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The Oil and the Glory: The Pursuit of Empire and Fortune on the Caspian Sea [Hardcover]

Steve Levine

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Book Description

Oct. 23 2007
Remote, forbidding, and volatile, the Caspian Sea long tantalized the world with its vast oil reserves. But outsiders, blocked by the closed Soviet system, couldn’t get to it. Then the Soviet Union collapsed, and a wholesale rush into the region erupted. Along with oilmen, representatives of the world’s leading nations flocked to the Caspian for a share of the thirty billion barrels of proven oil reserves at stake, and a tense geopolitical struggle began. The main players were Moscow and Washington–the former seeking to retain control of its satellite states, and the latter intent on dislodging Russia to the benefit of the West.
The Oil and the Glory is the gripping account of this latest phase in the epochal struggle for control of the earth’s “black gold.” Steve LeVine, who was based in the region for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and Newsweek, weaves an astonishing tale of high-stakes political gamesmanship, greed, and scandal, set in one of the most opaque corners of the world. In LeVine’s telling, the world’s energy giants jockey for position in the rich Kazakh and Azeri oilfields, while superpowers seek to gain a strategic foothold in the region and to keep each other in check. At the heart of the story is the contest to build and operate energy pipelines out of the landlocked region, the key to controlling the Caspian and its oil. The oil pipeline that resulted, the longest in the world, is among Washington’s greatest foreign policy triumphs in at least a decade and a half.
Along the way, LeVine introduces such players as James Giffen, an American moneyman who was also the political “fixer” for oil companies eager to do business on the Caspian and the broker for Kazakhstan’s president and ministers; John Deuss, the flamboyant Dutch oil trader who won big but lost even bigger; Heydar Aliyev, the oft-misunderstood Azeri president who transcended his past as a Soviet Politburo member and masterminded a scheme to loosen Russian control over its former colonies in the Caspian region; and all manner of rogues, adventurers, and others drawn by the irresistible pull of untold riches and the possible “final frontier” of the fossil-fuel era. The broader story is of the geopolitical questions of the Caspian oil bonanza, such as whether Russia can be a trusted ally and trading partner with the West, and what Washington’s entry into this important but chaotic region will mean for its long-term stability.
In an intense and suspenseful narrative, The Oil and the Glory is the definitive chronicle of events that are understood by few, but whose political and economic impact will be both profound and lasting.

"The collapse of the Soviet Union was a big opportunity for Big Oil, whose exploits are detailed in this fast-paced work of political and economic reportage by Wall Street Journal energy correspondent LeVine.
Westerners had been sniffing for black gold in Russia and its satellites long before the empire disintegrated, notes the author. Averell Harriman, “the Harvard-trained scion of nineteenth-century robber baron Edward Harriman,” tried his hand at the business before turning to manganese mining, while Armand Hammer “became a money launderer for the Bolsheviks, sneaked cash to secret Bolshevik agents in the United States, and profited handsomely as the representative in Russia of some thirty American companies.” Hammer set the tone for the Americans who flocked to the Caspian in the first years of the Clinton presidency, which maneuvered for the construction of an east-west oil pipeline that, by reversing the old pattern of Central Asian materials going north to Russia and coming back as products for sale, “would favor the West and disfavor Russia.” Not a nice way to treat a fledgling democracy, but the oil scouts, of course, considered Russia a rival for Central-Asian resources second only to Iran, with its heartfelt and long-standing enmity toward the United States in the region and abroad. These scouts–the first among equals being LeVine’s heart-of-darkness antihero, Jim Giffen–kept their distance when Russia still had control over the area, spurning a Gorbachev-era program to allow foreign co-ownership. But they rushed to support separatist movements and encouraged ethnic and political divisions that opened the door to an even bigger share of the wealth. The tale of Giffen’s rise and fall (the latter for perhaps surprising reasons) occupies much of the later pages, but he never loses sight of the bigger picture: namely, Central Asia as oil lamp and potential powder keg in the realpolitik of the next few years.
A complex story rendered comprehensible, with much drama and intrigue."--KIRKUS

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Random House (Oct. 23 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375506144
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375506147
  • Product Dimensions: 24.2 x 16.1 x 4.1 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 762 g
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #345,200 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

About the Author

Steve LeVine was a foreign correspondent for eighteen years, posted in the Soviet Union, Pakistan, and the Philippines, reporting for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Financial Times, and Newsweek. He lives in Dallas.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

CHAPTER 1

The Barons

In the early nineteenth century, Baku was a frontier settlement with the air of a medieval duchy. Within its seven-hundred-year-old walls, narrow cobblestone streets snaked past bustling outdoor markets, small mud-sided homes, and a minaret from which a princess had jumped to her death to escape her incestuous father. Rainbow-colored wooden carts called arbas, their wide carriages mounted on irregular seven- foot-tall wheels, transported people and goods across the surrounding desert. The crescent-shaped bay—seven miles from tip to tip and fifteen miles in circumference—teemed with fishing boats from the Russian city of Astrakhan up the coast and black merchantmen from downcoast Persia.

