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He Who “Could See Through Earth”

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Once Ivan Gubkin, a Soviet petroleum geologist, was asked about his work before 1917, and he replied by saying that he "was increasing Russia's petroleum wealth". This ambitiousness was quite common amongst Mining University graduates, which is better understood if considering the historical context.

The country's first technical school, established by order of Empress Catherine the Great, was considered elite from the outset. It trained people who would go on to build the most significant raw materials economy in the world. Would it have happened if mining engineers had not been told from the beginning of the dignity and importance of the mission entrusted to their profession?

In American culture, such people are commonly referred to as "self-made men". They come from simple and sometimes dysfunctional families, lacking inherited wealth and family connections to achieve high positions in financial, political or other fields, so they rely on perseverance, hard work and talent.


Gubkin's grandfather was a barge haulier, and his father was away eight months a year fishing in Astrakhan. Born in 1871 in Murom county, Vladimir province, Ivan was the only member of a large peasant family who learned the language. His parents thought it was a waste of time, and it was only his grandmother who persuaded them to send their bright grandson to a village school. The teachers paid attention to the gifted pupil and helped him enter the Murom District College and the Kirzhach Teachers' Seminary. True, he graduated with a certificate instead of a diploma. It was a punishment for an epigram written on a classmate.

There is a legend that one day a young man accidentally found a geology textbook in the attic of his friend's house, left by some distant relative before he left for Siberia. The would-be oilman read it overnight and was determined to develop in that particular direction. However, despite his desire, he spent the next five years working as a "people's teacher" in a village school. It was due to an agreement with the Zemstvo, from which he received a stipend during his seminary studies. On the expiry of the term, Gubkin went to St. Petersburg - he faced the prospect of being accepted to the Mining Institute.

горный университет
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I must say that getting higher education for Ivan Mikhailovich at the Mining Institute is a story of incredible persistence. Initially, he only succeeded in getting into the Teachers' Institute. After graduation, he attempted to get into the Mining Institute but failed. The reason was the lack of a school diploma issued to grammar school graduates or colleges. The 32-year-old Gubkin then went to Tsarskoye Selo and, together with that year's graduates, obtained the long-awaited document having passed the necessary examinations.

He became a mining engineer in 1910. He was named the best in the course, and his name was put on the marble plaque following the university's tradition. True, at that time, the newly minted geologist was already 40 years old - his peers had already managed to become well-established specialists, candidates of sciences and even professors. It was necessary to make up for the lost time rapidly.

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Gubkin's scientific activity began to gather unimaginable speed. As he himself wrote: "I became a master of science. A lot of life experience helped me". While still a student, he became engaged in petroleum geology - he explored Maikop, Kuban, Anapa and Temryuk oil-bearing areas and worked on the Taman Peninsula. On behalf of the Geological Committee (Geolсom), he continued his work in the country's south even after graduating from the institute. Almost every one of the above locations has yielded severe discoveries.

Staying at expeditions for months, Ivan Mikhailovich processed numerous rock samples, analysed the genesis of oil deposits and the regularity of their location. Thus, based on his studies of the Maikop fields, Gubkin suggested a new method of constructing geological and structural maps of the underground relief of oil-bearing strata.

There, he was the first in the world to establish a new type of channel oil pool. This type of deposit was called a "stratigraphic" or "shoestring" deposit. They are characterised by a meandering pattern of occurrence, which posed a significant problem for exploration and subsequent production at the beginning of the 20th century. The sandstones of fossil beds and deltas of paleo-river beds serve as traps for the oil. In 1911, Ivan Mikhailovich studied the location of ancient shorelines and discovered deposits of paleo-river channels, which flowed into the Maikop Sea in the early Cenozoic. His research revealed rich oil accumulations in the North Caucasus and opened up broad prospects for "black gold" in other regions.

On the Taman Peninsula, Ivan Mikhailovich established a new type of tectonics - diapir folds with piercing cores, previously known only on the territory of Romania. A little later, he proved their unique role in the formation of hydrocarbon deposits.

