Talking buildings #4: The ‘Lenin’ Oil Refinery

‘Talking Buildings from the Soviet Chechen Republic’ follows an almost vanished path through the remnants of Chechnya’s collective industries. Uncovering the memories and experiences of seven Chechen women, now aged 50 to 67, the project’s protagonists reflect on their work in the various socialist farms, factories, and cultural institutions during the USSR. Told through the prism of the buildings’ physical remains, the narrations delve into individual stories of how Chechen women actively participated in Soviet society while at the same time respecting the traditional and Islamic way of life in their families. The project is based on biographical interviews with time witnesses and our next story uncovers memories from the well known ‘Lenin’ Oil Refinery located just outside Grozny. What was once strategic infrastructure, lies in ruins today.

The ‘Lenin’ Oil Refinery


“In 1987, I graduated from the Chemistry – Technology College. Currently, one of the Oil Institute’s departments is located in this building and the students there receive red diplomas. [1] When I was studying, I had a flexible schedule and when my friends went to work at the Lenin Refinery (the Grozny oil refinery named after Vladimir Lenin), I decided to go there with them. I started to work in the so-called ‘bright section of the laboratory’ where I was given the 4th grade. This was considered the highest rank at this refinery and so I started off working as a laboratory assistant of the 4th grade.

After some time, they sent me to the Production Commodity Office (PCO) but at that time the PCO of the Lenin Refinery had sold out of oil and so I determined the share of water in crude oil. In 1988, I was transferred to the department of gas installation, which was opened by the Czechs, as far as I remember. There, I analyzed the gases butane, propane and ethane, which were sent to me at our laboratory. In 1989, I went on maternity leave and stopped working.

Image by Tamara Taysumova

The Oil Refinery was named after Lenin because oil was just like Lenin: it was considered to be the best. At least during the Soviet Union oil was considered to be the best resource. How did oil differ then? It had a low share of sulfur. And oil with a low sulfur component does not cause any corrosion of metal, namely rust. And it needs less cleaning. It is used to produce gasoline, diesel fuel, and kerosene. All of this is possible. After the cleaning process, the oil went mainly to the Sheripov Oil Refinery because at this plant fuel and bitumen was already produced, so it all went there.

I remember that we were very well welcomed at work. The older generation joyfully accepted the younger generation. And they shared all their knowledge and experience, nobody hid anything. Maybe this was only possible at that time, I do not know. Maybe it was just an era like that.

At that time we lived mainly with the Russian-speaking population. And those elderly women treated us like their own daughters, I remember this very well. We liked to go to the canteen with the girls. Our canteen was very cheap and ‘tasty’. I did not know the names of the dishes or how much they cost. But I remember that our salads included carrots, beets, and cabbages and it all cost only 4 kopecks (4 cents).

A nightshift in the ventilation shaft

During the time when we worked in the Production Commodity Office, we had a laboratory assistant, who did not follow the security and safety rules and once her working clothes caught fire. That was a horrible experience for all of us, but eventually, we managed to extinguish the fire. I also remember that when we had a night shift, we always checked who was sleeping during working hours and we also checked the fire department. We had ventilation shafts there and you can imagine that it is impossible to climb into a ventilation shaft even if you are a slim person. One of the girls working with us was rather overweight and interestingly technicians in her department managed to get enough sleep during the night shift.

Once a fireman entered the lab, he opened the door and did not see anybody. The fireman thought that the girl had probably gone out for a break but when he was about to leave, he heard somebody snoring. And he found that girl. She was hiding in the ventilation shaft and had fallen asleep. The fireman opened the door to the shaft and saw her sleeping there. She must have weighed around 90 kilograms. The man was very surprised. At that time, if he told anybody that he had found her sleeping at work she could be fired. So the fireman said to her: ‘Listen, I will not tell anyone. Just explain to me how you climbed in there?’ In response, she just silently climbed down and climbed up again. ‘Well, sleep well then,’ he said and left. We laughed so much when we eventually heard the story.

