Chapter 2

Industrial development and its blood: a barge-hauler's son turned academician and provided the country with oil.

Фото: Российский государственный архив кинофотодокументов

Представляет: специальный проект «ИСТОРИЯ НЕФТИ»

It's hard to imagine today what it's like to live in a time with no social support, when each winter can be the last for you and your family. Survival literally depends on the breadwinner, the strongest man in the house. Mikhail Gubkin was the kind of man.

He fathered five children, but the eldest three were girls and with little prospects for them too. The best hope for a peasant in 1870 was to get the daughters well married in order to reduce the number of eaters in the house.

Ваня Губкин единственный из своей большой семьи знал грамоту

Despite being a peasant, Mikhail Gubkin didn't earn his living by farming, but worked as a senior in a barge-haulers guild. He hauled barges along the Volga and its tributaries throughout the whole season and when frosts settled in, returned home to the village of Pozdnyakovo, some ten miles east of Murom on the bank of the Oka.

The ground is flat there - the Oka has shifted its bed many times in the recent millennia, creating a pattern of creeks and dead arms. Fishing went on there even in winter and Mikhail never missed a chance to make extra money. Maybe that is the reason why some writers call him a barge-hauler and others a fisherman. Anyway, he was a decent hardworking man and his dream was that God would give him a son, who could become a helping hand, share his experience and skills and one day take over his place in the guild.

Mikhail's prayers have been answered and in September 1871 he had a son, whom they named Ivan. He grew up to be a lively and inquisitive boy and as the years past, he closed on the age when children were sent to school. His father believed it to be a whim. Being illiterate, knowing only the basics of count, he nevertheless managed to make his way to be a senior. Ivan himself, curious as he was, was not eager to go to school. It wasn't common practice either, one was thought to do well without studying.

The future oil production pioneer Ivan Mikhailovich Gubkin would have had to master the dead-end trade of a barge-hauler had it not been for his grandmother Feodosya Nikiforovna, who nurtured the most progressive views on young people's education. She is believed to have sewn him the schoolbag herself, along with notebooks that she crafted out of paper trimmings. His father gave in, hoping the skill to read and write and count would prove to be useful once his son will have mastered them.

The skill to take the blow

With learning going quite easily, Ivan rather enjoyed school. He soon proved to be what we now call an A-student and, consequently, became the object of mockery and envy of his fellow-students. He was taunted and called names, but Ivan never lacked physical strength or perseverance and didn't let anybody keep him down. This calm determination seems to be the Gubkins' family trait - one can hardly expect a choleric tempered man with a feeble physique to be able to haul barges. A dislike for envious people, remarkable perfectionism and the striving urge to achieve at whatever cost would turn to be crucial in his life in the years to come.

In the meantime Ivan's father harbored plans for his clever son. He saw his heir on the position of a clerk or even a counterman in a shop. That seemed a career peak for a barge-hauler, especially with no point in pursuing a career in the barge-hauling guild when progress slowly but surely was pressing bargemen from the towing business. Ivan's far-sighted father understood well enough that if there would still be enough work for him to do, his son was a different matter and would have to look for a job elsewhere.

Meanwhile Ivan was enjoying learning immensely. Fortune smiled on him on the day when the public school inspector took notice of his grades. The young man was clearly talented. Ivan got a chance to continue his studies in Murom district college. His father might have objected, but Ivan was lucky to have a younger brother who had to take over their father's profession.

Studying in the college went on full scale and with a great deal of success too. Then came the moment to make a fateful decision - whether to take advantage of the demand in which educated young men were held and go to work. He could claim a "clean" position of a clerk in a number of enterprises that would have settled him well-off. But Ivan decided to continue his education in Kirzhach normal school.

Education cost money. And he agrees to a deal - a stipend of 6 rubles 57 kopecks (enough to live on but with limited comfort) would be paid in exchange for his obligation to work for five years as a village teacher by appointment in his home county. Did he want to become a teacher? Very unlikely. He regarded it rather as a step towards the future.

A very significant story happened to Ivan at this time. He wrote an epigram on his schoolmate, a remarkably inspired tattler. Such freethinking was not appreciated back then and Gubkin found himself on the verge of expulsion. The matter was settled with the help of his friends who testified in his favour and provided moral support, and not just that. There is evidence that when Ivan lost his stipend they refund it from their own money.

Eventually, in 1890 he becomes a local teacher and is sent to work to Karacharovo village, the birthplace of the famous Russian bogatyr Ilya Muromets. Teachers were highly ranked those days and Ivan Gubkin might have made a very different career. But things turned out otherwise after he met the local priest.

