"I'm not sure it's such a good thing, living in a boom town. It's basically a high-end carny atmosphere."
The character who spoke this line in a short story by Thomas McGuane called "Gallatin Canyon" was speaking about Four Corners, Montana. But I think the quote applies to Baku as well.
I have been thinking a lot about boomtowns lately. Everyone should live in one at least once in their lives to truly understand the pros and cons of rule of law, corruption, power politics and filth. All this irrelevant thinking was inspired by my latest television obsession: Deadwood (Hart to Hart was so totally last week. Move on, alright?).
If you have ever lived in a boomtown, and/or like to use the word "cocksucker" as a noun, verb or adjective, I highly recommend this HBO program. It's outstanding. I think the character development is as good as any other on television (as good as Six Feet Under, which I think is the gold standard). The dialog is arcane and complex yet flows from the lips of its flawed characters like words in a Shakespeare play. Indeed, some has been written in Iambic pentameter. And, the word "fuck" was used 43 times in the first hour-long episode.
It hadn't really occurred to me to draw the Baku/Deadwood connection. But, after describing the show to Carpetblog's Bekaa Valley Correspondent as "unlikeable people living in a dirty place," she responded, "sort of like Baku." And like on so many other things, CBVC is right!
Thematically, the show explores the development of law, business, media and politics in a 1870s gold mining camp that's no longer in Indian territory but has not yet been absorbed by the expanding United States. Just like Baku, and everywhere else where people who have nothing left to lose go to lose it, Deadwood has attracted all manner of liars, thieves, spies, criminals and fortune seekers.
Just like in Baku, justice and law are meted out by competing bands of warlords who fight to control the lucrative businesses of whores, liquor and opium (though in Baku it's probably guns or heroin). They also ensure a cut of the wealth that come out of the ground is tithed. Violence is the primary means of resolving disputes and advancing personal power.
In Deadwood and Baku alike, the only thing that's worth less than human life is the dignity of women. Yet still, even among the powerless, shifting alliances and petty corruption create social dynamics that mimic those of the rulers. Someone is always positioning himself to fill a power vacuum and one's ability to stake out the opposite position as one held the day before, or create a new, more effective alliance, contributes greatly to one's ability to advance in society.
Just like in Baku, you can do anything you want in Deadwood as long as your vices don't threaten the established interests of the ruling clan. To the degree your vices enrich the ruling clan, they will be encouraged.
Everyone in a boomtown agrees, in theory, that an independent adjudicator to impose order would make business less risky and improve community life, but no one is willing to make the concessions necessary to make the rule of law function like it's meant to. In fact, the establishment of a Sheriff in Deadwood sets of a scramble among the ruling clans to control it. No "good guy" himself, Bullock (Deadwood's first sheriff) reluctantly took over only to find himself co-opted by the ruling regime. He deluded himself about the degree of his independence. He made changes on the margins, which is about all anyone with a shred of integity can hope for in a boomtown. The ruling clans maintain enough control over enforcement mechanisms that their power is never really jeopardized. The law exists only as a mechanism to advance their interests and thwart their opponents'. Baku's really not that advanced yet -- there's no law enforcement mechanism that even pretends to operate according to any principle other than greed and power and each power base has a loyal militia.
Deadwood has media too, and like law enforcement, it is a pawn in the chess game between the competing economic interests. The editor of the Deadwood Pioneer, whose integrity is under constant challenge, makes the concessions he need to, but, like the sheriff any sense of "freedom" he enjoys is at the margins. He is free to print the sports scores, but he doesn't even think about covering the serial killer in their midst who is also a lord of the ruling clan.
But pretty much the biggest parallel between Baku and Deadwood is the social life. Other than drinkin' and whorin' there's not a lot to do in either place. Baku has all kinds of bars, as long as they are English, Irish, and Scottish, and any local woman out past 9 p.m. is likely to be a whore. Cognoscenti know that, with startling few exceptions, any bar that requires a descent of more than five steps doubles as a bordello. Notably, most that sit at ground level do as well. Of course, Deadwood is better because you can gamble, which you can't do in Baku. Heydar Aliyev banned it. The rumor is that Ilham had a, er, problem in that regard.
I wish I'd seen Deadwood before I went to Baku. Maybe another day I'll write a post on how watching the Godfather taught me all I needed to know about clan politics in Azerbaijan