The Depths of Russia — Preface

From The Depths of Russia: Oil, Power, and Culture After Socialism, pp. xi-xiv © Cornell University Press 2015. Reprinted with permission; not for further reproduction.


The Soviet city of Perm was a defense and industrial hub. Its factories turned out rockets for the Soviet space program, airplane engines for military and civilian use, and artillery pieces for the Red Army. The surrounding Perm region, on the northern and western edge of the Ural Mountains, was home to dozens of metallurgy factories and oil production sites, one of the world’s largest potash mines, and a high concentration of prison and labor camps in the Gulag system. Yet few in the Soviet Union—let alone the rest of the world—knew much about any of this, for Perm was also a closed city. Foreigners were not permitted to visit at all and national Soviet media outlets scarcely mentioned it. Indeed, several of my Russian acquaintances who had been transferred to Perm after working elsewhere in the Soviet Union told me that they were mystified by their assignments at first, having had no more than a vague sense that Perm was to be found somewhere in the Urals. Others insisted that Perm was not on Soviet-era maps at all, although I have yet to find an example. In one friend’s memorable phrasing, Perm had “fallen out of the consciousness” of ordinary Soviet citizens.

Although the present-day Perm region occupies some 160,000 square kilometers, with a population of roughly two and a half million, nearly a million of those in Perm itself, it sometimes seemed as though the end of the Soviet Union had not changed geographical consciousness very much. In the early 2000s, a federal news channel memorably ran an entire news segment about Perm that referred to it as Penza—a city nearly a thousand kilometers away. In 2012, I listened as a scholar visiting Perm from Moscow embarrassed himself by boasting that not everyone—in contrast to himself—would fly “somewhere out beyond the Urals” to give a lecture. Perm is unambiguously, as his audience’s murmurs and muted groans communicated, on the Moscow side of the Ural Mountains.

This concern with post-Soviet Perm’s place in Russia and the world was not new. It became widespread after the city was opened to visitors in the late 1980s, and putting Perm back on the map, at least figuratively, has been an ongoing effort for regional politicians and businesses competing for federal and international investment since then. (Perm aimed, for example, to be Russia’s Capital of Civil Society under Governor Iurii Trutnev in the early 2000s and a European Capital of Culture under Oleg Chirkunov, Trutnev’s successor.) Indeed, looking back through my fieldnotes and interviews from what are now over twenty years of visits to the Perm region, one of the most enduring themes is the remaking of space: the perpetual resizing and renaming of territories and districts; the quality, direction, and construction of roads and pipelines; the relationship between centers and peripheries, capitals and provinces. Maps were everywhere during my fieldwork in the 1990s and 2000s, from the walls of contemporary art exhibits to the glossy covers of the endless stream of reports issued by state agencies and regional companies. A series of public discussions hosted by a journalist in 2009 invited local notables to talk about the “map of the world” that oriented their actions. A state official involved in financing cultural development projects in the region’s small cities and towns impressed upon me that her task was to help people “find themselves in space.”

Representations of the spaces of the Perm region were especially common at Lukoil-Perm, a regional subsidiary of the Moscow-based multinational oil company Lukoil. The rooftop at the company’s headquarters in downtown Perm, for instance, featured a slowly revolving globe emblazoned with red “LUK” logos indicating the locations of Lukoil’s main operations around the world. Inside the building below, the company’s multiroom museum included a large interactive map of the Perm region’s constituent districts and cities. Pressing an array of nearby buttons illuminated, by turns, districts that were home to production facilities, refining sites, gas stations, and social and cultural development projects that the company was sponsoring. Pushing all four buttons at once—and who among the museum’s parade of school-aged visitors would not do just that?— set the region aglow from top to bottom. The museum’s map of the Perm region was unapologetically corporate in its perspective, and it mimicked in key respects Lukoil’s own organizational structure in the region, but it was not wholly inaccurate. Over the course of the 1990s and early 2000s, oil had displaced defense and metallurgy to become the Perm region’s single most significant industry.