Time to make decisions

An Orthodox priest is a very unlikely associate for educated young people in the present times. But 125 years ago the priest and the teacher were the only two literati in the village. As Gubkin himself later said, one day he found a book on geology in the attic of his cleric friend. It's hard to say how the book ever got there, most likely left by a relative who moved to Siberia for some reason. It clearly turned the young teacher's world upside down.

«Геология настоящего времени» Бернарда Котта

What was there for Ivan in Karacharovo to like - in Murom too, for that matter? He had known about the vast expanses of the Volga from his father, read many different books, had understanding in geographical maps, was clever and ambitious. He know how wide the world is and what a number of undiscovered and unknown it holds. There was no way he could just sit and teach young ignoramuses the basics of arithmetic and calligraphy…

Gubkin served his obligatory five years and took off for Saint-Petersburg at the age of 24, to become a "mining master". But geology turned out to be not so easy a science at all, complicated by the fact that a lower-class man could not just simply go to Mining Institute.

Higher education establishments were very powerful social lifts in those days. Mining itself had been standing apart since the days of Peter the Great. Aside from civil, military, naval and court ranks, the Table of Ranks includes mining ones also. Mining Institute graduates received the 10th grade rank - collegiate secretary in civil ranks, lieutenant in military ones and Huttenverwalter in mining. Here are a few examples that would help to understand what a significant breakthrough the graduation from the Mining Institute would have been for a peasant's son - the rank of the collegiate secretary was borne for instance by Alexander Pushkin, Ivan Turgenev and such character as Ilya Oblomov.

However, being given the cold shoulder, Ivan Gubkin did not despair, but started thinking what to do next. Aware of the fact that his education left much to be desired, he went where they would have him - to Petersburg Teachers Institute. No bursary was to be had, but Ivan wasn't counting on it in the first place. He made his living by giving lessons for those who were taking exams for officer rank, scythed, chopped wood but spent most of his time working in an archive with files. He completed the next level by becoming a teacher in Sampsonievsky city college in Saint-Petersburg in 1898.

Применение двигателей внутреннего сгорания сделало нефть одним из самых востребованных ресурсов

Then followed five year of relentless self-education because in accordance with the law in those days one could enter an institution of higher education only after graduating from a gymnasium or from a non-classical secondary school. In 1903 Ivan, aged 32, goes to Tsarskoe Selo to pass externally the graduate exams at the Imperial Gymnasium. Wasting no time he makes an application to the Mining Institute and… they take him. A dream come true.

An account of our hero's story in the Soviet period always included a reference to his participation in Lenin's "League of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class". At the time this underground social-democratic organizaion actively recruited students like Ivan Gubkin for distribution of leaflets, so there is a chance he could have taken such part also. He could not have been in a leading position though, because in 1895-1896 police extensively arrested the leaders of the "League". Neverthelss, Gubkin was no stranger to the revolution, which is fair enough in the light of his background and the difficulties he had encountered due to it. This part of his biography will prove to be crucial in his future.

How does one become a genius?

In 1910 Ivan Mikhailovich Gubkin graduates from the Saint-Petersburg Mining Institute. Unlike his fellow-students he looked somewhat like an old man - he graduated aged 39. However, he compensated for his late start with phenomenal diligence and remarkable intuition.

In just two years time since the beginning of his work in Geological Survey of the Russian Empire Gubkin becomes a renowned expert, consulting prominent petroleum producers seeking expertise of their oil stations quality. Gubkin never refuses anyone, he's glad to see his work in demand and the long years spent achieving his goal bear fruit. He proudly claimed himself to "have become a master into science".

One question troubles his mind while exploring oil fields of North Caucasus: why do some clefts flow and others nearby are dry? He makes an assumption that oil underlies in this region not lense-like, like in other places, but as narrow arms in connate waters. His hypotheis proves true and draws a massive scientific response. Gubkin receives a offer to explore the main oil-bearing region of the the country - the Bakuvian.

He literally strolled over the entire Apsheron peninsula. The largest enterprises of the Bakuvian region offered him positions of chief geologist with generous wages, but… Ivan Mikhailovich declined all the profitable propositions, claiming his work in the Geological Survey grants him the freedom in scientific judgement. He treasured his right to speak his mind.

In 1916 Gubkin begins to draw up a geological map of the Bakuvian region, while also writing research articles that experts believe to be seminal works that determined the train of geological thought for the years to come.

A remarkable fact - at the age of 40 Gubkin just graduated from the Mining Institute, but at 46 was already a renowned figure nationwide. More than that, his works are known outside Russia as well. The time comes and in 1917 on agreement with foreign colleagues the Russian Provisional Government sends Gubkin to the USA to acquaint himself with the latest American scientific research. But the country is not the same when Ivan Gubkin returns home.

In 1916 Gubkin begins to draw up a geological map of the Bakuvian region, while also writing research articles that experts believe to be seminal works that determined the train of geological thought for the years to come.

