Vol. 4, No. 4 (February 15, 2010)

Ethnic relations in Baku during the first oil boom

Parvin Ahanchi
Leading Research Fellow
Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography
Azerbaijan National Academy of Sciences

Tsarist Russia was a multinational state in which ethno-religious conflicts were not uncommon.  They took place in different parts of the empire—in Kishinev, Gomel, Mogilev, Shusha, Ganja, Baku, Yerevan, Tiflis and Moscow, as well as in other places.  But during the Soviet period, they were little studied, because the existence of conflicts among the working class contradicted communist ideology.  An examination of 2000 “personal records” of workers at the Nobel Brothers Oil Company is now possible and provides insights into the way in which differences in workers’ economic status, their job skills, governmental policies, and employers’ practices caused the ethnic conflicts. [1] 

Baku underwent enormous social and economic changes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a result of the oil boom that led to the formation of a variety of companies and the proletarianization of the peasantry, which flooded into the city for work.  At that time, Baku was a half-Oriental, half-European city, important for both the economy of Azerbaijan and that of Russia.  The Social Democrat Yuri Larin summed up the citation in one short sentence: “The well-being and earning of millions of people in our country depend upon oil in Baku” (Larin 1909, p. 4).  In the thirty years between 1872 and 1903, oil production in the Baku region increased 170 times, and in 1897, its output equaled that of the United States (Ismailov 1982, p. 6).  Migration from the Russian provinces, but especially from the Caucasus and neighboring Iran, fuelled Baku’s industries. 

Among the great oil companies in Baku, the Nobel Brothers’ Oil Producing Company was especially important.  It was distinguished by a highly organized work force, higher pay, and a bureaucratically organized administration.  The personnel files of 2000 workers of the Nobel Company used here contain information about every worker’s name, surname, patronymic, nationality, belief, social origin, family status, number of family members, literacy, skill-level, age, place of birth and length of service, in addition to promotions, pay, benefits, fines, illness, accidents, and dismissals. [2]

At the beginning of the century, Baku oil field workers represented, as contemporaries put it, “a mixture of tribes and nations.” That “black mineral oil army” consisted of many culturally distinct national groups, within which there were also personal differences, as revealed in the workers’ “personnel records.” Aleksandr Stopani, an old Bolshevik from Baku, who was among the first Soviet researchers who analyzed workers’ budgets, found the same variations (Stopani 1925).

Among the oil field workers, there were two clearly distinguishable ethno-religious groups—the Muslims and the Christians.  On the one hand, there was no official discrimination according to ethnicity in view of efficiency considerations.  Non-discriminatory practices were established as a policy.  Religious holidays were paid, and the administration was tolerant of absence for religious practices.  Thus, in the correspondence of the Nobel Association administration with the Baku sector in September 1911, the main reason cited for the fall in the production of oil, apart from the exhaustion of fields, was the observation by Muslim workers of religious holidays during Uraza (Ramazan), when Tatar-Muslims eat only once a day, at night, and because of religious celebration, they become ill and work very poorly.” [3] Moreover, provision of housing, board and wages by the Nobel Brothers’ firm was in principle non-discriminatory with regard to ethnicity.  Instructions for “Hiring, Maintenance and Dismissal” of skilled and unskilled workers both in the oil fields and the machine shops stated that the “wages of Russians and Tatars are the same.”

But on the other hand, practice was not always consistent with policy.  A wage increase of 15 September 1916, for example, gave 1.30 roubles to Tatar and 1.50 roubles for Russian workers. [4] And the Nobel Brothers gave preference to Russians in hiring.  In addition, skilled workers were mainly Russians, Armenians, and other non-Muslims, and their wage rate was higher.  Muslims tended to be unskilled and semi-skilled, and they were therefore less well paid. 

Table 1 shows, that most of the Nobel Brothers’ workers were Russian; South Azerbaijan Azeris [5] comprised half that number.  Lazgis, Kazan Tatars, Persians, Armenians, and Northern Azerbaijan Azeris were also hired in significant numbers.  In addition, there were Georgian, German, Ossetian, as well as Polish, Jewish, Finnish, Tajik, Latvian and some simply “Muslim” workers.  These latter groups were small in number and are therefore excluded from Table 1 (see the PDF version).  The most surprising feature of this table (which details literacy, skills, marital status, and age, locus of work, job tenure and wages by ethno-religious group) is the low portion of natives of Baku and its immediate surroundings.  Those listed as local workers included Muslims other than Azeris, as well as Armenians, Russians, and other Christians, but even taking this into consideration, only 131 (7%) were local.  The proportion of Northern Azerbaijan Azeris working for Nobel Brothers was much lower than their share in the province (48.3%) and somewhat lower than their share in the oil producing region (Ismailzade 1991, p. 220).

