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Nikolai Baibakov: Stalin's oil commissar

If ever there was a round peg in a Soviet round hole, it was Nikolai Baibakov, who served as commissar for the oil industry under Joseph Stalin and was later in charge of general economic planning in the Soviet Union. He was born in 1911 in Sabunchi, near the Caspian city of Baku, the original source of the oil that has sustained so much of the Russian economy for a century, the place where Alfred Nobel and the Yusupovs became even richer, and Stalin's own proving ground as an apprentice revolutionary in 1905.

As the son of an oil worker, with no social or political obstacles to overcome, Baibakov entered the Azerbaijan Oil and Chemistry Institute and, after graduating as a mining engineer in 1931, went straight into the oil industry. Following two years of military service, in 1937 he was put in charge of an oilfield production department, soon became chief engineer, then general manager, and from then on his life "ran on oil", as the Russian saying goes.

The Great Patriotic War – i.e. the Second World War – tested Baibakov's technical and personal skills to the limit. In July 1942, having been absorbed into the central oil management of the Soviet Union and by now deputy oil minister, he was summoned by Stalin. Relating this frequently cited, if rare, anecdote about himself in 1998, he recalled that the German army was making rapid headway towards the Soviet Union's oilfields in the Caucasus, and that Stalin asked him if there was any way of preventing this crucially strategic prize from falling into Fascist hands, while maintaining supplies to the Red Army.

Baibakov replied that the only way was to dismantle the essential equipment and transport it eastwards, continue to pump and distribute fuel to the front until the last minute, and only then to destroy the Caucasian oilfields.

Such an audacious plan appealed to Stalin's Bolshevik mentality and he approved it, with the encouraging and – characteristic – remark: "If you don't stop the Germans getting our oil, you will be shot, and when we have thrown the invader out, if we cannot restart production we will shoot you again." Baibakov fulfilled his mission, destroying oil installations as the Germans advanced, and when Stalin made him minister of the oil industry two years later, he commented that Baibakov must have nerves of steel.

By 1946 Soviet oil production was back to pre-war levels, and in recognition of his experience and success as an economics minister, Baibakov was twice put in charge of the Soviet general planning mechanism, Gosplan, in 1955-57 and 1965-85. Under his chairmanship, the Soviet Union expanded its industrial output five-fold and built thousands of five-story apartment buildings.

Central state planning of the whole economy was of course known to be flawed, and a distorted mirror of the real economy, even during the period of "stagnation" under Brezhnev, when those who knew the true facts were actively discouraged from bringing them to the leader's attention. Even Baibakov made efforts to open the eyes of the Politburo at various times. Identified by Khrushchev as an adversary who would not accept the criticism levelled against Stalin's memory in 1956, Baibakov was shoved "outside the tent" until Brezhnev took over at the end of 1964, at which time he was reinstated at Gosplan.

Under Brezhnev, ministers and high state officials came to appreciate the calmer life that replaced Khrushchev's more radical, unsettling ways, and Baibakov shared this feeling.

An unreconstructed Stalinist to the end of his long life, despite the evidence of archives and memoirs and the media, he refused to accept Khrushchev's charges against Stalin, acknowledging only that while there may have been "some isolated incidents of repression" Khrushchev's accusations were false and made only in order to increase his own authority as a leader. It is, however, noteworthy that when he needed large supplies of labour in the 1950s, his demands were satisfied by Lavrenti Beria, Stalin's secret police chief, who had all the slave labour required at the time. And he also conceded that Beria had had some of his oil officials shot.

Predictably, Baibakov was congenitally incapable of falling in line with the new thinking that ushered in glasnost and perestroika, the Scylla and Charybdis that would in a few short years send the old system, and with it the unity of the Soviet Union itself, into terminal turbulence.

With the arrival in power of Gorbachev and his generation in 1985, Baibakov was removed from high office, and although he was never publicly disgraced or dishonoured – nor was he condemned to live out his days playing dominoes, like that other relic of High Stalinism Lazar Kaganovich, who died at 98, nor totally cold-shouldered, like that relic of Lenin's and Stalin's years Vyacheslav Molotov, who died at 96 – Baibakov had to satisfy his appetite for status with purely figurehead jobs, such as president of the board of trustees of the Gubkin Russian State University of Oil and Gas, and chairman of the All-Russian Association of Drilling and Service Contractors.

The last living commissar who had served under Stalin, Baibakov was possibly also the last surviving delegate at the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party, where Stalin's image was besmirched. He never reconciled himself to the reforms of the post-Soviet years, though he did remark, when Putin came to power, that he foresaw a return of the role of the state in the economy and a steady, if slow, improvement.

Harry Shukman

Nikolai Konstantinovich Baibakov, government official: born Sabunchi, Russian Empire 6 March 1911; Deputy People's Commissar, then People's Commissar of the Oil Industry, Soviet Union 1946-48; Minister of the Petroleum Industry 1948-55; Member, Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union 1952-61, 1966; chairman, Gosplan (State Planning Committee) 1955-57, 1965-1985, chairman, Gosplan State Committee for the Petroleum Industry 1963-65; Deputy Chairman, Council of Ministers 1965-85; married (one son, one daughter); died Moscow 31 March 2008.