NIYAZOV'S PERSONALITY CULT

NIYAZOV'S PERSONALITY CULT

Niyazov established a personality cult that Stalin or Mao would have admired. His portraits and images were everywhere: on every note of Turkmenistan currency, on the labels of vodka bottles sold in the Muslim country, on billboards planted at intersections. Niyazov’s golden profile was superimposed on the upper right hand corner of broadcasts of the national government’s two television channels. Statues of the man stood in front of almost every government building. His image was also found on a 9,700-square-foot carpet titled "The 21st Century: The Epoch of the Great Saparmurat Turkmenbashi."

An airport and a city on the Caspian Sea are named after Niyzov’s nickname (Turkmenbashi). There were Turkmenbashi streets, squares, towns, mosques, factories, farms, districts, food products, even the inside of Turkmenistan Airlines planes. Statues of Niyazov’s mother were scattered around the country. Niyazov awarded himself medals and orchestrated plaudits. His birthday was a national holiday celebrated as national flag day. Schoolchildren were required to make a vow each day that bad thoughts about Niyazov were treason. Much of their time in the classroom was spent memorizing The Sayings of Turkmenbashi. University students have to recite his official biography before every exam.

Niyazov passed laws banning men from wearing beards and prohibiting teenagers from playing video games. Associated Press reported: “Among Niyazov's decrees were bans on lip-synching, car radios and the playing of recorded music at weddings. He once ordered doctors to stop taking the Hippocratic Oath and swear allegiance to him instead. His image was everywhere, including Ashgabat's central square, where a soaring golden statue rotated so Niyazov's likeness would always face the sun. He is listed as the author of the "Rukhnama" (Book of the Soul) that was required reading in schools, where children pledged allegiance to him every morning.” [Source: Associated Press, December 21, 2006]

One opposition leader called his effort a “cult of imbecility” and said he was a personification of the Turkmen saying: “There is a limit to wisdom, but there is no limit to foolishness.” Niyazov insisted his personality cult shenanigans were there to unite Turkmenistan’s people

Arch of Neutrality

The Arch of Neutrality (near the Turkmenbashi Palace) was a 220-foot-tall, three-legged arch topped by a gilt statue of Niyazov. Completed in 1998, the arch looked sort of like a rocket ship and was built according to a design Niyazov chose to represent stability. There was a café and some souvenir shops in the legs. A viewing platform could be reached by an elevator. Ashgabat residents called the structure the "the tripod" because it stood on three legs.

The 40-foot-high gilt structure is larger than any Lenin statue built in the Soviet era. The statue of Niyazov rotated atop a spire, once every 24 hours, with its outstretched arm pointing out the hour and the direction sun, which during the daytime always shined on Niyazov’s face. When viewed from below that statue seemed to hold the sun and offer it to the people below.

Charles Dameron of Radio Free Europe wrote: “It's been a tastelessly iconic symbol of Turkmenistan since it appeared in 1998... For years, the statue stood atop a 75-meter-tall arch in the center of Ashgabat, dominating the skyline. Perhaps out of a concern that monumental scale alone was not sufficient for this centerpiece of personality worship, Niyazov arranged for his gold-plated statue to rotate throughout the day so that the Father of the Turkmen was always facing the sun.” [Source: Charles Dameron, Radio Free Europe, November 2, 2011]

In January 2010, Turkmenistan President Berdymukhammedov ordered the removal of the gold statue of Niyazov, a move widely seen as an effort to assert his own authority and minimize at the personality cult of his predecessor.” A new, higher tower was be built in a southern suburb of the city for the Niyozov statue.

