“Nothing but sky and the barren ground”

Two teasers for a start. A new hotel on the outskirts of Moscow:

It is even further out of town and stands next to an enormous strip club. Several of my fellow guests are wearing T-shirts with a picture of a Kalashnikov and the slogan ‘Remember Bataclan’ printed on them. In my room, along with the Do Not Disturb notice, is a leaflet that forbids me to have sex with children in the hotel.

Over to the steppes of Kazakhstan, to a “facility” run by a global oilfield services company:

The sodium lamps around the perimeter are fizzing into life. It isn’t just the panopticon-style design of the building, the orange jumpsuits and the extremely tight security that convey the sense of having entered a penal colony. I realise that the sour-sweet odour of disinfectant mixed with the product of hundreds of men living and working in close proximity… is identical to the whiff of a British category B dispersal prison.

The story is an account of a corporate investigation. The author works for an oil services provider, an international operation with the headquarters “in Texas” – in Houston, apparently. XCorp is a “massive state-owned energy conglomerate whose interests span the whole region” – the state in question being Russia, apparently – and a “notoriously vindictive customer.” It shouldn’t be hard to figure out the companies’ identities – there aren’t so many global OFS companies or ex-Soviet energy conglomerates – but I haven’t tried yet.

The company… has won a lucrative contract with XCorp for a large range of drilling services. As part of that contract we have agreed to supply XCorp with the highest quality branded drilling chemicals… XCorp has discovered that, instead, we have been supplying low-grade versions that do not remotely match the specifications of the contracted substances. It gets worse, though, because it looks like we have also been using fake labels in an attempt to disguise the misconduct.

It turned out that the fraud was driven by fear, not greed. The Moscow chief ordered the company’s men at the facility to supply the chemicals under the contract without using “premium-grade, branded chemicals.” That was humanly impossible but the men feared their boss more than anything else, so they tried to dupe the customer. It’s an extremely disturbing tale at the human level, more depressing than the barren steppe northeast of the Caspian Sea.

At the technical level, it would be interesting to find out how much inferior the cheaper, Russian-made chemicals turned out, whether the difference was measurable, and whether the measured result justified the premium price. (Difficult or impossible to measure doesn’t mean non-existent, of course.) We may not find out until/unless the US government further restricts American companies from dealing with Russian oil producers.

On a side note, the Oral mentioned in the story is the Kazakh name (“o-RAHL”) of the city in the northwest of the county, close to the Russian border. It’s probably derived from its Russian name, Uralsk (“oo-RAHLSK”), which dates back to 1775. Of course Urals is the name of the mountain range and the crude export blend, and the Ural is the name of the river flowing through the city. But there’s more to the name. Founded by Russian Cossacks in the 16th or 17th century, the town was known as Yaitsky Gorodok (“Yaik Townlet”) and the river as the Yaik (“yah-eek”) until 1775. In Turkic languages, the name of the river has always been close to Yaik – Yayıq in Bashkir and Jayıq in Kazakh (to use a Turkish-style Romanization). It is said to be one of the oldest Turkic hydronyms ever, and Yayık (Cayık, Jayık Khan) is an ancient Turkic river deity.

The name of the river was changed, unusually even for Russia, by imperial decree. In 1775, Catherine II – the Great – was dealing with the aftermath of the Pugachev rebellion, which had started in 1773 as a mutiny of the Yaik Cossacks. She ordered the very name, Yaik, to be expunged from the maps, so the river Yaik became the Ural, the Yaitsky Gorodok became Uralsk, and the Yaik Cossacks were renamed the Ural Cossacks.

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