by Maurizio Totaro, PhD candidate at the Department of Conflict and Development Studies, Ghent University
In early January, a few days after my arrival in Astana, I was strolling on the frozen side-walks of the city, taking advantage of the unusually warm sun mitigating the harsh wintry temperature. As I walked, a large filling station caught my attention; the light-blue platform above the station’s forecourt exhibited the logo of a “premium” fuel retailing company: a knight holding a banner, encircled by a radiant sun reminiscent of the national flag. This is the logo of “Nomadoil”, an expression of how identity and culture, through advertisement and branding, become targets to instigate the consumption of “national oil”, whilst obscuring the transnational relations that produce the invisible commodity, stored in fuel tanks underground. A billboard hanged above every fuel dispenser showing a young boy on a horse, his face turned towards the public, his back before a wide and green prairie on which the company’s invitation read “Move around with us!” (stranstvuy s nami). Whilst the rumbling, metallic, four-wheel horses rested and were refuelled, some of their drivers entered this modern version of a caravansary for fast-food and drinks.
The linkage between oil’s material properties and national culture is far from being circumscribed to Kazakhstan. Rather, states and companies around the world use affectively charged symbols and signs in order to embed oil into the mundane significations and everyday workings of its assemblage – from extraction to consumption – producing affects such as pride and emotional attachment. For instance Douglas Rogers has shown how, in Russia, the regional government of Perm’ and Lukoil’s local division linked oil’s “depth” to the deepness of regional culture, to the point that what it means living in the region is increasingly understood in terms of what lays under its soil. Similarly, as described by Andrew Apter, in the extravaganza of a large festival in early post-colonial Nigeria it was the “blackness” of oil that linked the renaissance of African culture to the material boom in oil production.
In Kazakhstan, especially among the emerging middle classes, it is oil’s power to enable mobility and independence which arouses the imagination. During my stays in the country I have often heard that the dynamism and independence that once allegedly characterised Kazakh nomadic culture are today one of the factors that explain the success of the country when compared with its post-Soviet neighbours. Nomadoil seems to have captured this perception and linked it, through advertisement, to the material substance which has fuelled the country’s economic boom in the 2000s. Indeed, in both libidinal and material production oil has been linked to the country’s independence since its early days; so much that with the drop of oil prices many have started to talk of the country being dangerously “addicted” to it.
Whilst consumers in the Kazakhstani capital are generally detached from the everyday extraction of oil and the production of its derivatives, for people in the western regions of the country oil is a presence evident in the environment as much as in their work. The Adai – the Kazakh clan that makes up the majority of the population in the oil regions of Mangystau and Atyrau – have a proverb: “God is in the sky, oil is underground, Adai are in the middle” (aspanda–Quday, jerdiñ astında–munay, ortasında–Aday). Here too oil has been produced discursively as a “magical substance” as when, in September 2016, the fifty-fifth anniversary of the first oil gush in Mangystau was celebrated in the oil-town of Zhetybay. During his concluding remarks the region’s akim proudly described that day of the early sixties as a “unique event in the spiritual and socio-political life” of the region’s people (nepovtorimoye yavleniye v dukhovnoy i politiko-sotsial’noy zhizni), inaugurating the awakening of “Mangystau the Sleeping Beauty” (spyashchaya krasavitsa), whose countless riches had been finally opened to the world.
Indeed, the finding of oil dramatically transformed Mangystau’s landscape and people – and continues to affect them today. One resident of Aktau, the regional capital and Kazakhstan’s only all-year operating port, once told me that “oil created life from nothing” here, another that “if there wasn’t oil, there would be no Aktau”. And yet, oil 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. And yet oil makes itself felt: a dark spectre rambling around, an affective atmosphere; well beyond the few buildings displaying the names of oil companies in sturdy characters.
In the century prior to the discovery of oil, the Adai had been first considered the “most savage of all Kazakh tribes” by the Russian colonial apparatus, and then as “bandits” by the Soviets in the 1930s, when they fiercely reacted to collectivisation and sedentarisation. However, they prefer to consider themselves as “warriors”. And yet, a special kind of warriors; as an oil worker in Zhanaozen told me: “In the past we used to fight against Russians and Turkmens, now we fight against nature”; another proudly remarked: “We were warriors, we are now oilmen”. The identity of oil-warriors is indeed a powerful tool in glueing the labour movement in the region, although it can be easily turned against workers to trivialise their demands. This was the case after the police brutally repressed a long-lasting strike in the oil-town of Zhanaozen in 2011, killing at least sixteen. In the months that followed, the strike was linked to Adai identity and their “notoriously riotous character”.
But there is another way in which oil extraction is experienced, one that is not reducible to representative identifications but is rather felt directly on the body. These are the effects that solvents and other chemical additives used in the industry have on the workers; or the effects of the extreme cold in winters and hot in summers in the fields; or the accidents that debilitate their movements. Or even more, the embodied memories of the strike as expressed by a scar, a lame leg, a missing eye that, together with the tears that commemorate the dead, draw these workers’ and their families’ existential territory. A territory of the senses, not of the imagination.