Lunacy of Niyazov's Personality Cult

Paul Theroux wrote in The New Yorker: “There were also portraits of Turkmenbashi, several of them measuring hundreds of square feet, everywhere in Ashgabat. In some, he looked like a fat and grinning Dean Martin; in others, he was a truculent C.E.O. with a chilly smile. A common image showed him, chin on hand, squinting in insincere bonhomie, like a lounge singer. A heavy drinker, a bully, and a wearer of bling—two or three diamond rings on each hand—he had Italianate features, and was sometimes portrayed with a stack of books, like an author on a book tour. [Source: Paul Theroux, The New Yorker,May 28, 2007 *-*]

Everything Turkmenbashi did seemed to indicate that he was out of his mind. He’d had parliament declare him “President for Life”; it was the will of the people, his ministers had said. He’d banned beards and ballet; he’d denounced gold teeth as unhygienic. A London newspaper reported that he had renamed bread after his mother. No one I met in Ashgabat had heard about this, but he had done something even nuttier. He had renamed the months of the year—January after himself, and April for his mother. The days of the week and the names of the years were also new, Turkmenbashi’s innovation.The year 2003 was named after his father, 2004 after his mother, and 2005 was “The Year of ‘Ruhnama.’ ” *-*

“He was on TV last night,” my driver said. “Well, he’s on almost every night.”... “He said, ‘If you read my book three times, you will go to Heaven.’ ” How does he know this? “He said, ‘I asked Allah to arrange it.’ ” I was still waiting for someone to speak Turkmenbashi’s name; I wanted to hear what citizens would call him. “Turkmenbashi” seemed too pompous, “Niyazov” too familiar, “the Leader” too formal, and “the national prophet” obviously hard to say with a straight face. Later, I learned that people usually referred to him as mähriban ata, “the dear father,” or serdar, “tribal leader.”

“We were heading west, out of the city, past scores of signs reading “PEOPLE-MOTHERLAND-TURKMENBASHI.” On the side of a mountain, in large letters carved from marble blocks, was a sign in Turkmen that said “OUR HEALTH ROAD OF OUR GREAT ETERNAL LEADER.” (It was just the sort of cliff-top message that I had seen a decade earlier in Albania, and doubtless it would end up the same way, as a pile of rubble in the adjacent valley.) This one was meant to encourage people to walk on a paved path that wound through the dying dwarf forest. “He wants us to be healthy,” Merdan said.

Still, Turkmen were expected to do as they were told: never mind that you were a nomad or a villager or a cotton picker, that you spent all day on your feet; you were supposed to make the time to walk on the Eternal Leader’s thirty-six kilometres of paved pathway traversing the mountainside. One of Bashi’s many residences, another marble palace, lay beyond that hillside. He claimed that the lavish gold-domed Presidential palace built for him in Ashgabat was not of his choosing. (“All I wanted was a small, cozy house.”)

Excesses of Niyazov's Personality Cult

Niyazov’s image was on stamps, packets of tea and the walls of every hotel, office building and bus terminal in Turkmenistan. When a 820-kilogram meteor landed near Konye-Urgench in 1998 it was named, not surprisingly, the Turkmenbashi meteor and offered as proof of Niyazov legitimacy. One of the main highways into Ashgabat is closed for an hour each day in the morning and the evening so Niyazov can commute from his country palace to his city palace unmolested.

In an effort to boost Turkmenistan’s image overseas, Niyazov commissioned an English-language soap opera about a foreign businessman who becomes enamored with Turkmenistan. The show was called Turkmenbashi, My Leader. In 1999, the Turkmenistan currency was recalled and portraits all over the country were changed after Niyazov dyed his hair black after undergoing quadruple bypass surgery. One of the very last times Niyazov was seen in public before his death, he was seated on a brightly painted toy train at a children's theme park called The World of Turkmenbashi Tales.

