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Boris Akunin and his detective novel “Black City”: Armenian and Turkic nouveaux riches, oil tycoons, bandits and oil in Baku at the beginning of 20th century

Boris Akunin and his detective novel “Black City”: Armenian and Turkic nouveaux riches, oil tycoons, bandits and oil in Baku at the beginning of 20th century

The novel of Boris Akunin "Black City" appeals with its unique content, revealing us the city of Baku on the eve of the First World War: "Magnificent and dreadful city of oil, nouveaux riches, hideous terrorists and eastern bandits", where there was constant clash between the Armenians and Transcaucasian Tatars (Azerbaijanis).

The protagonist is Erast Fandorin; a detective and official, who was given a high-profile task: to catch the professional killer and terrorist who was trying to kill the Russian Tsar, and thus put an end to Tsarist Russia and lay the foundation for the Soviet Era.  Boris Akunin takes his heroes to Baku, where the criminal world was triumphing; a huge group of terrorists of leftists was hiding there. 

The black city is a neighborhood in Baku, where the oilfield with the richest reserves was concentrated.   

Here is what Boris Akunin wrote: "Far too late, when nothing could be changed I realized that Baku is a dangerous location for the novel.  The actions described in this novel took place in 1914. Because back then both Armenians and Azerbaijanis lived in Baku.   And now Armenians do not live there anymore.  And this topic is very sensitive for both nations.  When kind people from both sides learnt what kind of novel I was writing, they started to warn me in a mutually exclusive manner: 'Azerbaijan will take offence to death if Armenians are enacted in the novel', – said some of them. 'Armenia will not forgive you if there are no Armenians or if there are bad Armenians in Baku of 1914', – said the others. In no way did I want to offend anyone.  But eventually I decided to write the way it is being written currently. There are Armenians and Azerbaijanis in the novel: the reader may run into nice and bad people from both sides, altogether true to life.  And the publisher advised me to put a postscript on the foretitle which says that I respect both nations and wish them to mend ties. That is exactly what I did as it is the real truth".

Despite the fact that the author took up a rather sticky subject, he truly immersed himself in that atmosphere and studied the history of prewar Baku in the beginning of 20th century. Reading the book it is impossible to accuse Akunin of bias and subjective attitude towards any of the mentioned nations and this is the great informative value of the book. 

"The Russian history of Baku, as written by Akunin, – dates back two hundred years. The order "go to Baku" was given by Peter the Great during the Persian campaign, as he considered the city "the key to all the matters". Since it happened before the energy era, he could not imagine to what extent Baku would be "the key to all the matters" by becoming the most expensive city of the empire.  

In that same pre-energy era only seven thousand people lived in Baku, and the city itself was quite bland, the architecture, as per Akunin, was "Asian" and "mainly of trampled clay".

At that time the oil was used only as a cheap lamp oil, but everything changed when a young Swede Robert Nobel took an interest in the oil. ("the brother of the owner of the Saint Petersburg  ordnance factory"). He laid the foundation of the first production field. The speed at which the oil industry started to grow was enormous: in the beginning Nobel hired only thirty people, however in 1913 thirty thousand people were working in the oil companies of Baku and the profit was 18 million roubles. The golden vein contributed to the increase of population forty times over the half-century; there were many illegal laborers, mainly from Iran, who lived in the deprived areas of the city.

"82.6% of the Pan-Russian oil production is concentrated on the Apsheron. The production cost is one of the cheapest in the word, because the oil is close to the surface, in general the well depth is five times smaller than in Texas. There were 4200 oil derricks in total. The annual profit from the oil and oil products is minimum 300 million roubles…"

As to the population of the city, Akunin wrote the following: "There are two nations dominating here: Azerbaijani Tatars, who are utterly incorrectly called as Persians, and Armenians", by providing the data from the guidebook and noted  that "in the ethnographic reference book the ethnic groups are called 'Azerbaijani Turks', and it is incomprehensible which one is correct". The same reference guidebook provides data about 101.803 Muslims, 67.730 Russians, 57.040 Armenians, 1990 Georgians and also "a very significant amount of foreigners" as of 1914.

Akunin calls Baku "the most dangerous place in the Russian Empire", given that there were serious fights between the oil tycoons, Turks and Armenians. The tensed atmosphere worsened the presence of foreign agents, revolutionaries "of all hues" and criminals. 

The description of the town image in the beginning of 20th century is remarkable. Akunin calls Baku "an eastern city, hidden inside the European one" where "the avenues are absolutely European", paved with cobblestone, on which one could see the low level stone houses "just like in Petrovka or Neglinnaya".  However behind the walls began Asia: "Compacted low level houses with flat roofs, the dark apertures of back streets, the yellow stone roadways and the crowd, where there were absolutely no people in European attire, and in the discordant babble there was not a single Russian word".

