Historical Fiction

The Great Game: The Story of the First Oil War

By Togrul Bagirov

This book will launch on Jan 14, 2020. Currently, only those with the link can see it. 🔒

Inspired by true historical events, The Great Game is a gripping narrative of the personal ambitions and geopolitical interests in the fight for oil that played out on the shores of the Caspian Sea. The struggle to control Baku’s oil pitted the richest families of the time against each other – front and center are the Nobels locked in a rivalry with the Rothschilds and the Rockefellers. Darkening the plot further were the Communist revolutionaries Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin.

The novel takes us on a journey where Baku is transformed into the world’s oil center by the turn of the 20th century through the technological innovations and business ingenuity of the Nobel family. It offers a glimpse into the life of that period – widening economic inequality, immense personal hardships, family separations, broken promises and hearts.

Based on extensive research, The Great Game offers a captivating account of the rise of oil as the world’s top strategic commodity while simultaneously drawing us into the heart of the personal stories and rivalries of the early oil barons in Baku.

Chapter 1

“When everyone is dead, the Great Game is finished. Not before.”

 - Rudyard Kipling

Baku, 1876

Emanuel Nobel had never meant to fall in love. In fact, as their ship oozed through the thick haze of oily black smoke from Baku’s oil fields, love was the farthest thing from his mind. His mind was still in Stockholm, his heart also. The idea of drilling for oil had worked its way into his father's mind, and because of that Emanuel had been ripped from his friends and his home. Baku, his father had said, was the land of plenty, a wondrous world with endless potential. At this point, Emanuel was finding it very difficult to share his father's enthusiasm. Squinting through burning eyes, he longed for the green grass and snowy forests of home.

Ludvig stood beside his son, a gentle smile of anticipation lifting his beard as their ship travelled the Caspian Sea, coasting toward the crescent-shaped harbor of Baku. Emanuel did not recall having seen that smile back in Stockholm, where the air was clean and the trees were in full flower. His father's inexplicable happiness was both intriguing and infuriating. Crossing his arms over his chest, he lifted his chin and stubbornly refused to enjoy himself. This had not been his choice. For months he had argued about coming here, but Ludvig had only shaken his head.

“Since I am Grandfather's namesake, I deserve to know the details of his failures in Russia. What makes you think we can be successful here when he could not?”

Back in 1837, Emanuel's grandfather, Immanuel, traveled from Sweden to the promising empire of Russia. He had brought with him his wife, Andriette, and their four young sons, Robert, Ludvig, Alfred and Emil (who died when he was only twenty-one, experimenting with nitroglycerin at his father’s laboratory in Stockholm). The boys attended both the St. Petersburg Gymnasium and the University, learning that land's languages and customs as well as mathematics and chemistry. After graduation, they went back to Sweden, but eventually returned to St. Petersburg and worked at Nobel's Machine Factory as well as at the rifle factory in Izhevsk.

Ludvig squinted disapprovingly at him. “Your grandfather did not fail.”

Cupping his hands around his eyes, Emanuel surveyed the horizon. “How can that be?” He was aware his tone hovered on the edge of belligerence, but it had been a long voyage. His temper was short. “He was bankrupt! You had to pay for him.”

“I may have paid your grandfather's debts,” Ludvig said levelly, “but he did not fail. You will learn in time. Your grandfather was a hard-working man. Czar Nicholas I believed wholeheartedly in his work. When Nicholas died, Czar Alexander II was determined to start fresh and make his own decisions.” He shrugged. “No one is perfect. The fortunate thing, Emanuel, is that you will be wiser as a result of your grandfather's miscalculations.”

“When he came home, he was poor.”

One bushy black eyebrow lifted in censure. “He was never poor. Besides, that is not what I am talking about. Success is not always about money. The main thing is the work you put into it.” He shook his head, forgiving Emanuel's brash comments. “But you are young. It is impossible for you to understand right now. As you mature, you will begin to understand the pleasure one can gain in the victory of enterprise and perseverance of duty, no matter the size of the bank account. Do you remember when you went to work as an apprentice in that factory two years ago? You were only one year older than I was when my father put me to work.”

