Oil and the City



Three numbers make up a code, a code that stands for an address; if U2 knew of Aktau they would want to dedicate one of their greatest hits to this city, “where the streets have no name”. Built after oil was discovered around the Mangyshlak peninsula, west Kazhakstan, in the 1960s, Aktau has a deep and sticky relationship with this infamous energy source. It is a relationship that runs as deep as the subterranean estates from which the crude is extracted; it is a relationship that feels as sticky as the viscous oil underground; that strolls through the districts, blocks, and apartments that designate the city’s codes/addresses. One resident once told me that “oil created life from nothing” here, another that “if there wasn’t oil, there would be no Aktau”.

The city has changed much from the days when it was emblematic of the expansion of Soviet modernity into the “exotic” deserts of the south; when popular documentaries showed Slavic settlers encountering Kazakhs on camels. Its planners were awarded a prestigious international prize for having “humanised an unfit habitat”, as if they had landed on the moon. To create the conditions for life and oil extraction, the world-first dual-capacity nuclear reactor was installed here, to meet the city’s needs for water and electricity. What has not changed from those days is the ongoing building of the city as an unfinished project, as a space both at the margins and at the centre, as a patchwork of oil-fuelled socialism then and capitalism now.

And yet, oil’s presence in the city is invisible, paradoxically verging to the immaterial, as if its molecules slipped into the buildings that have been erected since the city’s foundation. A building material as much as plaster or cement, mixed up and seamlessly amalgamated in the city’s infrastructure. There are no oil wells or derricks around the city, planned as it was to be a hub for the region’s extractive hotspots, and a coordinative centre for the administration of extraction and the transportation of its valuable product. Still, oil makes itself felt, a dark spectre rambling around, a presence that escapes rationalisation; well beyond the few buildings displaying the names of oil companies in sturdy characters. An absent presence, invisible matter, distant closure: oil and the city.












  1. steven hermans 3 years ago

    Hi Maurizio, could you elaborate on how oil makes itself felt?

    I understand it escapes rationalisation, but could you try explaining? I did not understand what you meant by your final paragraph.

    • Maurizio Totaro 3 years ago

      Hi Steven. As mentioned in another comment what I tried to convey is an atmosphere by which it seems that oil is the “alfa and omega” of the city. What I meant by “escaping rationalization” is that oil inspires at times very contradictory feelings in the city’s inhabitants. For instance a middle-aged teacher told me that “oil has created life from nothing (pustogo mesto)” here, and that “oil has brought us prosperity with time”. However she immediately added that she felt that “as we continue to drill we are emptying the earth and emptying ourselves…that the earth will collapse one day and we with her”. I guess this is what I meant by “oil being felt”: the ambivalent feelings of gratefulness for what one has and, at the same time, the impression of its unsettling volatility; the feeling of being sustained by a ground that will eventually collapse under your feet.

      • Steven Hermans 3 years ago

        That’s a really good explanation, thank you!

        And also: totally agree!

  2. Evgenyi 3 years ago

    Hello, I citizen of Aktau. If you were in our city many time, you should know, that first off all, Aktau built as city for produciation of materilas for nuclear weapon. For example, uranium. Oil was second for. In beginning our city plans as just village for workers.

    • Maurizio Totaro 3 years ago

      Hi Evgenyi. Thanks for pointing out that the site of the city was initially an encampment for uranium miners, of which many were also forced labourers. I have been to Aktau quite a few times and I’ve learned that quite soon. However, I think that what today is Aktau would have never developed into a city if oil was not discovered. For instance, the development of the nuclear reactor B-350 was planned in order to provide electricity and water for the development of the oilfields. Only in the early 1960s, after oil was discovered, 50.000 workers moved to Mangystau with their families; during the whole 1960s the number was around 200.000. Now, it seems clear to me that urban development in the region is connected more to oil than uranium.

      • Evgenyi 3 years ago

        “it seems clear to me that urban development in the region is connected more to oil than uranium”

        well. our oil not so good as in Atyrau region (for examle, Tengiz oil field). little lesson of history. in USSR was Ministry of Medium Machine Building. His head’s name was Efym Pavlovych Slavskyi. He decided, that our region has uranium field. In real life there was
        little field of Uranium, but a lot of Paladiy.

        Нe ordered to built city in that point. His first name was Mahachkala-40. Second – Guriev-20. In 1963 he was named Aktau. In 1964 – Shevchenko. In 1991 – again Aktau.

        You should understand, that in begining there were only geologists in tents.
        Then here came the builders from Turkmenistan.

        Their first task was to build houses for those who lived in tents.

        That why buildings on your photos so boring. They built very fast as temporary housing.

        There was built 4 district, when there is only found oil in 1974. In that time already was a general development plan for Aktau. it was ordered by the Ministry, of Medium Machine Building, who produced paladiy in our region.

        • Maurizio Totaro 3 years ago

          I know that the quality of Mangystau oil is not as good as in other regions (very viscous and highly paraffinic) but, although it is not so good for lighter products such as gasoline it is still good for heavy oils and other stuff used in heavy industry and by the military. Also, what does 1974 refer to? I am pretty sure that the first oil gush in the region was in Zhetybay, 1961, and soon after in Uzen’. Am I wrong? Anyway, I am very interested in the history of the city and the region, and would be very happy if we could chat in person in Aktau. Can I write to you in private?

    • Maurizio Totaro 3 years ago

      Thanks for the details Evgenyi, I would be very interested to know more about the history of the city and if you liked we could meet in person in Aktau to have a chat. What does the 1974 date refer to? I am pretty sure that the first oil gush in Mangystau dates back to 1961 in Zhetybay and soon after in Uzen’. Anyway, I would really appreciate if we continued this conversation in person. Can I write to you in private?

