#55: Turkmenistan: Admiring The Beloved Great Leader’s Book in the City of Love, I
2 September 2002
Asgabat, “City of Love” in the Farsi (Iranian) language, is capital of Turkmenistan, a former Soviet republic just north of Iran. There’s nothing really lovely about Asgabat’s architecture – they are exaggerated expressions of an egomaniacal leader, but what is indeed much admirable is the city’s people. They are warm hearted and hospitable, so typical of that friendliness one finds across the plains of Central Asia.
I arrived late at night on 21st day of the month of Alp Arslan (name of the leader of the ancient Seljurk Turk empire) – known to the rest of the world as August 2002 (which remains unchanged, for the time being), Sogap Gyun (or Thursday, to the rest of the world).
Turkmenistan is a land of great antiquity. It lies on the Silk Road, where caravans passed through on their way between the trading cities of Europe and Asia. Great cities rose and fell on its desert plains and oases, among them, Nisa – capital of the Partian Empire, and Merv, timeless capital of the Seljuk Turks.
Turkmenistan is also a land of great natural beauty and hospitable people. However, this country, which became independent in 1991, is today unfortunately more well-known as the personal fiefdom of its eccentric president-for-life, Saparmurat Niyazov, whose personality cult rivals that of Lenin, Stalin and Kim U Sung of North Korea. Now officially known as “Turkmenbashi the Great” – Turkmenbashi means “Chief of all Turkmens” – he became even more well-known recently after announcing the renaming of all the months of the year and days of the week. January has been renamed after himself, as Turkmenbashi; and April initially as “Mother”. The speaker of the Parliament promptly suggested that April be called Gurbansoltan Edzhe instead, after his mother’s name. Humble Turkmenbashi immediately agreed to the request. Other months are renamed after the president’s book as well as the national heroes of Turkmenistan.
Turkmenistan, My Beloved Motherland, My Beloved Homeland!
You are always with me, in My Thoughts and in My Heart.
For the Slightest Evil Against You, Let My Hand be Lost!
For the Slightest Slander About You, Let My Tongue be Lost!
At the moment of My Betrayal to My Motherland, to her Sacred Banner,
To Saparmurat Turkmenbashi the Great, Let My Breath Stop!
Stuff of the Old Testament? Nope. This is Turkmenistan’s National Oath. Every citizen knows it by heart, and schoolchildren recite this everyday. It is printed on the front page of the national newspaper, Neutral Turkmenistan EVERYDAY! (I picked up the centerfold of a random copy of this paper and found at least 6 pictures of the Great Leader in that four-pager.)
I walked on the streets of Asgabat and everywhere one sees banners, portraits and statues of Turkmenbashi – almost every building has a wall-sized picture of him in the facade. An article estimates that there are over 2000 statues of him in the country. One also finds quite a few of these made of gold in Asgabat and Mary, the second-largest city. He is everywhere – you cannot escape from him. In fact, a huge gold statue of him in central Asgabat is mounted onto a revolving tower more than 100 meters high, and he turns around all the time, looking at every corner of the city.
One also finds numerous slogans such as “Hulk, Watan, Beyik Turkmenbashi” (People, Motherland, Turkmenbashi the Great) and “XXI Asyr Turkmenin Altyn Asyry” (21st century, Turkmen Golden Century). A Turkmen told me that there are definitely more political slogans and propaganda messages now than there were in the old Soviet days. And of course, not to mention the countless airports, cities, towns and streets which have been renamed after this greatly beloved leader too. One also finds numerous carvings and banners of the new presidential standard – a five-headed eagle – well, three more heads than the Romanov Tsars of Russia. Long live the new Tsar of the desert! Stalin appears to be a really shy guy compared to this chief of the Turkmens.
According to his admirers, Turkmenbashi is one of the greatest philosophers and writers in world history. His greatest work, Ruhnama, stands alongside the Quran and the Bible as well as Shakespeare and Kant. I bought an English edition of this thick book. In it the Great Beloved Leader started by saying that the Quran is the greatest book ever presented to mankind – and he hinted that his is a close second.
He narrated his family history and life – how his father died in WWII and his mother and brothers martyred bravely in the great earthquake of 1948 – his achievements and so on. There’s his interpretation of Turkmen history, which basically tells us that Turkmenistan ranks as one of the five great ancient civilizations in the world (ranking alongside China, Egypt, India and Mesopotamia), that the Turkmens invented the wheel, use of iron and steel and most great inventions of the world; that the Turkmens founded great empires such as the Sejuks, Ottoman and every great empire in the Middle East and West Asia.
He also spelled out his vision for his country and in detail, how Turkmens should behave towards the family, friends and neighbors. Indeed, a kind of bible, moral code, history book, national development plan, and autobiography combined. No wonder they say it’s one of the greatest books ever written in world history. Now it is a compulsory subject in all schools and universities. I walked into a few bookshops – roughly half the shelves carry different language versions of the Ruhnama, and 30% of the shelves hold other Turkmenbashi best-selling works (such as Turkmenbashi the Great – World Leader and Neutrality, The Man and his Life, Achievements of Turkmenistan under Turkmenbashi), and 20% about other boring non-Turkmenbashi subjects. They say a new collection of poetry by Turkmenbashi has just been published, and local critics compare it well against Pushkin and Yeats – indeed Turkmenistan’s multi-talented president might just be nominated for Nobel Prize for Literature
Turkmenbashi is not only popular in his country but with foreigners as well, or at least that’s what the state claims. A Turkmen movie, heavily promoted recently, was about an American female reporter who came here, fell in love with the country and its culture, and then married a Turkmen man. Guess what? She also raved about how wonderful Turkmenbashi is to his citizens and what good fortune Turkmen citizens have in having him as a leader.
Is it fair to criticize the Great Leader’s love for the personality cult ? After all, one finds portraits and monuments to the Queen all over the UK. Whilst non-ethnic Turkmens (about 20% of the population) tend to be more skeptical about Turkmenbashi, many ethnic Turkmens I met seem to have a genuine affection for him. You may argue that millions cried when Stalin died, but I suspect Turkmen society always has a traditional reverence for its leaders. When I asked a Turkmen why his wedding party went to the monument to the President’s Mother on the wedding day, he said, “The President’s Mother is the Mother of the Nation, of course we have to go there on wedding day.”