After Niyazov died in 2006, Reuters reported: Turkmenistan’s president-for-life “imposed a bizarre style of rule on his nation for more than two decades. The following are some of his quirkiest measures: 1) Banned ballet, opera, recorded music and circus as indecent. Also banned Turkmen singers from performing to recorded music and Turkmen newscasters from wearing make-up. 2) Banned gold teeth, beards and long hair in young people. 3) Set up a Ministry of Justice which can punish amoral behavior. [Source: Reuters, December 22, 2006 |=|]

“4) A planet of the Taurus constellation, a crater on the Moon and a mountain peak were also named after him, as were the main brand of the country's sweet melons and a breed of horse. 5) When foreign leaders met him, Niyazov often presented them with a horse. 6) Decreed the building of a zoo in a desert in Turkmenistan to host penguins among other animals. 7) Like the khans who once ruled this long-nomadic land, Niyazov ran Turkmenistan from an office draped with carpets that made it look like a nomad's tent. |=|

“8) In the gleaming capital, which rises from the sand like a mini-Dubai, a revolving statue of Niyazov coated in gold leaf rotates to face the sun. 9) Banned hospitals and libraries from all areas of Turkmenistan apart from Ashgabat. 10) Banned the import of foreign language books. 11) Issued a decreed to give some food away free of charge: bread, salt and a monthly ration of rice. |=|

Niyazov Renames the Months and Days of the Week

Niyazov renamed the days of the week and the months after his name and ideas and the names of his deceased parents. In a 2002 decree, Niyazov renamed the months beginning with January, or Yavar, which he proposed to rename Turkmenbashi after himself. April was renamed after Niyazov’s mother. October was called “Spiritual Revival” after his book of philosophical thought. When the decree was issed the New York Times ran the headline: “Turkmen Leader Wishing to be August, Settles for January.”

Paul Theroux wrote in The New Yorker: “ I made the trip to the ruins with two Turkmen I’d met through a mutual friend, who told me that they knew something of Turkmen history: a man I’ll call Mamed, whose English was shaky, and a woman I’ll call Gulnara, who was fluent. In the car, I asked them about Turkmenbashi’s passion for renaming. They told me that he had made so many changes they were unable to keep the names straight. “January is now Turkmenbashi,” Gulnara said. “February is Baýderk—the flag. March is Nowruz. April is Gurbansoltan Eje—his mother. June is Oguz—our hero. But May is . . . What is May?” Mamed said, “May is Sanjar.” “No, that’s November.” “Are you sure?” [Source: Paul Theroux, The New Yorker, May 28, 2007 *-*]

“I know September is Ruhnama,” Gulnara said. “August is Alp Arslan,” Mamed said. “He was sultan.” “You forgot July,” Gulnara said. “I don’t remember July. What is it?” Gulnara shook her head. She squinted and said, “Then there’s October.” Mamed said, “Garaşsyzlyk.” “Independence,” Gulnara said. They were just as vague on the days of the week, though Gulnara started confidently, “Monday is Bashgün—Main Day. Tuesday is Yashgün, Young Day. Wednesday is Hoshgün.” “Tuesday is Hoshgün,” Mamed said. “Wednesday is Yashgün.” “I don’t think so,” Gulnara said. *-*

“Their confusion was funny but odd, given that by government decree all ministries, schools, colleges, the police, the Army, and all citizens had not only to demonstrate a knowledge of the changes but to use them, too. “He renamed ketchup,” Gulnara said. “He made a big speech. ‘Why do we say “ketchup”? This is a foreign word. We are Turkmen. We must have a Turkmen word for this!’ ” “So what is it?” “Ketchup is ümech.” “If I looked up ümech in a Turkmen-English dictionary, what would it say?” “It would say ‘ketchup,’ except we don’t have any new dictionaries in Turkmenistan.” All this talk of their obsessive President made Mamed and Gulnara self-conscious, and when they fell silent I said, “Does it bother you that the President has made all these changes?” “Most people don’t think about it,” Gulnara said. She meant, Most people don’t want to think about it, because it will only make them miserable. *-*

Rukhnama

While Niyzov was president all citizens of Turkmenistan were expected to follow the moral and spirtutal principals outlined in Niyazov’s book “Rukhnama” (“Spiritual Revival” or “Book of the Soul”). The Rukhnama was required reading in all schools and mosques, even among people taking the test to get a driver’s license.

