Trans Eurasia travel

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Balaxani (Balakhany) offers no obvious tourist potential. However, its 3sq. km were the most important in all Azerbaijan during the original Baku oil boom. Travellers and writers have described in some detail the curious sight of its 'oil springs' which according to Von Thielmann in 1875, were spurting to a height of 35ft 'like geysers in Iceland'. Valuable oil like this could run to waste for weeks for lack of storage capacity until the Nobel brothers installed a pumping station with two enormous 400,000 gallon reservoirs.

In 1904-5 when Baku was rife with political agitators (including Stalin) trying to pave the way for a Bolshevik revolution, it was the workers in Balaxani that were the main targets of their propaganda. Many of the agitators were rich, educated Russians for whom communism had been a philosophical concept before arriving here. Seeing the appalling conditions in which men worked, digging with hand shovels while almost submerged in the toxic naphtha, had a great influence on their ideas.

The culture shock, difficult conditions and revealed prejudices of the revolutionaries make their recollections particularly interesting reading. The memoirs of Eva Broido have the added piquancy of a female perspective in a totally male world (men outnumbered women almost 31 in the oilfield areas).

'Life in Balakhany was fraught with particular dangers for women, the local Tatars inspired me with real horror. No woman could go out on her own in Balakhany without being molested. Certainly not after dark'. Tatar (ie Azen) and Armenian women's lives were entirely spent behind closed gates in the yards of their houses, notes Broido which was 'all very awkward for a professional revolutionary'. She would walk about the muddy 'streets' 'with a revolver my constant companion, stuck into my belt, a man on either side and a third if possible behind'. The one time she relaxed this she was grabbed from behind and only escaped thanks to a passing Russian carriage driver. On another occasion when walking with 'only' one chaperone, a 'huge Tatar watchman at the Benckendorff Factory armed with a revolver demanded "Give me the woman". 'The companion finally managed to dissuade him from kidnap or violence 'after a long parlay, compliments and one rouble for beer'. A few days later, however, another woman was found raped and decapitated in a forgotten cemetery nearby. It was only too easy to lose one's life in the oilfields, men were trigger happy and fired at the least provocation'.

Popular myth has it that the bell of Balaxani's domed Greek-Russian-style church tolled mysteriously all of its own accord as the September 1905 massacres began. This was possibly a planned signal, rather than a ghostly campanologist's outing.