Scholars’ map of Russia has likewise shifted drastically in the past two decades, and it now includes many more studies of frontiers, borderlands, edges, and margins than it once did. There is also much to be gained from attending to Russia’s depths—to its glubinka. Glubinka generally describes locations that are considered out of the way, underdeveloped, hard to get to, and, depending on one’s opinion of such places, either hopelessly backward or enviably traditional. Glubinka certainly describes many of the more remote areas of the Perm region where oil is extracted. From the perspective of many in Moscow and Saint Petersburg—perhaps including that visiting scholar—glubinka might describe the entire Perm region or even, at least in jest, the entire Urals. Like so many other spatial categories, glubinka was a term on the move in the 1990s and 2000s. Its shifts unfolded alongside transformations of Russia’s depths in another, geological sense: the increasing centrality of subterranean oil and gas deposits to all dimensions of life. These are the depths of Russia—locations often considered remote or peripheral and the increasingly significant deposits of hydrocarbons located beneath some of them—from which I take my title.

This book is, then, my own effort to put Perm, its region, and its oil on the map. For much of the twentieth century, the oil pumped from the Perm region’s subsoil flowed through a socialist political and economic order, one that did not organize production, circulation, or consumption in the ways that have fed oil booms and busts—and shelves of scholarship about them—around the capitalist world. Despite the Soviet Union’s high ranking among the world’s major oil producers and exporters, Soviet citizens did not experience oil as directly associated with massive inequalities, destabilizing influxes of money, soaring expectations of rapid modernization, or grand cultural spectacles— all hallmarks of capitalist oil booms. Socialist oil was never the basis for the creation of an industrial-cum-financial elite that could influence, rival, or even take over agencies of a federal state. In these and other ways, oil’s place in the Soviet Union differed significantly from its place in capitalist centers like the United States and the so-called petrostates of the Euro-American postcolonial periphery, from Nigeria to Saudi Arabia to Venezuela and beyond.

These differences did not simply evaporate with the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, or even with the boom years of the early to mid-2000s. Even as the Perm region’s oil sector began to converge with the global oil industry in significant ways—including vertical integration and the adoption of corporate social responsibility programs—it did so against the backdrop of both Soviet-era practices and those of the ensuing transition from socialism. The resulting hybrids, layers, legacies, and innovations are fertile ground for theorizing the place of oil in the contemporary world more broadly—a necessarily comparative project that I pursue throughout this book. Oil companies rose to influence in the post-Soviet Perm region, for instance, not through the accumulation of money but in money’s absence, in conditions of barter and surrogate currencies. By the early 2000s, a combination of Soviet-era expectations and post-Soviet conditions created an uncommonly tight relationship between regional state agencies and regional corporate subsidiaries, a relationship that powerfully shaped life throughout the Perm region in domains from infrastructure to health care and from ecology to religion. Of particular note in this state–corporate alliance was an effort to remake regional identities and meaningful worlds, what I term the post-Soviet cultural front. This cultural front drew residents’ sensibilities away from the factories of Soviet Perm, with their long history as central administrative and symbolic sites in efforts to forge socialist citizens, and reoriented those sensibilities to the region’s subsoil oil deposits and their symbolic possibilities for reimagining the Perm region and its residents. What it meant to live in the Perm region became ever more closely tied to the oil pumped from beneath it, even for those who sought to chart a trajectory for the region that was not based on hydrocarbons.

By itself, the entangling of oil and human imaginations and possibilities is hardly a unique story in global context. But the socialist past and ensuing postsocialist transformations have made the substance of these entanglements in the Perm region very different from the ones we know best on some scores, and more similar to them than we have yet appreciated on other scores. Plumbing the depths of Russia thus makes the study of oil more fully global than it has been to date, more fully attuned not just to the first and third of the Cold War’s three worlds—and to the relationship between them—but to the still larger twentieth- and twenty-first-century orders in which oil continues to feature so prominently.

From The Depths of Russia: Oil, Power, and Culture After Socialism, pp. xi-xiv © Cornell University Press 2015. Reprinted with permission; not for further reproduction.


Read excerpts from reviews

Return to Books