At the beginning of the 20th century, 10 million tons of the Russian Empire’s oil production was concentrated around the Baku oilfields in Azerbaijan. By 1938, the share of the Baku fields in Soviet oil production was a staggering 74.4% (Schwarz, 1946).
Despite its wealth of natural resources, Baku was by no means the most desirable Russian city to live in during the first half of the 20th century. Despite possessing several well-preserved historic buildings and being located on the shores of the Caspian Sea, much of the city remained poor. As with all great empires, the Russian and Soviet versions successfully rediverted riches from their peripheries to their centres. Oil wealth from Baku was no exception.
Throughout the post-WWII Soviet period, Baku remained deprived of its true wealth. Even today, in an era of independence, there is a serious concentration of wealth in the hands of only a small percentage of the population. Indeed, Azerbaijan ranks at only 87th in the world when it comes to per capita income ($11,044) (World Bank, 2013).
Despite the traditional deprivations suffered by Baku’s residents, the city has always been a bastion of original and appealing architecture. From the early Islamic mosques and palaces to the European-style mansions of Imperial Russia and the Eurasian designs of the Azerbaijani Democratic Republic, Baku has been blessed with a series of interesting buildings.
Even during the Soviet era, notorious for its bland, imposing structures of ‘socialist realism’, architecture in Baku was not completely sterile. Whilst many of the buildings remained fairly austere and functional, they incorporated elements of local culture, with a heavy Persian influence evident.
Whether such expenditure is worth it, however, remains a contentious issue. Throughout the modern history of Azerbaijan, ever since the drilling of the first oil wells in the mid-19th century, Baku’s people have not had a fair stake in its wealth.
Today, when there is no overlordship from a distant power, the pursuit of architectural extravagance at the expense of social spending seems rather unjustified. Whatever its appeal, and it is hard to deny that it has one, beneath Baku’s vibrant facade lies a more depressing reality.
Schwarz, S.M., ‘How Much Oil Has Russia?’, Foreign Affairs (1946)