Sunday, November 22, 2015

Douglas Rogers's "The Depths of Russia"

Douglas Rogers is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Yale University. He is the author of The Old Faith and the Russian Land: A Historical Ethnography of Ethics in the Urals.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Depths of Russia: Oil, Power, and Culture after Socialism, and reported the following:
The Depths of Russia provides a new and different perspective on Russian oil and oil companies, one that unfolds in a single oil-producing region—the Perm region of the Russian Urals—rather than focusing on big-name oligarchs, the Kremlin, or international pipeline politics. The story I tell begins in the early Soviet period, with the discovery of oil near Perm in 1929. It ends with an account of Perm’s oil-fueled attempt to be named a European Cultural Capital in 2009-2012.

On page 99, I am wrapping up my discussion of the early 1990s—the turbulent years right after the end of the Soviet Union—and comparing some of what unfolded then to the politics and economics of oil at other times and places. One of the most interesting and distinctive things about this period is that crude oil and refined oil products were generally not sold or exchanged for money. Instead, given the encompassing economic collapse and resulting demonetization, they were bartered—exchanged directly for everything from barges of sugar to truckloads of timber. This petrobarter, as I call it, turned out to be crucial for the remaking of the Perm region in the post-Soviet period. Petrobarter kept the struggling agricultural sector alive through exchanges of tractor fuel at the time of sowing for crops at the time of harvest. Petrobarter enabled a new, oil-focused regional elite to emerge, even before the privatization of the oil sector. And petrobarter linked regional oil to regional identity in a new and powerful way: by making the exchange of the region’s own oil—and not rubles issued by the federal Russian state—the lynchpin that kept the regional economy afloat in a time of acute crisis. Although comparatively short-lived, petrobarter was absolutely central to the making of the Perm region as an oil region.

We tend to think of oil and money as very tightly entangled. Post-Soviet petrobarter shows that this is not always the case. It is just one of the ways in which the story of Permian oil expands our understanding of oil’s place in the shaping of human lives and possibilities.
Learn more about The Depths of Russia at the Cornell University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue