Azerbaijan International

Autumn 2001 (9.3)
Page 11

Nobel Prize Centennial

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the first Nobel Prizes, which were awarded in 1901 in Stockholm and Oslo. While this prestigious honor is known worldwide, few people realize that roughly 10 percent of the Nobel Prize money stems from the oil-producing company that the Nobel brothers once ran in Baku.

When the Russian government allowed a free competition for plots in Azerbaijan in 1873, Robert Nobel, a chemist with experience selling American petroleum products, saw an opportunity. He and his brothers, Ludvig and Alfred, kept up with developments around the world, and they knew about American oil in Pennsylvania. Ludvig invented a sophisticated refinery that was years ahead of the American companies.

Above: These days the residence of the Nobel Brothers in Baku's "Black City" is vacant and derelict. Profit from Baku's oil was a major part of the principle that Alfred Nobel (below) used to establish the world-famous Nobel Prize 100 years ago.

In 1879, a shareholding company was instituted. The main owners were the Nobel Brothers. Alfred was involved in Azerbaijan for 16 years, consulting with his brothers by mail on financial, chemical and technical solutions for the company. Their oil products were distributed all over Russia, into Central Asia and in Europe. The majority of technically skilled personnel for the oil wells came from Finland, Sweden, Norway and Germany. Together they formed a colony at the Villa Petrolea in the "Black City" region of Baku.

However, at the turn of the century, unrest among unskilled and poor workers took a difficult turn with political strikes, thefts, robberies and murders. Russia was in turmoil over the incompetence of the tsar, the influence of Rasputin on the government and general conservatism. The war with Japan also had a devastating effect. In 1907, a number of Swedes employed by Nobel were murdered. Ethnic conflicts spread violence throughout the Caucasus.

During World War I, a weak Russia joined the Slavs in Southern Europe, breaking ground for the revolution in 1917. In 1918, most foreigners left Russia in a hurry. The Nobel family returned safely to Stockholm. They lost everything during the Revolution to the new regime in Moscow and, as they had no more oil for their European partners, they went ahead and sold the companies that they still owned in Europe.

The depression in 1929 affected the Nobels, but they had savings in Stockholm. Half of the Nobel oil companies' shares were sold to Standard Oil of New Jersey to secure the family's economic future. The Nobels believed strongly that the Revolution would collapse soon and that Russia would return to the way it had been. But as we now know, that never happened.

A new book, "Ludvig Nobel: Petroleum Has a Shining Future," by Brita Asbrink describing the Nobel family's involvement in oil, will be published in Sweden in October 2001. She is also producing a TV documentary on the same subject to be aired in November on Swedish TV.

Azerbaijan International (9.3) Autumn 2001.
© Azerbaijan International 2001. All rights reserved.

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