The “Rukhnama” (also spelled “Ruhnama”) is a rambling two-volume, stream-of-consciousness guide to Niyazov’s philosophy, Turkmen traditions, interpretations of historical events, and advise on correct behavior. Disorganized and quasi-religious, the book was compared with the Koran in Turkmenistan and was one of few books that was freely available there. More than a million copies were printed, in more than 40 languages, including Zulu and Japanese, and in Braille. When Russian translators were asked to translate it one Russian poet said “the gibbersih is impossible to translate.”

Paul Theroux wrote in The New Yorker: ““Ruhnama” is a farrago of memoir, Turkmen lore, potted history, dietary suggestions, Soviet-bashing, boasting, wild promises, and Turkmenbashi’s poems. He seemed to regard it both as a sort of Koran and as a how-to guide for the Turkmen people, a jingoistic pep talk. In fact, it is little more than a soporific, “chloroform in print,” as Mark Twain described “The Book of Mormon.” I read it once. Turkmenbashi would have to promise more than Heaven for me to read it two more times. [Source: Paul Theroux, The New Yorker, May 28, 2007]

In his confused and patchy exposition, Bashi reaches back five thousand years (or so he says). After the flood of Noah, he explains, the original ancestor of the Turkmen, Oguz Khan, emerged. Oguz’s sons and grandsons produced Turkmenistan’s twenty-four clans. The figure of Oguz is key to “Ruhnama”; his name, according to Bashi, was set upon many features of the earth and the sky. Turkmen called the Milky Way “the Oguz Arch,” and the Amu Darya River “the Oguz River,” and the constellation Taurus “the Oguz stars.” Oguz also “implemented . . . the use of the national Oguz alphabet.” “Ruhnama” might as well be subtitled “The Second Coming”: Bashi sets himself up as a reincarnation of Oguz Khan, every bit as powerful and wise—which was why he chose to name cities, hills, rivers, and streets after himself and to dedicate his life to his country.

Studying the Rukhnama and Niyazov’s Poems

Most schools and workplaces had special rooms set aside for study of the book. A mammoth mosque built in Niyazov’s home town features quotes from the Rukhnama side by side with quotes for the Koran. Some libraries have few books in them other than the Rukhnama.

Paul Theroux wrote in The New Yorker: “ At Bashi’s command, “Ruhnama” is studied in all the schools of Turkmenistan; a thorough knowledge of it is still an entry requirement for colleges and universities and for advancement in the civil service. (Elections held in February, which were widely criticized as neither free nor fair, brought to power Bashi’s former Deputy Prime Minister Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedov. Berdimuhammedov promised to stay true to the spirit of his predecessor, and, since then, conditions in Turkmenistan have changed little.) The immigration officials who gave me a hard time had little idea how to handle a simple customs matter, but they probably could have quoted “A smile can make a friend for you out of an enemy.” [Source: Paul Theroux, The New Yorker, May 28, 2007]

After Niyazov died The Rukhnama was slowly phased out as required reading. In 2013, Radio Free Europe reported: “In recent years, current President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov has been slowly closing the book on his predecessor's legacy, including "Rukhnama". Now it seems that this tome of spiritual and moral guidance will not make it onto this year's public-school curriculum.” [Source: Radio Free Europe, August 13, 2013]
Be vigilant and be cautious, that is my request to you
Even when you and your country are facing luck
And you are as mighty as King Solomon
And when you feel yourself strong
Be aware, for there are many traitors with traps to set

Contents of Turkmenbashi's 'Rukhnama'

In the Rukhnama are gems of moral wisdom like “Do whatever lawful things your parents tell you to do” and goals of the country like “the main target in agriculture until 2010 is to increase production of grain and cotton.” Niyazov blamed the Soviet Union for disrespecting Turkmen, but conveniently omits his service to the Soviets as a party functionary. In the book he refers to himself in North-Korean-style as “Beloved Leader Saparmurat Turkmenbashi the Great.” A couple of months before his death in December 2006, Niyazov said: "A person that reads 'Rukhnama' becomes smart...and after it, he will go straight to heaven."

