Monday, 13 May, 2024

Farman Salmanov: How an Azerbaijani saved Russia by discovering oil

As Russia faces unprecedented sanctions, the oil and gas sector continues to provide the country with stable income. But few people know of the man who discovered the largest deposits of black gold in Siberia in 1961.

Farman Gurban oglu Salmanov was born in 1928 in the mountainous village of Morul in the Shamkir district of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic. He was forced to grow up quickly, as the arrest of his father in 1937 meant he had to support his mother in the upbringing of his three younger siblings.

Both his childhood environment and his family inspired his love for the earth. The bare slopes of the mountains around his village predisposed him to study different ground layers and rocks, and so little Farman fell in love with geology at a young age. His grandfather, Suleiman Nagdy oglu Salmanov, instilled in him a great interest in Siberia.

Suleiman had been sentenced to 20 years of exile in 1888 during the Russian Empire. While in exile in Siberia, he took part in the 1905 Russo-Japanese war and was released from exile for his bravery. Afterwards, he married Russian Siberian Olga Josephovna, who took a Muslim name, Firuza, and returned to his homeland. As Farman Salmanov recalled later, his grandfather's stories of Siberia instilled in him a longing for those distant lands which he could only imagine.

Another person who had a great influence on Farman's choice of vocation was the Soviet Minister of Oil Industry, Nikolai Konstantinovich Baybakov. In an interview with Natalia Lebedeva for Rossiyskaya Gazeta, Farman Gurban oglu said:

"When I was in eighth grade, Nikolai Baibakov, the USSR Oil Industry Minister, came to Shamkir. I spoke Russian slightly better than my peers, so I was instructed to tell the distinguished guest about the school.

“At the end of the meeting, he turned around and asked me what I wanted to be. I answered, ‘An oil worker.’ He praised my choice and said: ‘Oil is the future of our country.’ That meeting was fateful. When after the institute, I was sent to work in Baku, I wrote a letter to Baibakov with a request to be transferred to Siberia. As a result, I was summoned to Moscow, and from there I was sent to Kuzbass and even was given money for a ticket."

After graduating from high school in 1947, he enrolled at the Geological Exploration Department of the Azerbaijan Industrial Institute in 1949, majoring in Mining Engineering and Geology. After graduating from university in 1954, he was sent to search for oil in Kuzbass against his wishes. Kuzbass was in southwestern Siberia, and Farman had completed his internship and wrote his diploma thesis about oil in northern Siberia. At the time, no one in the country's leadership believed that oil could be found in Siberia — despite academics and scientists who thought otherwise — and Farman Salmanov's research was viewed with scepticism.

From 1955 to 1957, Salmanov worked as head of the Plotnikovskaya and Gryaznenskaya oil and gas exploration expeditions in the Kemerovo and Novosibirsk regions. Still, he had always had his heart set on the north.

In his spare time, he would go there and examine places for possible exploration. Eventually, he requested that his superiors send at least one expedition — led by himself — to the part of Western Siberia adjacent to the Ob River, especially since the search for oil in Kuzbass proved inconclusive. But none of his promises to find oil could convince his management.

Then, Farman Salmanov decided to take a risk. In 1957, he secretly gathered 20 families of volunteers from his subordinates. Together, they loaded a drilling rig, their dismantled houses, two tractors, and camping bunks onto barges, and on August 18, a caravan of seven barges set sail down the Tom River from the wharf in the village of Ivanovka in the Kemerovo region.

The volunteers had a long way to the north, to Surgut. Their departure also carried risk, as it could be regarded as an unauthorised escape from their work, so they were unsure what awaited them.

Salmanov ordered the radio operator to cut off communication so that his superiors would not find out that they had sailed away and would not turn them back.

But such steps did not bode well for the 26-year-old geologist: a criminal case was brought against him, and the government wanted to expel him from the party, but the team that came with him stood up for their leader.

They wrote a collective letter and threatened the leadership with a collective strike, as a result of which the issue was closed. The authorities then decided not to create a scandal, and in the summer of 1958, they made the decision to relocate the expedition from Kuzbass to Surgut. Later, Farman Kurban oglu recalled:

"A lot of fuss was made since we cut off communication. They wanted to remove me from my post. But in the end, I was allowed to stay."

