City in the Caspian

The Sea

Shortly after midnight, another Enemy of the People disappeared. This one was Tahir Salahov's father, kidnapped by government agents with no explanation. His wife knew better than to look for him, but waited for an official announcement.

News never came. It was the height of Stalin's 1938 political purges in Soviet Azerbaijan, and secrecy reigned. Mr. Salahov's family would continue to suffer, stained by the disgrace of a political dissident. Almost 20 years later, the youngest son, Tahir, was rejected for an art scholarship abroad; no son of an Enemy of the People could be permitted to leave the country, much less with the sponsorship of a national art institution.

Bitter, Tahir retreated to an oil settlement on the Caspian Sea called Neft Daşlari, where he developed the dark and ultra-realist "Severe" school of painting. His works from that time immortalize a grim marine metropolis of watery trestles and rotting piers.

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But Neft Daşlari was a strange choice of incubator for Tahir Salahov's dark side. In fact, a lot of effort had been made to render the island as pleasant as possible. It was a pet project of the Moscow government, nurtured since conception with Stalinist hubris and Soviet muscle to create a urban utopia, 55 kilometers into the open sea.

Construction began in 1949, when Azerbaijani and Russian geologists set out to settle the ocean with stilts and drills. First, they built the world's first off-shore oil drilling platform in the Caspian Sea. Then, to service the towering machines, they built Neft Daşlari, the floating city.

Neft Daşlari means "oil rocks", named for the petroleum-rich seabed below. It is a bobbing maze of bridges and platforms, landfills and abandoned ships, and once housed as many as 5,000 people. In its heyday, the aquatic settlement boasted bakeries, a park with real trees, hotels, hospitals and even a lemonade factory.

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Nearly 1000 people still live there. They go about their lives as anywhere else, doing laundry, going to the floating cinema, growing flowers and fruit in their gardens. And they work; Neft Daşlari continues to produce half of Azerbaijan's oil.

But the man-made island is sinking. Two-thirds of its intricate suspended road system have crumbled into the Caspian. Some of the apartment blocks are submerged in oily water up to their second stories, and parts of Neft Daslari have come unmoored from the sunken ships that serve as its foundation.

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These sacrificed boats include the world's first tanker, the Nobel brother's 1877 "Zoroaster", but as Russian petroleum company magazine Lukoil International Magazine explains, "The era of heroic Five-Year Plans had no regard for the relics of the past".

Only during Tahir Salahov's summer on the sinking city, anchored to these rusting relics, did news finally came from Moscow. The Soviet thaw was just beginning, information was leaking out, the Salahov family legend could be confirmed: their father had been executed with a single shot 18 years ago, only moments after his arrest.

 

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