Baku was not regarded as a benign place. Alexandre Dumas père witnessed a frightening menagerie in 1858—“Tigers, panthers, jackals that roam through the whole province; the plants; the insects— locusts, scorpions and poisonous spiders.” And then there were the relentless dust storms. A British petroleum engineer named A. Beeby Thompson wrote of winds that deposited as much as five feet of sand on roadways, halting all traffic. “There is no complete escape from these sandstorms,” Thompson observed. “The fine dust penetrates everywhere; it accumulates in the pockets; it finds an entrance into the watch case, and causes the works to get clogged; it defies double windows and shutters, and the silicious particles accumulate in the house to such an extent that shovelfuls of sand may be removed from a Baku drawing room after a storm.” Still, the wonders of Baku astonished those daring enough to visit. At night, when the winds quieted down, it became a magical place. Fire danced from the land and sea; in November and December, it lit the western horizon an eerie blue. A British professor visiting in 1845 described “a fairy castle” in which “multi-colored tongues of fire dance weirdly in the winds.” In 1876, a journalist declared the spectacle “as wonderful as the Solfaterra at Naples, or the Geysers of Iceland, and to me infinitely more curious.” Other visitors spoke of huge bubbles that suddenly appeared on the surface of the Caspian, capsized ships, and, if a torch were tossed overboard, produced a wall of flame. Visitors also reported a trick of physics in which the fires did not burn hot— Ludvig Nobel emerged unscorched after steering a steamboat straight through the blazing sea.

The source of these phantasmagoric displays was Baku’s tremendous store of hydrocarbons. Experts speculated that the region was on top of a seventy-million-year-old residue of dead microorganisms. Another possibility was that detaching from the Black and Mediterranean seas had turned the Caspian into a saline death trap that entombed thousands of fish and other animals every day. Fumes from these ancient petroleum deposits continuously leaked to the surface, where they ignited at the slightest provocation.

Baku’s oil earned an early, almost mythic reputation. Marco Polo’s was perhaps the first written account. He reported a gusher that in a single hour produced “a quantity of oil sufficient to load up one hundred vessels.” Later reports were strikingly similar. Eighteenth- century British trader Jonas Hanway described Russians sipping cordials of Baku’s “white oil,” a spontaneously occurring mixture of natural gas and petroleum that they thought chic and a certain cure for venereal and heart disease. While nearly all the world cooked by wood fire, a visitor to the district of Surakhani found that fumes escaping from the ground enabled the preparation of heated meals. Villagers simply dug into the soil and, applying a live coal, ignited a blaze. The natural gas that produced this phenomenon could be dangerous. In 1754, a traveler spoke of eight stabled horses being burned alive when the earth beneath them accidentally caught fire.

One peculiarity especially absorbed visitors—the theology attached to Baku. Zoroastrianism, the monotheistic Persian faith that originated the notion of angels, paradise, and the underworld, taught that fire purified the soul. Hearing of Baku and believing that the fires had burned since the Flood, Zoroastrians flocked there. They built temples where flames fed by natural gas jetted through porous limestone—the same jets that created the city’s nightly fusing of Lewis Carroll fantasy and Dantean nightmare. The Zoroastrians fled in the middle of the seventh century, after Christian invaders sacked their temples and Arab conquerors insisted that Baku convert to Islam. Some brave followers made pilgrimages to Baku for centuries afterward, but by the 1860s xenophobic Orthodox Russia had all but halted even those short visits.

