Graeme Wood


Two Eras End

If the phrase “Soviet commissar” has a vaguely old-fashioned ring — like “icebox,” “suffragette,” or “antimacassar” — then “Ottoman foot-soldier” has a near-ancient one. The two deaths this week consign both categories to history, and give an occasion for reflection on the passing of two eras.

Baibakov is one of the very last people to have had Stalin wag a finger at him, and die of natural causes. According to Baibakov, Stalin promised to shoot him in the temple if the Germans took the Baku oilfields, and then to shoot his rotting corpse a second time if oil production didn’t resume promptly after the Soviets took the fields back. Baibakov survived the war and continued to be a giant of the Soviet oil and gas industry until Gorbachev sacked him in the mid-1980s. There is little else one can say about Baibakov and what he represented, except that one no longer need fear running into a willing high-level servant of Joseph Stalin.

The saga of Satar is perhaps less dramatic, and his passing a sign of something lost that we could use today. Satar’s career in the Ottoman army wasn’t distinguished: he was one of the pasha’s grunts, and the British captured him at the Second Battle of Kut, the southern Iraqi city now in Shiite hands. Centenarians are probably all too old to give any useful advice on military affairs, but if he were a little younger, it would certainly have been interesting to watched the knowing nods of an agent of another power that suffered an ignominious defeat in Mesopotamia.

Originally appeared at


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