Emanuel barely refrained from rolling his eyes. “Of course I remember it. I worked like a slave there, every day from six in the morning until midnight.”

“And you managed to do it for an entire year. Shall I tell you, son, that I was very impressed by your work ethic? And because of that difficult job, you learned early on about the satisfaction that can be derived from hard work.”

Emanuel was about to argue, but the ship was swallowed up by a thicker cloud of smoke, and father and son temporarily lost sight of each other. When they eventually emerged into the sunlight, Emanuel was bent over, coughing, his hands over his face.

“So hot!” he choked, laughing at himself.

Ludvig patted his long grey beard. “Good thing this did not light on fire. Ah, but look,” he said, holding his hands toward the harbor “Now that is a sight to behold!”


Emanuel stepped onto the docks of Baku, dumbfounded by the scene. Despite its oil-covered surface and the skunky odor that monopolized the air, the city was mesmerizing. Even the surface of the water was amazing, since every now and then it flared up, burning with actual fires. The air he breathed was both choked with smoke and alive with magic, filled with exotic spices and garbled conversations, blending Azerbaijani, Russian, Arabic, Persian, Turkish, French, English, German and various exotic dialects into a stew that bubbled over with clashing clothes and customs. And just as the variety of people mixed together without hesitation, so too did the mosques, synagogues, churches, and pagan temples. On Emanuel's right the market hummed; weathered, ancient faces sold equally to both rosy cheeked Russians and Mountain Jews while Azerbaijani and Turkish street peddlers strolled through the crowd. On his left, men were loading and unloading ships, moving food, animals, and clothing he had never seen before.

The chaos was invigorating, and as they passed through the ancient walls of Baku, moving further into the city, he felt the exhaustion—and the frustration—from the journey fall off his shoulders. He stepped quickly alongside his father, careful with his footing. The serpentine cobblestone streets were slick with oil, and the stuff became increasingly thick with every step closer to the oil fields. It seemed a feat of great prowess to be able to walk so simply, but he was determined he would master it eventually.

Once he had gotten past his initial bewilderment and the subsequent rush of excitement, he began to notice something else. Hidden behind the colors, quiet beneath the noise, a separate reality sat hunched in the corners while others begged in the street. Desperate eyes blinked in grimy faces, and on some the desperation had melted into an even darker shade of hopelessness. The suffering here was greater than the commerce.

A distant rumble trembled under their feet, distracting Emanuel. No one else seemed to have noticed the noise. Emanuel glanced at his father, wondering if he could have imagined it.

“Just a geyser,” Ludvig informed him.

“And that? What is that?”

Three hundred yards away, a tower of flames shot into the sky, untamed.

“The Eternal Fires of Zoroaster. Beautiful, is it not?”

“Is it…man-made?”

“No, no. The Fire Temple has burned for three thousand years, maybe longer. That's why they called this land, Azerbaijan, as the Land of Eternal Fire. Look over there. You can see the temple past Balakhani, which is an oil-rich suburb of Baku.”

Intrigued, Emanuel followed his father through the gate. The simple, yet impressive architecture of the altar in the center of the courtyard caught his eye, and they wandered closer to watch the Eternal Fires burning within. The ancient walls were broken up by small cells created for pilgrims and monks, and their stone faces were decorated by timeworn inscriptions in Sanskrit and Gurmukhi.

“This temple,” his father explained, “was where many people practiced Zoroastrianism, one of the first religions to worship only one god. The mysteries of their god were represented in what they saw as sacred fires, and people from all over the world came to this land to bow before the flames. They believed the fire purified the soul.”

“No wonder they came here,” Emanuel said, staring at the flames. “It only makes sense that something this magical would be deemed mystical as well.”

His father gestured toward the street, and they walked gingerly along the cobblestones, watching the activity. Ludvig squinted ahead at a heavyset, bearded man lumbering in their direction.

“Robert?” Ludvig said.

The man stared at them, confused, then his arms flew apart. “Ludvig! I am so happy to see you! And who is this?”

“Ah, it has been a long time since you've seen my son, Emanuel,” Ludvig replied, stepping back. “Emanuel, this is your Uncle Robert.”