Shale commissar

Gubkin spent more than a year in the USA, travelling across the country to study their experience in drilling and their gas and oil structures. The time came to go back home - to what was already Soviet Russia.

The bolsheviks in general and their leader Vladimir Lenin in particular are known to have been keen on the idea of technical revolution. Everyone remembers Lenin's words about the nation-wide electrificaion being instrumental for progress towards communism, but people tend to forget that he also believed in underground coal gasification and other progressive technologies.

So Gubkin's returned was well timed, he appeared to be the man with profound knowledge of modern oil production engineering technologies that the Soviet Russia needed so badly. He was given a great range of authority, partly because of his reputation for being a veteran of the leninist group, but mostly due to the shortage of specialists. In 1920 Gubkin simultaneously held over five positions, dealing with matters of oil and gas extraction.

Нефтяные месторождения были открыты именно там, где предсказывал Губкин

In 1918 oil was in the hands of the "White" and it was therefore necessary to find something more accessible and Gubkin takes another post as the Chief of the Head Shale Committee. His job was to ensure production of gasoline and other oil-shale products, that could be extracted in the vicinity of Petrograd. Another large crude origin had been discovered that year near Simbirsk, and Gubkin reported it to Lenin, who was pleased to see new origins, that could help the Soviet power to survive, found near his birthplace.

Strictly speaking, exploration of oil-shales in Russia began well before Gubkin. This particular material has been used since 1914 as a local replacement for coal. Shale coal can be burned in plant furnaces and also be used for production of the so-called illuminating gas. In the process of gas production, a specific kind of oil is extracted from the shale, that can be used to produce motor fuel. The first matter at hand was to actually find these oil-shales and Gubkin solved this issue.

In 1919 he makes another significant discovery. Studying the oil-shales from the Volga-region he sees in them signs the oil presence and suggests to try to drill deeper to see whether deeper beds have oil on industrial scale. Ten years later "big Oil" was discovered there.

Two Bakus

This discovery would come later, but proir to that Ivan Mikhailovich again has to go to Baku shortly after the establishment of the Soviet power in Azerbaijan. His goal is to restore oil production that fell into disrepair in the years of the Civil War. The next two years Gubkin spent in emergency mode, eyewitnesses reported him racing around Bakuvuan district in his car from dawn till dusk, overseeing the repair of drills and support structures. He demanded strict observance of his instructions and it may well be that it had been the time when he developed a belief in the efficiency of authoritative leadership style.

At the same time Gubkin manages to continue scientific research. He's growing more and more interested in the possibility of oil extraction in the Volga region. The Civil proved it dangerous to have production fields of such important resources situated too close to external borders. So when 1929 saw the discovery of oil in Povolzhye, Gubkin could hardly conceal his joy.

His opus magnum "The study of oil" saw light in 1932 and has become an indespensible guide for several generations of Soviet and Russian geologists. Even though oil geology has evolved since then, Gubkin's work maintains practical value, being a guide on exploration methods.

He made a number of predictions as to the whereabouts of possible oil fields - in the Ural region, in Middle Asia and in West Siberia. Gubkin made them public in 1932, urging the party and the government to continue geological prospecting and exploration in this direction. Many of Gubkin's colleagues were sceptical about his predictions and in order to prove his theories Ivan Mikhailovich undertakes numerous expeditions.

«Второе Баку» стало гарантией обеспечения страны нефтью даже в случае войны

At this point Gubkin is not only an academician, but a living symbol of the Soviet oil geology. On 17 April 1930 Moscow Oil and Gas Institute was named after Ivan Gubkin. Not every scientist can boast such an honour. But his experience as a village teacher couldn't have been for nothing and he was a truly excellent professor that could speak of complex geological matters in simple language, equally comprehensible for students and members of government. He had a gift for gaining people over to his cause.

His opus magnum "The study of oil" saw light in 1932 and has become an indespensible guide for several generations of Soviet and Russian geologists. Even though oil geology has evolved since then, Gubkin's work maintains practical value, being a guide on exploration methods.

Gubkin used to say "earth depths won't let down, if people don't". As years went by, he grew more sceptical of the quality of human resources. It seemed to him that people don't want to work, to strive and in this they sabotage the cause. He judged everyone by his own standard but unfortunately few could stand up to his scale. That was when Gubkin began to complain, writing about saboteurs, demanding to deal with complacency. His letters came to use when the repression period began in the USSR. This part of his biography is still very controversial and divides opinions.

Black and red

Some regard Ivan Gubkin as a genius in geology, others believe him to be an academic schemer. Was he really a genius or is it a myth, created by his students and followers? Why was he in high esteem with the government in the years when repressions went rampant? How to treat statements that all his discoveries are in fact appropriated achievements of other scientists?