Some representative passages from the Rukhnama: 1) Know Your Origins: Turkmenbashi dedicated a significant portion of his book to Oguz Khan, the legendary semimythological leader of the Turkmen nation. "The ancestor of the Turkmen people is Oguz Han" and "the style of our nation's culture and life originates with Oguz Han," he said. 2) Reading Makes You Smart: If you keep up with your reading you will eventually be seen as a practitioner of the sciences. Niyazov’s message to the young: "Today's Turkmen, you will be seen as scientists if you keep reading." 3) Cosmic Portal "Rukhnama" was once promoted by the Turkmen state as being equal to Islam's holy book, the Koran. But it seems it was also a kind of portal. "'Rukhnama' must be the center of this universe," Turkmenbashi admonished. [Source: Deana Kjuka, Radio Free Europe, August 13, 2013]

4) Like Nation, Nations Will Like: Despite the poetic and sometimes incoherent prose of "Rukhnama," Niyazov did not stray from giving others a lesson in diplomacy and devotion to one's country. "If everybody likes their own nation, then the nations will like each other," he concludes. 5) Solid Foundation: Philosophical, abstract, and difficult-to-grasp ideas are uniting themes throughout "Rukhnama," but most dictionaries would disagree with Niyazov's definition of a nation. "Nation is the transformation of human groups in the context of certain spiritual foundations," he wrote. "A nation is shaped materially according to these spiritual foundations."

6) Reinventing The Wheel: Writing a book that strings "the past, present, and future on a single rope" is no easy task. So who would notice a few facts that border on the improbable? This may explain why the father of the Turkmen nation boldly stated that the Turkmen people invented white wheat, mechanical robots, and the wheel. 7) The Apple Of His Eye:Niyazov was obsessed with Turkmenistan's famous horse breed, the Akhal-Teke. Niyazov's writing on the Akhal-Teke is quite enamored. "I caress his head. I comb his mane. I look into his eyes that are like apples." 8) One sentence taken from "Rukhnama's" fifth section, "The Spiritual World of the Turkmen," aptly encapsulates the propagandistic authoritarian rule of Niyazov. "Let me see what I've done for you in your smiling faces!" 10) Devotion To The Motherland: "Rukhnama" includes seven poems that highlight the glory of being Turkmen. Perhaps the English translation does not do their meaning justice, but this stanza gives you an idea of their devotion to the Motherland:Oh my crazy soul! Conceiving wishes and peace I find in my Motherland, / Determination, learning, diligence, fame, glory, I find in my Motherland,/ The winter over the raging spring I find in my Motherland.”

Close inspection by a contributor to Radio Free Europe's Turkmen Service, also a historian, revealed that the "Rukhnama" contains more than 70 pages of material taken word-for-word from Clifford E. Bosworth's "The New Islamic Dynasties." [Source: Bruce Pannier, Radio Free Europe, August 16, 2011]

Rukhnama and Foreign Corporations

The Rukhnama has been translated into European languages and published in Italy, Netherlands, Germany and the United States and a number of other countries as part of its “victorious march through the world” with the help of corporations that do business in Turkmenistan who no doubt figure that promoting the book is a small price to pay for maintaining good business relations.

Among the companies that have helped get the book published are Daimler, the German machinery maker Zeppelin Baumaschinen and the Irish firm Emerol. The director of the Finnish electricity company Enstor wrote a letter to Niyazov, saying “the publication of your book will undoubtably serve as a stimulus for the development of relations between our countries” and “allow close acquaintance with the culture and traditions of your people.”

Human rights groups are disappointed by this position. Erika Daily of the Open Society Institute told the Washington Post, “If the Ruhnama were a benign text, like the memoirs of a U.S. president, this would be harmless, but the Ruhnama is the principal instrument for indoctrination and brainwashing in Turkmenistan.”