Fatigue melted temporarily from the older man’s eyes. “Ah, Emanuel! I do not believe I’ve seen you since you began to walk! Time flies so fast… my best years were spent in this ‘land of fire’… So, are you ready to take on a new world here in Baku with me?”

 “Yes, sir. I am excited to be here.”

“Excellent!” Robert put one arm around each man's shoulder. “Let us go, then. I will introduce you to the people of Baku.” He scowled at a laborer who had collided inadvertently with Ludvig then kept going. “The first lesson is to be cautious. They're a crafty bunch, and they often regard foreigners as fools rather than friends. We must not allow them to be right!”

Ludvig chuckled. “That is nothing new, is it? Surely that goes for most of the world.”

“Always a contrarian your father, Emanuel. Since we were kids, Ludvig had to express at least some opposition to me.”

The brothers were similar, of course, but Robert seemed more animated while mildly resentful of constant encroachments and attempts of domination from his brothers. His eyes were forever moving, scanning the crowds. In the back of his mind, Emanuel heard the echo of his grandfather’s words, passed down by his father when he had been in a nostalgic mood: Robert is predisposed to adventures. Ludvig is a genius. Alfred is a workaholic.

Robert led them through the crowd and into streets which increasingly blackened both in air quality and on the ground. Despite the grime, Emanuel was already relishing this new city. For him, the colors of the people shone through all the filth.

“There is much for you here, Emanuel,” Robert said. “And not all will be foreign to you. A lot is influenced by local aristocrats and Europeans.”

An Azerbaijani woman strolled by with a couple of friends, their skirts a rainbow of color. She smiled shyly at Emanuel, observing him through a pair of dazzling green eyes, and he was captivated by her exotic beauty.

“I can hardly wait to learn about the customs here,” he replied.

“When the work is done,” Ludvig said, noting his son's gaze. “When the work is done. Robert will walk us through our oil claim before we settle in at home. We must always remember that no matter how exciting everything else might appear, the oil claim is why we are here.”

Emanuel's jaw clenched. He was tired of being treated like a child. After all, he was seventeen, old enough to experience the world like any other young person, and that included laughing, dating, going to parties. One of these days, he promised himself, he would live life the way he wanted.

“This part of Baku is called Black City,” Robert informed them. “Oil is so prevalent that everyone has decided to drill wherever there's space, including in their yards. Some of the houses have become refineries of sorts, and the oil turns everything black.”

“So we've noticed.”

“You'll need separate clothes that you can wear outside,” his uncle continued, “and those have to stay outside of the house. It doesn't matter where you go out here, your clothes—especially your shoes and trousers—will be soaked in the stuff.”

The earth rumbled again, closer this time, shifting Emanuel's mind back to the world around him. He tried to keep his expression neutral, as if the sensation did not send a thrill through him. So much was happening all around, but the real story was beneath their feet.

Robert rubbed his hands together. “You must see this.”

He led them to the right, down another street, and Emanuel stopped dead at the sight of his first geyser. A velvet black fountain of oil spewed twenty feet above the top of the derrick, and men scurried at its base.

“That one started yesterday,” Robert told them.

Emanuel took another step forward, wanting to be closer, but he scampered back when a sturdy, multi-colored cart rattled into the street towards them. Its panicking horse galloped in an arc, following the path of a lost wheel, and its ridiculously tall load of barrels wobbled precariously. When the horse lurched forward again, the barrels tipped onto the street, soaking onlookers from the ankles down. Ludvig scowled, but Emanuel laughed, delighted by the novelty of the moment.

The tense lines of his father's expression eventually relaxed, but he was not amused. “Soon we'll harness our own geyser. Then your energy will be put to better use.”

About the author

Dr. Togrul Bagirov – global energy security expert with the United Nations. Founder of the Baku Nobel Heritage Foundation. Knight of the Royal Order of Polar Star from Sweden. Knight of the Order of the Legion of Honor from France. Doctorate in political science and diplomacy, visiting professor. view profile

Published on December 23, 2019

90000 words

Worked with a Reedsy professional 🏆

Genre: Historical Fiction

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