There were some very memorable places in this building. We had two floors in the laboratory and I worked on the first floor. We loved to rest with the girls on the rooftop of the building. After all, we did not have any kind of official breaks. When there were samples to analyze we did it of course, but sometimes, we didn’t have much work to do. And when we were not that busy, we took short breaks here and there. We climbed on the rooftop with our chairs and chatted or just daydreamed. And of course, we observed from above, if they were sending us new work to the laboratory or not. And when they did, we immediately went back down.

One of the most memorable things was meeting with Sulumbek Khadzhiyev. He was the head of the Grozny Oil Research Institute (one of the leading institutes in the oil industry of the USSR) and I worked next to this institute. This man knew and loved his work and he invited me to work in his team. Maybe, if I had accepted his offer my life would have developed differently.

Since I had a red diploma (the best of the diplomas at that time) I could quit my job at any time. The institute’s building was located in the direction of the railway station of Grozny close to a road crossover. When you pass the bridge across the street you will find yourself in front the institute’s building. This is how close it was. But I declined to work there.

For my good work at the Lenin Refinery, I also received a lot of certificates, but unfortunately, I do not have them now. On my last day of work in the Lenin Refinery, I went on maternity leave. Probably, I already felt that I would not return there anymore it was very painful for me to part with my team.

School days

Image by Tamara Taysumova

My choice of profession was rather random. I went to the technical school quite by accident. But I graduated with honors and my father told me to start University in any city in Russia, but not in the Caucasus. But I failed the tests there. And because I was afraid to lose a year, I went to this technical school. Generally, I liked it. I liked to study. I do not remember the name of the director at that time. The teachers there were very competent and my group loved me.

During the three years I spent at the technical school, I was an organizer of the Komsomol communist group. Who remembers today what a Komsomol organizer is? The most memorable month was September when we went to the vineyards. We only had two guys in the group, the rest were girls. One of the guys went immediately to the evening group, after the September grape harvest. The second one went to the army. All my girlfriends were hard-working. In one day, we harvested 70-80 buckets of grapes in these vineyards and we always fulfilled our plan.

We also had student dorms, but I did not live there. I only went there to see the girls, since I lived not far away. They lived together in a very friendly manner. When I was young, we did not gossip about each other. I was a Komsomol member. In memory of this time, I have kept my Komsomol ticket to this day. While at school, we paid contributions of 2 kopecks. The last time I received my salary while working at the factory was in 1989. I received around 160-170 rubles and my contribution to the Komsomol was 1 ruble and some kopecks.

In 1986, the best students from our technical school had the opportunity to visit Poland and Germany. It was completely free of charge and I was one of these students. First, we traveled to Brest by train. From there they took us by bus to our destination.

We got acquainted with the culture there, with the Germans and with the Poles. Poland was a very poor country at that time. It was just after a revolution, I do not remember clearly. But Germany was shining.  With me were other students of the Chechen-Ingush ASSR. You know, we had 8 children in the family and of course, not all of us are still alive. But anyway, my father was always proud of me. He was proud that I was a good student. And for my parents, it was not even a question, if they allowed me to travel or not. I always had their permission to travel.

Just big names

For me, Che Guevara, Rosa Luxemburg, Clara Zetkin, and others were just names. I tried not to delve into all of this just to be interested in them. I did not have this. At that time we all read a lot.

If I had to choose one work among the Chechen-Ingush writers that I loved in my student years, it would be ‘Zelimkhan’ by Mamakayev and Bazorkin’s ‘From the Dark Ages’.

I loved to reread their novels. And if we talk about Russian writers, then I liked Ostrovsky’s work with the title ‘How the Steel Was Tempered’.

It used to be speculation, now it is called commerce

Image by Tamara Taysumova

You know, what we call commerce now was called speculation at that time. My mother was involved in speculation which allowed me to have a choice of clothes. Yugoslavian dresses were in fashion. People did not wear long dresses so we were wearing skirts and dresses that just covered our knees. And one of the most important dresses from my wardrobe was, of course, the Yugoslavian black velour dress. The dress also had studded gold elements on it. I also had a claret Yugoslav suit and a white dress with a black jacket. I remember everything.

