Russia as an Early Energy Superpower
Although they were unaware of its ultimate potential at the time, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century residents of what was to become Baku knew about and used the region’s petroleum and natural gas. In fact, historians date the discovery of petroleum in the Baku area to a much earlier time. They point to the Parsees, a fire-worshipping cult that appeared centuries ago.1 These followers of Zoroaster built a temple seven miles outside Baku that served as a holy site until 1880. Its perpetual flames were probably fed by natural gases escaping from the abundant deposits under the temple.2 Even Marco Polo during his thirteenth-century travels noted that traders were very active in carrying oil-soaked sand to Baghdad.
Central Russian influence in Baku and the Caucasus in general came relatively late. After the fall of Constantinople, control of the Black Sea fell to the Turks, who kept the Russians out of the area for several centuries. On the other side of the Caucasus the Persians had control of the Caspian Sea. Ivan the Terrible pushed Moskovy’s influence down the river Volga to Astrakhan on the north shore of the Caspian Sea in the sixteenth century, but formal Russian control of Baku did not come until the conquest of the area by Peter the Great in 1723. Once in command, Peter sought to ship some of the region’s kerosene to St. Petersburg for possible use, but his advisers thought it