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Turkmenistan: Analysis From Washington -- Rewriting The Future

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 2 October 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov last week ordered the destruction of 25,000 new history textbooks because of what he said was the distorted way in which their authors had treated his country's past.

But just as was the case during the Soviet period and just as is now true in many other post-Soviet states, Niyazov's order is more than an attack on historical truth. It represents a deeply political effort to control the present and rewrite the future.

Speaking to his ministers last Thursday, Niyazov said that he had ordered the destruction of the new school textbooks because they had ignored "the Turkmen origin and character" of Turkmenistan and had overstated the role of other nations in its national history.

He was particularly critical of the ways in which the now-destroyed textbooks described the impact of the Persians and Mongols, an emphasis that Niyazov argued incorrectly understates the role of the Turkmen themselves.

"You hardly mention the Turkmen people in your book," the Turkmen leader said. "You apparently did not listen to what I said in my speeches."

And because they had failed to listen to him, Niyazov insisted, these historians had accepted what he called the incorrect views of earlier Russian and Turkish scholars that the Turkmen originated not in what is modern Turkmenistan but in the Altai mountains.

Given the obvious parallels with earlier bookburners, Niyazov's order now in a country that lacks basic school supplies makes it likely that many will ascribe this latest action by Niyazov to his increasingly arbitrary and even irrational approach to rule.

That is certainly part of the explanation for this directive. But at the same time, his order calls attention to three broader political calculations that not only he, but many other post-Soviet Central Asian leaders, have made during the last decade.

First, these leaders, like those of new countries everywhere, want to have a distinctly national history, a desire especially strong given the enormous distortions of the historical record of Central Asia that Soviet historians often were forced to introduce.

Such strong desires for a national history have led many of them to downplay the role of other peoples and countries in their own national narratives, thus throwing out the very elements at the center of the histories the Soviet histories had insisted upon.

But if some of them have decided to allow this new national history to emerge from the clash of scholarly opinion, others like Niyazov have sought to impose a new history just like the older history was imposed on them.

Second, these leaders -- again like those of other new countries -- see history and especially history textbooks as tools for promoting national unity and maintaining their own political positions.

If such leaders are in a position to insist on their version of history, they often can justify their own current positions as the latest in a long line of defenders of the nation against threats and thus solidify both national identities and their own roles.

And third, these leaders can use their version of history to ward off threats. By stressing the linkage of the Turkmen nation to the land it now occupies, Niyazov clearly hopes to build support for any future challenges to his country's territorial integrity.

In all three of these cases, discussions about the past are in fact debates about the present and future. Where such debates can take place freely, where various schools of thought can contend for the allegiance of readers, then those national futures can be both open and free.

But when political leaders are in a position to insist on only their own version of events in the past and when, like Niyazov, they can order the burning of books, the national futures of their countries are likely to be very different.

In the short term, those who burn books may be able to prevent some of their peoples from learning the truth, but in the longer term, the historical record suggests, those who seek to settle historical debates in this way are likely to find that they too will reap the whirlwind.