You know, maybe with each era, people change and so do their characters. It seems to me that I have lived half my life there, if not more. I think we seized the time, the people were softer, better and more patient. I think so, maybe others think differently.

Pen friends and New Year’s

Image by Tamara Taysumova

During my school years, I corresponded a lot through letters. I had pen friends from Bashkiria, from the Sverdlovsk region and there were also pen friends from Germany, I remember this well. We loved to send each other cards, stamps, and parcels. We wrote about the weather, about the cities in which we lived, about our studies and what we were interested in.

Image by Tamara Taysumova

In Soviet times, when my father was alive, we always had a Christmas tree on New Year’s Eve. My father made sure to put up a Christmas tree every year and it was not made of plastic, it was a real tree. And every year he gave us gifts. I still remember, the taste of these sweet ‘Snowballs’ and ‘Kara-Kum’, inside were tangerines. Despite us being children in my family, none of the years ever passed without gifts. My father allowed us to do everything, including celebrating the New Year. He was a fan of ‘Vinaigrette’ and ‘Olivier’ salads for New Year’s and he would always pray before eating, even in communist times when it was forbidden. Even during his working day – he worked as a taxi driver on the Petropalovsky Highway – he managed to come home to pray. After praying he went back to work.

We did not like the ‘Cosmos’ cinema in Grozny because everybody was hanging out there. The guys usually walked in front of the cinema with full-powered tape recorders over their shoulders. And we did not like it. At that time, the Indian movie ‘Disco Dancer’ was released in the cinema.

Once, one of the tape recorders ‘yelled’ one of the songs of the film ‘Jimi HachaHacha’. I did not like this at all. And the most popular cinema among intelligent people was the cinema ‘Russia’. It was a very quiet cinema. Well, this could also be said of the cinema ‘Jubilee’. But I remember how we went to watch a movie which was based on Ostrovsky’s play ‘The Dowry’ or ‘The Cruel Romance’. We frequently went with friends to watch movies and sometimes the girls ran away to the cinema during our studying hours. But I was a Komsomol member and could not just escape to the cinema. I had a teacher who always called me ‘a bee’ or ‘You are my hardworking bee’. This is why I could not go away during the day to watch movies like the other girls. I remember how we went to Nizhnekamsk [2] for the Chemistry Olympiad. Frankly speaking, we won no prize. But we were noticed.

The remains

Image by Tamara Taysumova

There was a time when I was passing by this building of our factory. I do not know what is in there now, but I noticed the outside, all that’s left of the building is a tall pipe and that’s it. This is all that I remember about the factory. When I saw the photographs of the destroyed building it looks like everything inside turned upside down. After all, the last time I was inside was in 1994, when I visited my friends. What did I experience when I saw the destroyed buildings? Honestly? Just pain. Pain and nothing more. I have no more words. Pain and tears. Currently, I pass by this building twice a day every day and it is painful for me to look at it each time. However, in my heart, I keep the best memories of it.”

To safeguard the anonymity of the protagonists, names of locations and individuals have been changed.

[1] Red diplomas are awarded when best results have been achieved in every subject. Red diplomas can be only given in universities.
[2] Nizhnekamsk is a city in the Republic of Tatarstan, today Russia.

The project was developed and realized by Umarova Asia (Journalist, Illustrator, and Writer), Sani Manchak (Freelance Journalist and Translator), Tamara Taysumova (Photographer), and Johanna Pruessing (Editor at RETROGRAD). The project was supported by the Naumann Foundation for Freedom in Moscow and developed by Umarova Asia during the “Europe Lab 2017” organised by the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum.

1 Comment

  • ” And all this, according to Walker, while Putin’s fighter jets “were bombing Grozny, raining more misery down on a city that already seemed as though it had reached total devastation”. Walker himself is an old-school reporter, padding the broken pavements and shattered buildings rather than pontificating from Moscow – he wrote for The Independent before moving to what we used to call “Another Newspaper” – and he assiduously follows through on the Chechen story, observing the rise to power of the faithful Akhmad Kadyrov and then, after the latter’s assassination, of his equally faithful (and brutal) son Ramzan.

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