As per the plot the protagonist is at the dinner event of the main oil producer of the city: Mardakyan Mesrop Artashesi and we have the opportunity to stay for a while at the palaces of the Baku Armenian of 20th century: "The fleet pulled up at the luxurious gilded gates: such gates would do honor to the Buckingham Palace as well.  The chain of expensive cars and varnished carriages lined up along the lattice fence.  Not too far the first rate orchestra was playing the Viennese Waltz". Every guest has a bodyguard, because "You can't otherwise". "The ones with wooden gun holsters are the bodyguards of Armenian millionaires,– writes Akunin, – and the ones with leather holsters are the bodyguards of Muslin oil producers. Armenians love 'Mauser'. Turks love revolvers. Both are terrible bandits and cannot stand each other. But there will be no massacre. At least while their bosses are on good terms".    

The mansion of Mardakyan was located near the sultry desert with oil derricks, but "one would have thought that the car had left behind not twenty versts but had moved from one climate zone to another: from desert to subtropics".  All this was achieved via "nanotechnologies": in winter hundreds of tons of snow were brought from the mountains, stored in special cold cellars. This created a cold atmosphere in this climate zone. 

Akunin appoints one of the assistants of protagonist Erast Fandorin an Azerbaijani bandit Kara-Gasym, who was highly respected by people. An amusing and picturesque dialogue was underway between him and Fandorin, who was attacked by a certain Khachik:

— Who is this Khachik?

— A bad person.  An Armenian. There are bad Armenians and very bad Armenians. He is a very-very bad person. As bad as it gets. It is clear, no?

— It is not clear. Why does he want to kill me?

— I do not know. — Gasym shrugged his shoulders philosophically. — He is a bad person that is why he wants to kill you. I am telling you, he is Armenian! An anarchist, you know? (...) Not only Armenians, there are anarchist Russians, too, but Muslims are not anarchists.


— And what? Khachik and Khachatur are the same name?

— Listen. Where do you come from? 'Khachik' and 'Khachatur' is the same as your 'Vanya' and 'Ivan', ok?

— Does Khachatur have a black cross?

— Maybe he has. 'Khach' in their language, in Armenian, means 'cross'.

Gasym spat — either on the cross or on the Armenians.

Gasym narrates his version of the seeds of enmity between the Armenians and Turks:

"The Russian officials always, hundred years were for the Armenians. Because Armenians wear cross, and read the Bible. But Armenians not only read the Bible, but also read other books, and the book blows minds. Those that read many books do not respect the authorities and want to do everything in their own way.  They want revolution. And the authorities do not want revolution, the authorities want everything to be quiet and in order. Ten years ago the governor of Baku was Nakashidze. He was a Georgian, and Georgians are a little better than Armenians. Nakashidze the governor together with the Secret Police Department wanted to frighten the Armenians so that they forget about revolution. The Secret Police Department said stupid and greedy people (we (meaning the Turks – ed. note) also have such people): we can rob and slaughter the Armenians slightly.  It is easier when the authorities allow to slaughter. We started to slaughter and rob. 'Slightly' did not work, as it is always impossible to slaughter slightly. The authorities said: 'That is enough but people want more'. Then the soldiers started to shoot. And if you start shooting in the Caucasus, it will not end soon. People were offended and killed the chief general, who gave the order. Armenians were upset by Nakashidze the governor and killed him too. Because of stupid and greedy Muslims Armenians were upset by Muslims and started to shoot. Then we got more upset by Armenians. Now we will shoot forever. This is Caucasus. We do not like Armenians and Armenians do not like us, all together we do not like Russians.  Before we lived side by side in Baku. You could go for a walk, wherever you want to. Now it is not the same. Muslims live from the Cape Bailov to Olginskaya, Armenians leave in the north. You can go for a walk, but you better not.

— And if you understand how everything happened and who is guilty of why do you hate Armenians so much? — asked Fandorin.

— The blood has its own truth. When the blood splashes, the head remains silent. The man must do, what he is supposed to do and then let Allah be the judge. Armenians shot me, I shot Armenians. But I was incarcerated not by the Armenians, but the Russians. There were Armenians in the jail too; a lot of them, but there were no fights and abuse. There is only one enemy in the prison:  the guys at the top. When the Russian authorities leave Baku, completely leave Baku then we will kill the Armenians.  In the meantime we just do not like them. We will not slaughter them intensively for now, — answered him Gasym.

Intrigues between the heroes of the novel of different political, ethnic and class backgrounds, full-on ardors, investigations and much more is hidden in the pages of the novel of Boris Akunin, which name according to him, appeared immediately together with the idea.  The epic end-piece spices up the above mentioned. 

Highly recommended to read.


Boris Akunin, aka Grigori Shkhartishvili is a Russian writer, scientist- specialist on Japan, literary critic, translator and a public figure.



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