And so, in 1958, Salmanov headed the Surgut oil exploratory expedition. At the beginning of the year, there were already several seismic crews working in the Surgut region. In 1959, they were reassigned to the Tyumen region.

Despite the many difficulties and problems they faced, the workers continued their drilling efforts in Yuganskoye, Surgutskaya, and Ermakovskaya in the early 1960s. They also tested the Megionskaya area. Salmanov's team disregarded the doubts of sceptics, sure that oil would be found any day.

Then, in 1961, it finally happened. His team struck oil at the well in Megion. Here is how Salmanov himself recalled this event:

"And on March 21, 1961, on my favourite Azeri holiday – Novruz Bayram [Nowruz] — the first well near the village of Megion gushed oil. I was jumping and shouting: ‘We won!’”

Salmanov sent to all the sceptics who had written on the impossibility of finding oil in Western Siberia the same letter: "In Megion, an oil fountain with a flow rate of 200 tons was obtained. Is this clear to you? Regards, Salmanov."

Opponents called it a natural anomaly, suggesting that the basin would run out within a couple of weeks. But at that time, Farman Gurban oglu also found oil in the area of Ust-Balyk, which finally confirmed his predictions — they were standing on a huge oil field.

After the Ust-Balyk well blew a fountain, Salmanov sent a radiogram to his bosses saying "the well is producing according to all rules." The boldest telegram was sent to General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev, saying "I found oil. That's it, Salmanov."

That is how the West Siberian Basin, the largest oil and gas-bearing basin in the world, was discovered. It was the oil and gas from this basin that for many years formed a significant part of the economy of the USSR and later, of Russia.

Today, Western Siberia produces 70 percent of Russia's oil, the most important resource for the country's economy. Salmanov compared the discovery of Siberian oil to Yuri Gagarin's flight into space.

Farman Salmanov devoted 50 years of his life to the oil and gas industry of the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation, having discovered or taken part in the discovery of over 100 giant oil and gas fields. These major fields include Mamontovskoye, Megionskoye, Pravdinskoye, Ust-Balykskoye, Surgutskoye, Urengoyskoye, Yamburgskoye, among others.

From 1978 to 1987, Salmanov was the head of the geological department at the Tyumen Regional Department of Oil and Gas Exploration. From 1987 to 1991, he was the First Deputy Minister of Geology of the USSR. According to him, he was forced to resign because he refused to participate in the privatisation of the ministry's enterprises.

After the collapse of the USSR, he was involved in oil and gas exploration in the Republic of Kalmykia. Until his death, he worked as an adviser to the president of the Russian gas company Itera.

Farman Salmanov was also a Doctor of Geological and Mineralogical Sciences, Corresponding Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and the author of more than 160 monographs and scientific works. He was elected an honorary citizen of Khanty-Mansiysk and Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrugs, the city of Surgut, and the state of Texas.

He died on March 31 2007, in Moscow, where he was buried.

Farman Gurban oglu Salmanov contributed immeasurably to the development of Northwestern Siberia, having founded cities such as Nizhnevartovsk and bringing prosperity to pre-existing settlements in Surgut and Megion.

Since May 2019, the Russian airport in Surgut has been named after him, as part of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decree on "naming airports after persons who have rendered special services to the homeland.”

The decree was based on the results of a vote on naming almost 50 airports names of outstanding people from the list of the “Great Names of Russia.” The candidacy of Farman Salmanov, who won in Surgut, received almost 60 percent of the votes.

On July 9, 2019, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev signed a decree on the perpetuation of the memory of Farman Salmanov. Also, according to the decree, a "Farman Salmanov scholarship" was established for two particularly gifted students at the Azerbaijan State University of Oil and Industry.

According to the order of the President, it was also decided to erect a monument to Farman Salmanov in Shamkir and to name the school in the Shamkir district, where Farman Salmanov had studied, after him.

The events of Farman Salmanov's life and personality became the basis for the feature film "Risk Strategy," shot in 1978, and the image of its main character — Farid Asgarov.

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