At this point it is very important to remember that Ivan Mikhailovich Gubkin became famous long before Stalin's time. His professional qualities were highly regarded even before the Revolution of 1917 - no wonder it was him the Provisional Government chose to study the experience of American companies. Taking into consideration his background and association with social-democrats in his youth, it is no great surprise that Gubkin's sympathies lay with the bolsheviks. Despite all this, the bourgeois government took travel expenses for a left-winger. Evidently his professionalism outweighed his unorthodox political views.

On the other hand, everyone recalls the frankness of his character. The necessity to climb up the social ladder hardened Ivan Gubkin and made him a very cast-iron nature. Such people tend to be harsh in their judgements and ignore conversational manners. Obviously Gubkin could not avoid making enemies who would try to depreciate his success. He, in turn, used all means to get rid of ill-wishers.

Ivan Gubkin was undoubtedly a true patriot of Russia, at any regime. He believed that in the 20th century oil was no longer simply a mineral wealth but also a global factor of world politics. Gubkin was familiar with the famous report that the French senator Henry Brenger presented to Georges Clemenceau, Chairman of the Council of ministers of France in 1919, a report that had the following words: "Take hold of oil - take hold of power". Oil extraction was therefore a matter of state.

According to this logic, negligence in extraction and refining of oil could easily be considered by Gubkin as gross dereliction of duty and deliberate endamagement to one's country. Such action should have been terminated, at least by suspending the culprits. Such logic was quite typical of a man of Gubkin's character and judgements.

At the same time he didn't spare himself either, working tirelessly to find new production fields and, what's more important, to establish a geology school that could continue the work. He undertook a variety of activities, taking part in expeditions and organising academic process. in 1937 in particular he took considerable effort to hold the 17th Geology Congress in the USSR. Russian language gained the status of the official language of Geology on that Congress. Gubkin organized special trips for participants to visit Baku and Siberia, demonstrating achievements of Soviet geology. He never believed in isolationism, neither in science, nor in industry, on the contrary, he regarded the USSR with its natural resources as part of the world economy.

Like many other great personalities, Ivan Gubkin was a man that knew no boundaries. Trusting his experience and intuition he strove further towards his dreams, confronting former colleagues and friends in order to achieve the ultimate goal. People like him make the history of their country. The Soviet Union and Russia, as well as worldwide oil geology owe much to Gubkin, despite the fact that his twilight years are shadowed by repressions against his colleagues. The triumph and tragedy of the great geologist go side by side.

Epilogue: Resources of the homeland

Ivan Gubkin died suddenly in April 1939, just before the beginning of World War II. But his ideas and projects did not die with him. That's why we cannot avoid mentioning the remarkable future of his ideas.

Gubkin knew all too well the significance of oil in the First World War and the Civil War in Russia. In the 1930s, that was his motive for promoting oil development in Ukhta and Povolzhye, the reason was that one could not afford to be too dependent on oil fields located within a strike proximity of the enemy's bomber aircraft. By which he meant Baku in the first place.

His concern proved to be true. In 1940, when Great Britain was at war with Nazi Germany, whom the USSR supplied with crude production, as per the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, the British headquaters harboured an idea to strike a blow on the Bakuvian oil-fields, so that the USSR would cease sending gasoline to Germany.

Germany herself had her eyes on Bakuvian and North-Caucasian resources. No wonder Hitler shifted the focus of his 1942 summer campaign to the Southern flank, obviously planning to cut down oil supplies around the Volga and to seize the oil-field in the Caucasus region.

Hitler's desire for Bakuvian oil was no secret to the Soviet Union, that is why exploration of the Volga-Ural basin was included in the list of priorities for the Soviet industry in 1941. In July 1941 all of the Soviet petroleum industry switched to a 12-hour working day, holidays and vacations were cancelled till the end of the war.

On 22 September 1942 the State Defense Committee has decreed to speed up exploration works in Povolzhye and Transurals. Over ten thousand specialists along with the best drilling devices have been transferred from Baku under the danger of the German forces' possible breakthrough. Productive oil-pool has been extracted in the Vereiskian oil-field in 1943. Gubkin's theory proved to be right and now the Soviet Union had a real "second Baku".

But Gubkin's gaze was reaching even further East. He deemed it very important to move further, across the Urals, towards the edges of the West-Siberian plato, where massive oil resources could probably be found. Oil in Siberia would have been in his understanding a whole different matter - a possibility of creating a new industrial region. It's very important to keep moving on and develop the Far East. He managed to fill the hearts of his students and followers with hope of new discoveries that helped them to find those natural resources that still lay at the base of Russia's economic potential.

Ivan Gubkin, the son of a barge-hauler, has laid the foundations of energy security of a great country, established a unique scientific school and made many discoveries.

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