Stalin Wanted To ‘Drain’ Caspian Sea But Was Talked Out Of It – OpEd


In 1952, shortly before his death, Joseph Stalin came up with the idea of “draining” the Caspian Sea so as to be able to get to the oil and gas resources on its bed; but he was dissuaded from trying by water specialists who pointed out that redirecting the Volga, Terek and Kura rivers would be insufficient and that Moscow didn’t have enough pumps.

This week, the Tolkovatel portal offers a glimpse into this intriguing story by drawing on the comments of Nikolay Baybakov, onetime Soviet oil minister and Gosplan director, and KGB head Ivan Serov in memoirs that were published by Prosveshechniye last year (зачем-сталин-хотел-осушить-каспийско/).

They are intriguing both as an example of the way in which Stalin was on occasion at least dissuaded from doing something he thought he wanted to do by experts who pointed out the obstacles and costs and as an indication that in that regard he was less willful than some of his successors who became backers of the ill-fated but much-discussed Siberian river diversion plan.

The idea of draining the Caspian to get at the oil on its seabed arose almost as soon as oil was discovered there, with companies and officials working to reclaim for the land small portions of the sea already at the end of the 19th century and making plans for a bigger “draining” operation in 1909-1912.

Those plans were never realized because of the revolutionary turmoil, although in 1927, some 300 hectares were reclaimed from the Caspian Sea and rapidly filled with oil wells. Such small efforts might have continued, but the launch of the first Soviet oil drilling platform in the Caspian in 1949 changed the thinking of some in Moscow.

That platform proved so expensive and could be used only in shallow water that Soviet planners began to consider more radical solutions. One of these involved “draining” the entire sea so that the Soviet Union could get more oil given that the Western Siberian fields had not yet come on line. Ivan Serov describes what happened in 1952 in his recently published memoirs.

At that time, Serov was deputy minister of state security and curator of the Volga-Don canal construction project. His deputy told him that Stalin had called him to come with a map of the Caspian to discuss the future of the sea. On his return, the deputy said that Stalin had ordered the preparation of plans to “drain” the Caspian Sea.

“I looked at him with surprise,” Sergov says, “but he looked at me seriously.” His deputy said he had told Stalin that this was “possible” but that he would have to “calculate” how much it would cost. He noted that Stalin had dismissed Mikoyan’s objections that this would cost the Soviet Union hard currency from caviar exports. Stalin said that was irrelevant: “’we need oil.’”

Soviet government exports got to work, calculated the enormous cost of diverting or damming the rivers feeding the Caspian, and recognized that even if that step were taken, there weren’t enough pumps in the USSR at that time to drain the remaining water from the bottom of the sea.

They reported this to Stalin who said that clearly it wasn’t an idea whose time had come. Everyone supported that, and Serov says that he “thought to himself: ‘Thank God that he didn’t decide to drain the sea.’”

Paul Goble

Paul Goble is a longtime specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia. Most recently, he was director of research and publications at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. Earlier, he served as vice dean for the social sciences and humanities at Audentes University in Tallinn and a senior research associate at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia. He has served in various capacities in the U.S. State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the International Broadcasting Bureau as well as at the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Mr. Goble maintains the Window on Eurasia blog and can be contacted directly at [email protected] .

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