Russians formed the largest group of the Nobel Brothers’ workers.  The proportion of Russians (46.5%) was much higher than in the general population of Baku provinces (23.5%) (Ismailzade 1991, p. 227) and of the oil producing region as a whole, where Russians constituted roughly one quarter of the population.  The Russian immigrants to Baku, as a rule, came from the north: the central industrial region (13%), the central black earth region (26%), and middle and lower Volga regions (49%).  Kazan Tatars were also originally from the Volga region (88%), the Lazgis (87%) from Dagestan (Caucasus), Persians (94%) and Azeris (96%) came from Iran. [6] The other significant uninterrupted influx of workers into Baku was from Southern Azerbaijan (Iran).  “A poor person, having crossed the frontier, travels by foot to the object of his dream (namely wage employment), and hungry, ragged, hardly earning a livelihood on the way” (Ismailov 1964, p. 141).

Although there was no official discrimination, Muslims were assigned low level “dirty” jobs because of their lower rates of literacy (Garskova & Ahanchi 1994).  This is shown by the analysis of career patterns of separate groups of workers in connection with their place of origin, their nationality, age, skill-level, literacy, and the like, as well as comparison of these patterns with those of labor in the Baku oil industry as a whole, and in the Nobel Brothers’ firm in particular (e.g. Garskova & Ahanchi 1995).  Despite these differences, workers did experience much in common and in many cases showed solidarity (Bertenson 1897, p. 38). 

The workers knew their strength.  The Nobel oil field reports of the manager to the head office of the firm in St.Petersburg in 1905 repeatedly mention political activities, with workers periodically going on strike. [7] The oil field workers were famous not only for their willingness to make demands, but also for their specific requests: For example, they demanded that the time allowed for Muslim prayers be increased from five to fifteen minutes.  But, as one of manager’s report stated: “The main persistent demand [was] the housing question, where the workers insist[ed] on satisfaction of the housing needs for all of the workers without exception.” [8]

These demands seem to testify to a united workers front.  But this picture is misleading, because simultaneously with the revolutionary spirit and uprising in all of Russia in 1905, there were serious Armenian-Azerbaijani clashes in Baku.  Most of the evidence about clashes among workers is not to be found in archival documents, but rather in the memories of contemporaries.  But some documentary evidence does exist.  One is a manager’s report, which said: “The disorders are in the city [Baku], our workers are working quietly, peacefully.”  But, he continued, “the events have spread from the city to the oil fields, where have been pogroms and fires.” [9].

In addition, some of the “personnel records” in the section “Date and Reasons of Worker’s Dismissal” contain pieces of information such as “Was killed during the events of 1905,” “was killed in February 1905,” “was killed during the Armenian-Azerbaijani clashes,” “has disappeared during the August events, 1905,” has left home country during the events of 1905,” and the like.  This leads to several questions: Did the inter-ethnic conflicts in the beginning of the 20th century result from economic discrimination?  What kind of interrelations did workers have with each other during these conflicts?  What were the workers‘ positions with regard to these events?  And to what extent did the workers take part in these conflicts?

The proletariat of Baku in terms of its social composition did not differ much from that of other industrial regions of Russia.  It was composed of people from both urban and—mostly—rural backgrounds.  The “personnel records” of the overwhelming majority of the Nobel Company’s workers state “peasant” under the heading “Title and Social Origin.”  As a result, industrialization in Russia was a time when feudal bond relationships in the villages were breaking apart and social differentiation was occurring among the peasants, some of whom became permanent workers while others eventually returned to the villages.

The high proportion of peasant workers in the Baku oil fields was reflected in their low level of literacy, which, in turn, resulted from the low level education in all of Russia.  The first national census of Imperial Russia in 1897 gave striking evidence of this.  “The percentage of school children in elementary school in relation to the entire population was as follows: in the United States 20%, in Switzerland 19%, in England 18%, in Germany and Austria 16%, in France 14%, Belgium 15%. […] In Russia this percentage did not reach 3,7%.” [10]

As noted above, the industrial workers in the Baku oil fields were socially heterogeneous.  Most were peasants, but they came from different religious and ethnic backgrounds.  These workers, called “backward” in Soviet times because of a low level of “social consciousness” in terms of their leaning towards Marxism, were much involved in oil field conflicts during the period of historical crisis described here.  A single spark was enough to cause conflict.  Moreover, there were recent memories of expulsions in Turkey and Iran, where anti-Russian movement during the Russian-Iranian and Russian-Turkish wars was intertwined with anti-Christian movement; therefore, Armenians had been protected by the Czarist government. 

