When referring to the early Russian oil industry, one almost always hears the names of the fields located in the southern Absheron Peninsula, in Azerbaijan. Rarely does one hear about the oil heritage of the northern Russian lands close to the basin of the Izhma-Pechora River.
Medieval Russian sources mention on the primitive production of oil on the territory of the Muscovite state. The Dvina Chronicle (15th century) states that the tribe of the Chudes, living on the banks of the Ukhta River, collected oil from the river surface and used it for various household purposes.
In 1692, the book “Noord Oost en Tartarye” (North and East Tataria), published in Amsterdam by Nicolaes Witsen, reported, “The Ukhta River is a day away from the village of Pechora ... On this river is a small spot where oil, that is black petroleum, separates from the water.”
In 1745, in the area of Ukhta (today’s Republic of Komi), there were some shallow hand-dug shafts and Fedor S. Pryadunov’s small distillery, which produced lamp fuels for the locals until the 1870s.
The first reliable geological map of that area was prepared in 1846 by Graf Alexander A. Keyserling, who in his “Scientific Observations on a Trip to the Pechora Region in 1843,” wrote numerous references on Ukhta petroleum – but these northern territories started to be systematically explored by scientists only after establishment of the Geological Committee of Russia in 1882.
Keyserling’s references did not remain just in the closed circle of academy, but also fostered the intervention of some outsider entrepreneurs, like Mikhail K. Sidorov (1823-87), the pioneer in oil explorations in the Russian north.
Sidorov’s crew started to dig in the summer of 1868, using the spring pool system with a set of eight-inch pyramidal bits and driving pipes – but he had to quit in 1871 due to lack of results. He was able to resume the operations in June 1872, this time equipped with a Pennsylvanian cable tool system, fabricated in St. Petersburg, and supported by the counseling of the German geologist Hans von Höfer, later a professor at the Mining Academy and author of the 1888 textbook “Das Erdöl und seine Verwandten” (Petroleum and Its Relatives), that was the most important technical contribution on oil written in Europe in the 19th century.
Oil was found for the first time in good quantity in September 1872 at 173 feet, and began the legacy of oil in North Russia.
An Easy Choice?
In 1883, the financial oil corporation “Neft” was established in St. Petersburg. It was the first wholly Russian company with an internal vertical structure, committed in exploration, production, storage, refining and trading to invest large capitals in the Ukhta region, while the focus on the powerful foreigner competitors (e.g. the groups led by the families Nobels, Rothschilds and Vishau) was pointed exclusively in Azerbaijan.
In the 19o0s, oil wildcatters and speculators around Ukhta gradually were replaced by systematic operations based on geological surveys and topographic maps. This new wave of modernity in the Russian oil was heavily hampered by the 1917 socialist revolution and the Civil War that followed in 1918-23.
The nation’s economy already was in a critical situation before World War I – but in the early 1920s, following these social and political events, the system was seriously compromised.
Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin decided to put oil on the top of the Russian economic agenda. Europe was deeply wounded by the war in which mechanization – on the ground, sea and in the sky – proved to be decisive.
The idea of the modern mechanized and oil-fueled western society took shape right after World War I. Lenin wanted gas for Russia; he also sought to supply Europe and get a good payback to stimulate the Russian economy. He tried quickly to set in motion oil production in the Pechora basin: despite the precepts of the new Russian political model, in 1921 he invited major U.S. oil companies to operate in the oil regions of Baku, Grozny, Emba and Ukhta.
Few companies accepted the gamble, however, instead setting their activities around Baku. Even fewer obtained satisfactory results. Ukhta was completely neglected by the foreign investors, most probably due to the area’s precarious logistics.
After Stalin took power in 1927, the Russian repression and demands for oil found a common denominator in the almost unproductive Ukhta fields.
In 1928 the deputy director of the Russian Geological Committee and general supervisor for mining operations in the USSR, Nickolay N. Tikhonovich (1872-1952) – who in 1908 had led the great geological exploration of the Russian Sakhalin Island, resulting in many oil site discoveries – was arrested under accusation of being a dissident of the regime, and sentenced to death.
But, he was given a choice: the firing squad or finding oil.
Taking the second option, Tikhonovich received 10 years of forced labor and the directorship of the new Ukhta oil project. The Tikhonovich expedition in the Pechora region – composed of 195 people, of whom 139 were political prisoners – began in August 1929 under the strict control of the Joint State Political Directorate.
The whole operation was directed from the Ukhta-Pechora Camp (Ukhtpechlag), located in the Chibyu village (renamed Ukhta in 1939).
Within a few months Tikhonovich located and drilled the well Chibyu #5 in the top layer of the Lower Frasnian beds – which yielded just 30 barrels daily.
‘Brothers in Oil’
The harsh weather and the scarcity of supplies would have discouraged many workers from accepting work in those inhospitable lands, but the “Ukhtpechlag” labor camp never experienced lack of personnel because many people considered “enemies of the state” were arrested and taken to forced labor camps.
During the 1930s, “Ukhtpechlag” confined about 54,000 prisoners. Among them was the geologist Ivan N. Strizhov (1872–1953), former senior director for the oil industry sector at the Supreme Council for the National Economy, imprisoned in 1929.
Strizhov, who between 1927 and 1928 visited and studied many U.S. refineries (he published his research in the book “Amerikanskiye nefteperegonnyye zavody,” or American Refineries), was ordered to work with the wary Tikhonovich, who was reluctant to accept his collaboration.
Initially there were many contrasts and disagreements between the two, but they soon became “brothers in oil” and made an effective team.
After some fruitless speculations, Strizhov focused on the thesis proposed a decade earlier by the U.S. oil geologist J.L. Rich on the correlation between moving underground water and oil migration. This study (a great example of knowledge transfer despite politics) suggested that the combinations of porous and impermeable layers with anticlines could be the key to find oil in the southern Timan formation, on the west slope of the Urals chain.
It was therefore decided to direct the drill chisels down the southern Timan and the Seregovsk anticlines; just 12 days later Stizhov and Tiknonovich reached the great deposit then named “Chibyu.”
The entire field seemed immediately promising, and already in 1932 Tikhonovich detected the existence of many larger deposits in the immediate vicinity of the area.
In 1933, Tikhonovich transmitted the definitive geological report of the Ukhtapechlag to the USSR State Planning Committee. The production, started in the same year, increased at an exponential rate in the following years; regional demand was fully satisfied in a short time, and Ukhta oil thus was marketed in central Russia and northern Europe.
Still in the mid-1950s, the numerous oil fields surrounding the old Ukhtapechlag yielded about 360,000 barrels per day; in 1957, the last well pumping oil from the Chibyu deposit was declared officially not profitable and was capped.
The 1932 Ukhta oil discovery was significant both in terms of productivity and for the human and scientific commitment of its protagonists – it helped Russia to become second in the global rank of oil producing countries, preceded only by the United States, right when the country was experiencing a deep shortage of oil geologists.
The ratio of oil geologists/barrels produced between the two competitors was almost 1:9, which meant that each Russian oil geologist was expected to produce up to nine times as much oil as each U.S. oil geologist.
This is an example of the huge workload and stress that Russian oil professionals typically experienced.
Tikhonovich and Strizhov were released from forced labor when Ukhtapechlag was reorganized in 1938, then they could came back in Moscow in 1939 to work on the Russian oil geology.