Life in the Land of Turkmenbashi

David Remnick wrote in The New Yorker, “Of the fifteen states of the former Soviet empire, Turkmenistan...is the one that has turned out to be a cruel blend of Kim Jong Il’s North Korea and L. Frank Baum’s Oz. Not long after the Soviet collapse, in 1991, Niyazov became President-for-life, dubbed himself Turkmenbashi—Leader of All the Turkmen—and commenced building the strangest, most tragicomic cult of personality on the Eurasian landmass. Doctors there now take an oath not to Hippocrates but to Turkmenbashi; the month of January is now called Turkmenbashi; and in the capital, Ashgabat, there is, atop the Arch of Neutrality, a two-hundred-and-fifty-foot gold statue of Turkmenbashi that, like George Hamilton, automatically rotates to face the sun. [Source: David Remnick, The New Yorker, May 1, 2006 \+\]

“It is extremely difficult to get a visa. Journalists can visit only rarely. But imagine a society in which the ubiquitous, inescapable leader’s image (on the currency, on billboards, on television screens night and day) is that of a saturnine frump who resembles Ernest Borgnine somewhere between “Marty” and “McHale’s Navy.” Niyazov is a leader of whims. He has banned opera, ballet, beards, long hair, makeup (for television anchors), and gold-capped teeth. He demands that drivers pass a “morality test.” At his command, the word for “April” became Gurbansoltan eje, the name of his late mother. Evidently, he prizes fruit: there is now a national holiday commemorating local melons. And, as if the shade of Orwell were not sufficiently present in Turkmenistan, Niyazov has established, despite an abysmal human-rights record, a Ministry of Fairness. \+\

“Rahim Esenov, a veteran of the Second World War, is unlucky enough to be a novelist and journalist under the reign of Turkmenbashi, and in February, 2004, he was placed under house arrest by the Turkmen security police. He was accused of smuggling eight hundred copies of his novel “The Crowned Wanderer” from Moscow to his apartment in Ashgabat. When the novel, which is set in the Mogul era, was first published, in 1997, Niyazov denounced Esenov for “historical errors.” After suffering a second heart attack, Esenov, who is seventy-nine, was taken to the hospital, but three days later he was removed for interrogation. The security police charged him with “inciting social, national, and religious hatred.” And Esenov had undoubtedly given further offense to the regime by sending periodic reports to the U.S.-funded Radio Liberty.\+\

“Niyazov, like Mao or Qaddafi, insists on being his people’s favorite writer. He is the putative author of the “Ruhnama,” a book that is meant to be a spiritual guide, a celebration of the Leader, and a newly contrived history of the Turkmen people. Niyazov has suggested that if one reads the “Ruhnama” one will surely go to Heaven. Other contemporary books, like Esenov’s, are generally considered rivals and are banned. For obvious reasons, Esenov was reluctant to speak directly about Niyazov, but about his own novel he said, “In any era, the writer reflects the feelings and protest of the people, and I’m a child of my people. In ‘Animal Farm,’ the animals are there as an allegory for the people.” \+\

Theroux asked his guides asked his guides about the gold statues of himself that Niyazov puts up: “Mamed made a face, shook his head, and became suddenly alert. It was said that hotel rooms and offices were bugged. Surely his car could be bugged, too? But Gulnara had an opinion. She was confident and bright, qualities that she shared with many of the Turkmen women I met. She said, “The statues. The slogans. The five-year plans. We have seen this before. Stalin—and others. This will pass away.” It was, it seemed to me, the right way to view the autocracy, for of course this domineering man would die, and likely sooner rather than later—he was seriously afflicted with heart disease, possibly caused by diabetes, and had undergone at least one bypass operation. In the meantime, Turkmen often expressed their disaffection through jokes. “Why is Turkmenbashi the richest man in Turkmenistan?” Answer: “Because he has five million sheep.” [Source: Paul Theroux, The New Yorker, May 28, 2007]

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2016

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