Moreover, this situation was further complicated when—as a part of Russian policy “Christianization of the Caucasus”—Armenian refugees were settled in the territories of Azerbaijan and Georgia with little consideration for the needs or even at the expense of local peasants.  Muslim seasonal workers, who remained closely connected with their villages, possibly might have been involved in the conflicts in connection with the “unbidden guests” who might lay claim to a piece of their land.  Czarist settlement policy, thus, may have added to already existent discontent or tension (Griboedov 1989, p. 387). 

Although it may sound like Soviet rhetoric, Sergey Potolov’s argument that “Baku police authorities repeatedly provoked bloody conflicts among Azerbaijani and Armenian workers for the purpose of distracting them from revolutionary struggle” is convincing (Potolov 1994, p. 75).  Because tsarist bureaucrats feared the spread of political demonstrations by the workers, they had little interest in containing ethnic conflicts, and both the government and employers used these events to weaken movement directed against them by oil field workers. [11] 

One of seemingly unimportant, but in fact very important regulations of the Nobel Company’s factory commission was the setting of the closing date for the submission of the declarations of losses or applications for benefits.  It was set on 1 May 1906, after which date no further application would be accepted. [12] But Muslim workers were in the overwhelming majority illiterate and could not read these announcements.  After expiration of the submission date they lamented: “We are illiterate people […] and nobody has explained to us the content of the announcements orally.  We were full of hope that before all has declared orally.” [13] For this reason the Muslim workers who had suffered losses during the events declared their losses only later, after the expiration of the closing date for submission of applications.  This applies in particular to Persian workers, who, almost in panic, had deserted the oil fields and had crossed the border to return to their homes.  Of course, they did not know about the material help to the workers by the Nobel Brothers’ Company either. 

As a result of the events of 1905, many workers of all nationalities left jobs in the Nobel Brothers’ Company permanently.  This is to be seen in the “Lists about the granting of payments and benefits to workers for a long-term service in the company.”  The company gave these workers a lump sum benefit. [14] But there were also those who left their place of work without giving notice.  In connection with the disturbances of 1905, 1839 workers had left their place of work at different oil production sites in the area “without the knowledge of the company.” [15]

Another problem in connection with these events and industrialization in general concerned peasants in villages near the oil fields.  If oil was found on their land, this land was confiscated by employers and companies.  This, of course, evoked the peasants’ discontent.  The fact that they were Azeris and Muslims, while employers were mostly Christians, added to that discontent.  The same thing happened to peasants in villages located on the bank of the river Kura with its rich fisheries.  Armenian employers had obtained fishing rights and forbade the peasants to fish, one of their traditional activities.  For the Muslim peasants in the above mentioned villages the Baku events represented a favorable moment to avenge themselves on the lessee-invaders of their lands.  Also in this case, social conflict was more important than ethnic, although the conflict tended to express itself more or less in ethnic terms. [16] 

At the time, social democrats and members of the intelligentsia throughout the Russian empire blamed these clashes on the government and the nationalists, who deliberately incited or exploited these ethnic tensions, [17] and not without justification drew parallel with the anti-Jewish pogroms in Gomel and Kishinev (Kir’yanov 1993).  Indeed, immediately after these events, a workers’ meeting took place on 11 February 1905, in the lodging of the Balakhany Hospital of the Council of the Congress of the Oil Producers of Baku.  Nearly one thousand people gathered and declared that “There are no serious reasons for the national enmity between Muslims and Armenians in Baku, which is clearly confirmed by their longstanding peaceful life side by side.” [18]

Two days later, another meeting of more than 2,000 people of different nationalities and origin again condemned the Baku events and adopted a resolution to denounce the tsarist government as the organizer of the inter-ethnic clashes. [19] Another resolution rejected the official claim that this “slaughter” occurred for reason of national animosity.  It said this was misleading and based on deliberately falsified reports by local officials. [20]  

The activities of the Azerbaijani social democrats organization “Hummet,” which included M. Azizbayov, M. Vasil’ev-Iuzhin, M.B. Gasymov, M. Mammadyarov, P. Montin, A. Stopani, H. Safaraliev and S.M. Efendiev, had a strong influence among the workers.  Thanks to their activities, Sultan Medzhid Efendiev was able to report six months later their efforts at educating oil field workers had reduced ethnic conflicts, so that the clashes of August 1905 were much less serious than those of the beginning of the year. 

In conclusion, it should thus be noted that there was, in general, no real conflict between Muslim and Christian workers.  The principal factors involved broader patterns of historical development among the ethno-religious groups in this region.  The ethno-religious factor was used not infrequently by local authorities and employers in the beginning of the 20th century to distract the attention of the oil field workers from their social and political problems.  The oil industry workers themselves were not the initiators of inter-ethnic conflict. [21] Even more, the history of that time underscored the possibilities for peaceful co-existence between these two Caucasian people. 