The first oilmen of Baku simply took out their shovels and dug or used their bare hands—the oil was that close to the surface. Obtaining the rights to do so was simple; you could buy or lease. Written evidence of one such agreement dating back to the Muslim year 1003—about 1595 by the western calendar—was found on a stone unearthed in a Baku oil pit. An Arabic inscription recorded the name of a landowner, Allah Jaz, the son of one Mohammed Nurs. The stone indicated that Mr. Jaz did not himself dig for oil but rather leased his property to an unnamed tenant. The tenant would have collected the oil in a pond lined with stone, then poured the unrefined crude into boordukes, goat- or ram-skin bags holding about twelve gallons. If Mr. Jaz’s tenant were export-minded, he would have loaded the boordukes onto camels, two bags per beast, and shipped them in caravans across the desert. An arba could carry ten times as much oil but was not sufficiently sturdy to survive the arduous trek to distant markets.

So it went for the next two centuries. During that time, Mr. Jaz’s property, in a district called Balakhani, was absorbed into the Persian Empire, then in 1813 into Russia. On the other side of the world, America had yet to develop a commercially exploitable oil industry. But that was about to change, sending shock waves all the way to Russia and, finally, to Baku. In 1859, a tenacious entrepreneur named Edwin Drake struck a gusher after twenty months of toil in the poor western Pennsylvania town of Titusville. With it, he triggered the world’s first oil rush. In the wake of that discovery, a stern and lanky Clevelander named John D. Rockefeller cornered both the U.S. and European markets, earning him history’s first great oil fortune.

By the late 1860s, Rockefeller-led advances were revolutionizing the oil business, but production methods at Mr. Jaz’s property were substantially unchanged. The latest tenant on this land lacked almost any justification to invest in the new steam-driven wells because unlike his Pennsylvania counterparts, he couldn’t be sure he would be the one to profit. Russia, milking the state-owned fields for bribes as Persia had in the past, rotated tenants every four years to obtain fresh payoffs. Hence, Balakhani tenants had every reason to continue to dig and scoop, without bothering to refine, and sell as much oil as they could as fast as they could. The result was that Russia’s product was inferior in every way to Rockefeller’s, including price.

Three years after Drake’s discovery, a few tin containers of kerosene arrived in St. Petersburg. Their appearance might have gone unnoticed except that, improbably, they had traveled all the way from America.

Why would anyone finance an eight-thousand-mile shipment of kerosene when petroleum-rich Baku was so close at hand? The reason was simple. Nights were long for half the year in the Russian capital, and its people had to rely on malodorous tallow to relieve the darkness. The American kerosene was clean-burning by comparison, and tradition- bound Baku was producing only a relative trickle of kerosene. By 1870, gratified Russians were buying 250,000 gallons of U.S.-produced fuel a year, much of it from Rockefeller.

Russian scholars wondered how the United States, which had discovered its oil just a few years earlier, could so brazenly challenge the Empire in its own backyard. The answer, of course, could be found in the self-defeating and corrupt management of the Empire’s petroleum riches. Court ministers and the press urged Alexander II to act. The czar was no visionary, nor even very resolute, but after some dithering, he buckled. In December 1872, he ordered the auction of 1,240 desseatines—3,348 acres—of oil land. In that one act, Alexander wiped out much of the state’s suffocating hold on the industry and triggered a delirium that would itself spread all the way to upstart America. At first, there was panic in Baku. Somehow the mistaken impression had taken hold that all the region’s oil lay within these tracts. Thus, bidders feverish to obtain some of the supposedly limited supply drove up the collective price of the lands at auction by a factor of six.

Not surprisingly, authorities by and large rigged the process. Most of the successful “bidders” were senior officials favored by Alexander, and the remainder were Baku’s richest merchants. But there was one unlikely winner. The son of an illiterate shoemaker, he would learn to write his name only later, and even then the resultant signature more closely resembled a chicken scratch.

Zeynalabdin Tagiyev had neither great wealth nor influence. He had made his way in life as a master stonemason after a harsh boyhood in which he was apprenticed as a bricklayer at the age of ten. But by the late 1860s, as he reached middle age, he had achieved a modicum of success. He had a thriving business as a building contractor and owned two retail fabric shops besides.

Baku was not big, but as the main regional trading hub connecting the Persian, Ottoman, and Russian worlds, it did offer considerable opportunity to the observant. Tagiyev...

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.7 out of 5 stars  26 reviews
16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars $95 for a barrel of oil makes this required reading! Nov. 4 2007
By James N. Falk - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
With nearly two decades of reporting experience in Central Asia for the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, LeVine is uniquely qualified to meld the history of the nations bordering the Caspian Sea with contemporary geopolitics. While well-researched and documented, The Oil and the Glory reads like a spellbinding mystery, making it a quick and pleasant read. Bribes, political backstabbing and policy divisions within the U.S. governments are described in colorful detail. Importantly, the Caspian Sea reserves could greatly decrease our dependence on Middle Eastern Oil if we can maintain our strategic advantage which is being undercut by the Putin's government.

