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Tony Wood

  • BuyWheel of Fortune: The Battle for Oil and Power in Russia by Thane Gustafson
    Harvard, 662 pp, £20.95, November 2012, ISBN 978 0 674 06647 2

There is no shortage of turning points in Russia’s 20th-century history, from the October Revolution of 1917 to the German defeat at Stalingrad in February 1943, to the overnight disappearance of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991. But as well as these obviously pivotal moments, there are other, hidden hinges of the country’s fate. Geologists had long suspected that the ground deep beneath the swampy middle reaches of the Ob River might contain oil, and an initial expedition in 1959 found a petroleum reservoir near the village of Shaim. In early June 1960, Well R-6 was sunk; after 18 days of drilling to a depth of 1500 metres, it began to spew forth oil at a rate of 400-500 tons a day – the first industrial-scale find in Siberia. Success at Shaim set off a feverish burst of exploration, and more than two dozen fields were found in the area over the next four years. The biggest single discovery in the history of Russian oil was made in May 1965: the super-giant Samotlor field, at its peak in the 1980s the world’s second largest, and even now among the top half-dozen, producing more than 35 million tons of crude a year.

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