Bertenson, L. (1897) Bakinskie Neftianye Promysly i Zavody v Sanitarno-vrachebnom Otnoshenii. Sankt-Petersburg.

Garskova, I. & P. Ahanchi (1994) “Discrimination in the Baku Oil Industry (Late Nineteenth to Early Twentieth Century)”, Economics in a Changing World 1, System Transformation: Eastern and Western Assessments, London.

Garskova, I. & P. Ahanchi (1995) “Geographical and Social Mobility of Labor in the Oil Industry in Baku (late 19th—early 20th century)”, in The Art of Communication. Proceedings of the Eighth International Conference of the Association for History and Computing, Graz, Austria, 24-27 August 1993, Graz. 

Griboedov, A. (1989) Gore ot Uma. Pis’ma i Zapiski, Baku.

Guroff, G. & S.F. Starr (1975) “Zum Abbau des Analphabetismus in der russischen Stadten 1890-1914”, in Geyer, D. (ed.) Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft im vorrevolutionaren Rusland, Köln.  

Ismailov, M. (1964) Kapitalizm v Sel’skom Khozaistve Azerbaijana na Iskhode XIX i Nachale XX vv., Baku.

Ismailov, M. (1982) Sotsialno-ekonomicheskaia Struktura Azerbaijana v Epokhu Imperializma, Baku. 

Ismailzade, D. (1991) Naselenie Gorodov Zakavkazskogo Kraya v XIX—nachale XX vv., Moskva.

Kir’yanov, Y. (1993) “Prodovolstvennye Vystupleniia v Rossii v 1914-1917 gg.”, Otechestvennaia Istoriia 3. 

Larin, Yuri (1909) Rabochie Neftianogo Dela (Iz Byta i Dvizhenia 1903-1908), Moskva. 

Potolov, S. (1994) “Czarizm, Burzhuaziia i Rabochii Vopros v Pervoi Russkoi Revolutsii (Bakinskaia Soveshchatel’naia Kampaniia 1906-1908 gg.)”, Rabochie i Rossiiskoe Obshestvo, Vtoraia polovina XIX-nachalo XX veka, Saint-Petersburg. 

Stopani, A. (1925) Neftepromishlennyi Rabochii i Ego Budzhet, Baku.


[1] “Tovarishestvo Neftyanogo Proizvodtstva Brat’ev Nobel”, founded on 18 May 1879 by Nobel family’s three brothers—Ludwig, Robert, Alfred and Colonel Petr Alekseevich Bilderling.

[2] Azerbaijan State Historical Archive (further, ASHA), F. 798, List 3, Rec. 46, 47, 48, 125. 

[3] Russian State Historical Archive (further, RSHA), F. 1458, List 1, Rec. 239, p. 2.

[4] ASHA, F. 798, List 2, Rec. 3583, p. 222. 

[5] According to the early 19th century Gulustan and Turkmanchay agreements, which have completed a series of Russian-Iranian wars, Azerbaijan was divided between Russian and Persian empires into two parts: Southern and Northern Azerbaijan.  Southern Azerbaijan now forms part of Iran.  Northern Azerbaijan gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

[6] ASHA, F. 798, List 2, Rec. 351, p. 13. 

[7] ASHA, F. 798, List 2, Rec. 4028, p. 2.

[8] RSHA, F. 1458, List 1, Rec. 836, pp. 21, 22.

[9] ASHA, F. 798, List 1, Rec. 504, p. 16.

[10] RSHA, F. 1458, List 1, Rec. 239, p.2.  Cf. Guroff & Starr (1975, p. 336). 

[11] ASHA, F. 798, List 2, Rec. 3911, p.47. 

[12] ASHA, F. 798, List 1, Rec. 535, p. 1 verso. 

[13] ASHA, F. 798, List 2, Rec. 3911, p. 52-52 verso. 

[14] ASHA, F. 798, List 1, Rec. 525, pp. 1, 2, 3, 12. 

[15] ASHA, F. 798, List 2, Rec. 3911, pp. 48, 52, 56, 60, 64, 72. 

[16] ASHA, F. 484, List 1, Rec. 23, p. 37- 44. 

[17] Listovki Bakinskikh Bol’shevikov 1905-1907 gg., 1955, Baku, pp. 29-30. 

[18] Listovki Bakinskikh Bol’shevikov 1905-1907 gg., p. 30. 

[19] Listovki Bakinskikh Bol’shevikov 1905-1907 gg., p. 32. 

[20] Listovki Bakinskikh Bol’shevikov 1905-1907 gg., p. 35. 

[21] ASHA, F. 798, List 1, Rec. 3914, p. 81 verso.