortunately, for the Russian center, such a move would be fraught with dangers as well: it would send yet another signal that protests can work – and thus lead more ethnic groups to make similar demands.

            Indeed, what makes the new Nogay activism worthy of  note is less its significance for that group alone, something that after all may possible given that nation’s links to Turkey, than as an indication of growing dissatisfaction and activism among many other numerically small ethnic groups in Russia.