For well over a century, the Caspian basin has been “the next big thing” for energy, a potentially wealthy region crippled only by its inaccessibility. This was the result of technology in the nineteenth century, when oil was exported on muleback, and later ideology, when the Bolsheviks seized Western assets, and the Soviets later denied westerners access only until they desperately needed cash. Since “The Fall,” the mad scramble for the region’s oil and gas has reached a fever pitch, resulting in the destruction of several large companies, the acquisition of others, and an incredible degree of political and commercial back-dealing and betrayal.
This story, which most only know in a general sense (if at all), is the story LeVine lays out. The primary author of a blog which shares its name with his book, LeVine was a regional correspondent for the New York Times and the Almaty bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal. Such a position gave him key access to many of the players he describes—from the hilariously pompous middlemen like James Giffen to heads of state like Nursultan Nazarbayev—and a bracing, spellbinding narrative full of intrigue to tie together an incredibly complex story.
While the broadest strokes of this story aren’t especially new (regular readers of most blogs or news accounts of Central Asia won’t find world-altering surprises), LeVine adds value by not only placing the current geopolitical wrangle in a broad historical context, but by offering deep insights into what each of the players was thinking, as well as all of the messy back room negotiations that created the modern Caspian. This is where his access as a journalist really comes out to shine: he had the benefit of collecting interviews and notes over more than a decade, all of which allowed him to craft what could be a definitive history not just of the struggle for Caspian oil, but of the men who struggled for it. New characters, mostly if not always unheard of pop in and out of the story, sometimes changing it but always adding intrigue. For example, the erratic behavior of Azeri negotiator Marat Manafov, remembered mostly for drawing a pistol on oil executives at a posh hotel, was mind-boggling to read, especially in such a serious context and with such huge stakes.
Much like Steve Coll’s masterpiece on the CIA-al-Qaeda struggle throughout the 80s and 90s, this insider access is incredibly valuable, but only gets you so far: at some point, the realization sets in that this is everyone’s personal interpretation and spin of what happened and what they were thinking. While it’s true that this the case of most histories, the reliance on personality leaves big gaps that I wish could be filled in, most especially what was happening on the Russian side. We learn a great deal about what the Clinton White House was thinking (and internally debating) during the mad rush of the 90s, much of what the major oil executives were up to, and even a surprising amount of the normally hyper-private middlemen. There is keen insight into what the Azeris and Kazakhs were trying to get. But the coverage of Russia felt oddly flat.
This isn’t much of a criticism—there are only so many people one can talk to, even over a decade, especially on a subject as intensely sensitive (and especially so in Russia) as oil rights and exploration and politics. But while such an exercise gains one an incredible glimpse into how the oil industry operates, and more importantly how it plays into national and international politics, it can only go so far.
Indeed, while this is a glorious history written in the vein of Hopkirk’s The Great Game, it is short on analysis. While LeVine raises appropriate and troubling questions—such as Russia’s reliability as an honest broker or trading partner, and whether America’s self-insertion into the region will be for good or ill—there’s not much here to help in answering them.
The history, however, is indeed glorious. I found the opening section, in which LeVine details the first Baku boom a century ago, of incredible interest. Aside from the gaudy excesses of the original barons (the current ones are more discreet in how they blow millions on luxury), what was most striking was the incredible waste. This was something even the contemporary Europeans, such as the descendants of Alfred Nobel (who not only were the primary developers in Baku, but also invented the modern oil tanker), found shocking. Wells would be tapped and left as gushers, spewing untold amounts of wealth into the air and then into the ground, making everything a soupy, useless, toxic mess. This horrendous waste and pollution, unfortunately, continued through the Soviet era, right to the 1985 Tengiz blowout that burned for over a year. 85 miles away, 700-ft tall column of flame was visible, and apparently it was so hot water boiled from nearly 200 feet away.
There’s another untold story there, one perhaps worthy of follow up: the unbelievable environmental damage the Soviets wrought, in Central Asia (mostly Kazakhstan, as the Aral Sea, Semipalatinsk, and Tengiz disasters may indicate), but across the entire USSR. Oil is a messay, dangerous industry—that much everyone can agree to (and the battle over preserving the wildlife refuges off Sakhalin speak to some long-overdue push back against reckless exploration). But so is communism, both in the hundred million people sacrificed to its ideology last century and the continued legacy of the scars its land bears. LeVine’s book is an important part of this story, and is so well written it is worth reading even if one has no interest on the subject. But it is only a part of a much grander, and sadder, story.