LeVine's The Oil and the Glory, like the Yergin's The Prize, is destined to be required reading for those wishing to understand how oil, while vital, is sometimes described as a curse.
15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A riveting book! Nov. 3 2007
By Ixion - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
"Oil and the Glory" reads like a combination of "The Prize", People Magazine, News of the World, and "Wealth of Nations".

Especially enjoyable are the descriptions of the major oil company execs, rather different from what company spin doctors offer (but for those of us who knew or knew of them, accurate)... Also good are the profiles of Jim Giffen and John Deuss, the kind of people I thought only existed in fiction...

Mr. LeVine has reported for the Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, New York Times and others, and has done a brilliant job capturing the past and present history and adventures (and adventurers) in what is one of the most important oil provinces in the world.

But beware -- once you start reading this book, it's pretty hard to put it back down in order to eat, sleep, or do other activities that normally occupy one's time...
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Awesome read... Nov. 3 2007
By R. M. Ames - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
You'll literally pick this up and won't put it down.

Steve LeVine's "The Oil And The Glory" is a gripping tale of one of the world's most strategically important, yet virtually unknown parts of the world. Over the past 15 years this area has been completely shaped by Big Oil's hunt for resources, American and Russian governments battle for geopolitical influence, and independent dealmakers quest to get rich. What I liked about this book is that it's a first-hand account from guys that were there to explain how these forces shaped the region.

What initially piqued my interest in the book was 5 years living in the former Soviet Union. We heard bits and pieces that alone ended up in Bond movies (not to mention Borat). But now with oil at $90 and huge quantities from the region beginning to come on the market, the Caspian Sea is clearly becoming more strategically important. Steve's book provides right amount of historical context to help better understand these events, and his lively style, with vivid descriptions and fast pace held me until the end.

Highly recommended.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Interesting read for understanding the present geopolitical situation in Georgia and the rest of the Caspian region Sept. 8 2008
By K. S. Lutz - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Steve Levine has an easy to read style that definitely grasps your attention. I felt as if I wanted to know what would happen next particularly as it pertained to oil agreements with foreign governments and middlemen. This book reads like a narrative unlike other books on oil which have a matter of fact tone. This one makes one feel as if you are in the story with the players in the Caspian. However, there was one part of the book that appeared to be a bit questionable in my opinion- when the author suggested that Russian intelligence was behind Omani finance minister's death. It seems that the US oil companies had more to gain from this than the Russians given that his right hand man, Deuss, was negotiating with the Russians for a transport route through its region- something which the oil companies via the US government opposed. I would say that this is the only shady area in this book. Otherwise, excellent read. Highly recommended to anyone who wants to understand the Caspian region's oil and politics and how they interrelate with one another especially as it pertains to the recent Russian/Georgian conflict.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Oil and the Glory May 4 2008
By Algis Ratnikas - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
The story of Caspian oil for commercial use began in the late 19th century as the value of oil surged with the development of industry and transportation. This story has been brought to life by Mr. Steve Levine in a remarkable tale that focuses on the pivotal players involved. Following the initial development of the Baku oil fields, the area assumed military importance in 2 world wars and then became cloaked under the proprietorship of the Soviet Union. It was not until the breakup of the USSR that Caspian oil became accessible to foreign development. Levine has managed to make direct contact with many of the players active in the post Soviet rush to grab a piece of the Caspian oil action. These players include senior corporate executives, national leaders, state representatives and a handful of individuals eager to cash in on the bonanza waiting to be grabbed and divided. Levine has captured their stories and created a tapestry of contemporary oil history that weaves together endless skeins of personal greed, power, and money, along with national interests of power, wealth and defense.
What could have been told as a good guy / bad guy tale is instead described as a multi-player chess game, engaged on a multi-sided board of shifting squares and re-invented principals. International state teams vie with international self-serving teams of private and public corporations. Players drop allegiances and trade sides, stakes shift with the political winds, agreements forged over months fall flat overnight. Levine circles around the table examining the team players, gathering their play books. He unveils how various deals grow and then collapse forcing the players into new rounds. It is not often that one is given an inside look at how governments and businesses "play" together to reach their aims, which are often not similar. Here we are pulled into the backrooms where such "play" takes place. This particular chapter of oil history is extremely engaging and well told. May whoever writes the next chapter do so with the clarity and detail of Mr. Levine.
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