  3. Anthony 3 years ago

    Hi, I’d like to start by saying that I visited Aktau in March, 2016 (in the hotel shown in your first picture actually) during my trip to Central Asia and would like to second what has been written by Evgenyi in that historically, uranium mines are what founded the dot we now find on today’s maps.

    My sentiment and expectations for Aktau are bullish, and clash to a certain extent with the photo’s you’ve published , which in my opinion paint a picture in which empathy ranks at the bottom of the food chain and resource curse comfortably sits on top, feasting on everything below. I agree- post-Soviet architecture/social spaces is/are fascinating for the many reasons that they are, however think its unfair that you’ve barred the readers of this blog and those who maybe have never heard of Aktau from receiving any positive exposure to the city (the only picture of the Caspian that you uploaded frontlines the industrial port and its storage tanks and loading docks).

    My two cents on the city are as follows: Aktau is undeniably commodity driven, however its refurbished transport network and vicinity to diversified export destinations (Iran, Azerbaijan, Russia, Turkmenistan), give Kazakhstan decent leverage in the real world. It is also capital of the Mangystau region, making it an attractive outlet for adventurers and spirit level enthusiasts (just joking, Google it if you don’t know what a spirit level is).

    During my stay I had the pleasure and honor of meeting an extremely welcoming brother and sister who kept me company during my stay. Both of whom extremely well versed in English, had relocated to Aktau to perform in industries (petro-driven) which required a skill-set compatible with any top-tier engineering role in the world. After sharing life stories over dinner in a newly built mall, it came to me that Aktau, however limited it may be compared to say Almaty, had bred perfectly normal ‘first world citizens’ and not denied them visits to Cinque Terre or New York.

    Aktau does try- you can see this in the few sea-side restaurants with chapters of western food to be served, or in the promenade style summer real estate development plans to be built.

    Maybe my crystal ball is slightly too visionary (and I’d like to say that my two day stay in Aktau was more than enough to visit the city and that its zombie-esque features are both an attraction and a distraction), however think it deserves a bit more smile than how you described it.

    PS: I do like your photo’s, 2,8,9 and 10 in particular.

    • steven hermans 3 years ago

      Nice comment! Agree with the adventure tourism. Not sure if Aqtau will be able to withstand climate change, though, both in terms of loss of purpose (no oil industry) and the terrible climate.

      One thing that hasn’t been mentioned is the Turkmen influence in the town. Although it is bigger in Zhanaozen and other places nearby, lots of Oralman Kazakhs from Turkmenistan have come since independence and this also has an interesting effect on the fabric of the city. They are a wild bunch.

      • Anthony 3 years ago

        Indeed! Although my time in Aktau was so short I wasn’t exposed to this.

    • Maurizio Totaro 3 years ago

      Hi, Anthony, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I want to say that my post was not intended to paint a gloomy picture of the city but only to express an atmosphere which I think somehow envelops it; I am sorry if it came across that way.

      I have been here much more than two days and, indeed, it is local friends who told me of how much oil is embedded in the very existence of the city; and I think this is quite plain to see to anyone visiting. What I’ve tried to convey is the city’s “existential fragility”, so to say.

      I don’t think I have never given any negative judgement of the city’s people as your comment implies; rather I must say that I find your statement on the city breeding “perfectly normal ‘first world citizens'” a bit problematic, as if the standard of normalcy is people in the “first world”, or at least people that have traveled to it. What about those that do not travel? Are they not “perfectly normal” according to your standards? Would your emphaty fade away if Aktau didn’t breed such kind of “normal people”?

      I feel much more emphaty arising from the understanding that our civilization is largely based on a commodity which creates unsustainable environments for human life in the long run. And I feel that the condition of uncertainty that arises from this understanding is my own, as much as of many of my friends in Aktau.

  4. Anthony 3 years ago

    Hey, thanks for getting back to me. Your reply to Steven’s comment above helps to clarify your intent in writing this piece, and generally I agree with what you’ve written in the comments and in your last paragraph in response to mine. Agreed that resource curse is truly a curse for anything that it latches on to.

    By mentioning ‘first world citizen’s I wasn’t trying to define ‘perfectly normal’ but to support my argument that Aktau can also be seen as a normal city. I’m sure that someone more acquainted with it (maybe even you yourself) could write about the other face of the coin of Aktau. I think other cities could have better matched what you described in your article, such as port cities in Congo or coal villages in Inner Mongolia (I understand that you wrote about Aktau as you have actually been there and have physical relationship with the city).

  5. Anthony 3 years ago

    Btw, you might find this documentary of interest to you and your field of study http://www.zalab.org/projects/i-sogni-del-lago-salato/

  6. Nicolas Legendre 3 years ago

    Hi Maurizio,

    I’m a French journalist and photographer passionate by Kazakhstan, where I’ve traveled several times. I’ve published articles about this country in National Geographic Traveler and Grands reportages.
    I’ll be in Aktau next week in order to start a long-term photo work dedicated to this city, its people and architecture, and also to make a story for the swiss newspaper Le Temps.
    The idea is to show why this city is both unusual, surrealistic and representative of some of the Kazakh carachteristics (economy, architecture, history, etc.).
    I read your article about this city on the Internet. Your words perfectly match with the impressions I felt when I came to Aktau for the first time, two years ago.
    Would you agree to discuss about this subject, and to express your analysis as a researcher ? It could be an interview via Skype or email, as you prefer.
    Anyway, I would be pleased to share opinions with a west-European observer who’s been there -we are not plenty !

    Thanks by advance,
    Best regards,

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