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From 1913 to 1917, the scientist worked on the Apsheron Peninsula. It would seem that Baku fields, explored far and wide, could not bring any surprises. However, he also found and then filled in research "gaps". The geologist determined conditions of occurrence and age of productive strata, with which the wealthiest oil deposits of Azerbaijan were connected.

On the Caspian coast, Gubkin began to investigate the regularity of the spread and origin of mud volcanoes, and most importantly, he established their direct connection with oil deposits. As a result, he concluded that gas and oil volcanoes and mud volcanism were genetically related to diapir-type anticlines. The theory was confirmed when oil fountains gushed forth in the areas of mud volcanoes indicated by Ivan Mikhailovich.

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His advances in geology prompted the Provisional Government's Ministry of Trade and Industry to send Gubkin to the US in 1917 to study the fields and raw materials industry. After his return to Russia, on Vladimir Lenin's instructions, he joined the Main Oil Committee of the Supreme Board of the National Economy. He was appointed Chairman of the Main Oil Shale Committee. The global work of organising the mining and geological service of Soviet Russia began. From that moment until the end of his life, Ivan Mikhailovich held exclusively leading positions in the central institutions in charge of the country's oil industry.

The scientist was Chairman of the Special Commission for Research of Kursk Magnetic Anomaly, a member of the State Planning Committee of the USSR, Head of the Main Geological Administration of the People's Commissariat of Heavy Industry, Vice President of the USSR Academy of Sciences. And this is by no means a complete list.

московская горная академия
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In addition, inspired by his own learning experiences at the Mining Institute in St Petersburg, he was directly involved in creating a specialised university in Moscow. Initially, he became rector of the Moscow Mining Academy in 1922 and then in 1930, he opened and headed the Moscow Oil Institute, which still bears his name to this day.


Despite his vigorous organisational and teaching activities, Gubkin, who was said to have "the gift of seeing through the earth", never stopped exploring. One of the most striking examples was predicting the enormous deposits in Western Siberia and the Volga-Ural region.

In 1932 he gave a scientific rationale for the necessity to start oil prospecting in the West Siberian Plain. The academician argued a vast depression there, where sediments favourable for oil and gas formation had accumulated for hundreds of years. Comparing the area to similar locations with proven hydrocarbon reserves, the scientist argued that oil production in Western Siberia "could meet the needs of the Ural-Kuznetsk Combine and the entire national economy of the USSR. But the idea was fiercely opposed by some of his colleagues. It was believed that the lands between the Ural Mountains and the Yenisei were unpromising, and the search for oil was unrealistic and devoid of any common sense.

© Мемориальная доска на стене здания Ухтинского государственного технического университета

Gubkin did not give up and, in 1934, succeeded in organising an exploration expedition to the Bolshoi Yugan and Belaya Rivers. The oil outcrops found there were found to be naturally occurring, indicating the presence of saturated reservoirs. The following year similar reports came from Surgut, where the first prospectors carried out drilling operations on the banks of the Ob River.

In 1939 Ivan Mikhailovich passed away, but his forecasts were echoed by severe scientists and industrialists of the country. General Directorate of Geology of the People's Commissariat of the USSR organised a large-scale geophysical expedition, during which it was planned to prepare points for deep rotary drilling. However, the trip was postponed until after the war.

It took time, the eminent scientist was proven right, and the false impressions about the poverty of Siberia's subsoil were dispelled. In 1953, at a well near the village of Berezovo, 400 kilometres from Khanty-Mansiysk, a gas and water blowout, reaching 50 metres in height, occurred. The fountain was the first confirmation that the Western Siberian subsoil was indeed rich in hydrocarbon deposits. And in 1959, a well in the Kondinskoye area of Khanty-Mansiysk National Okrug of Tyumen Oblast yielded the first ton of oil.

As is well known, the work of domestic geologists, oil and gas workers transformed Western Siberia from a sparsely populated territory into the largest oil and gas producing region in the Soviet Union. Ivan Gubkin is credited with the phrase that has become a fateful one for Russia. It is still relevant today. "The subsoil will not fail if the people do not fail".