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Turkmenistan: With 'Rukhnama,' Turkmenbashi Adds Spiritual Leader To His Resume

  • Zamira Eshanova

Turkmenistan has been a source of bemusement to the outside world, largely because of the eccentric exploits of its president, Saparmurat Niyazov. Turkmenistan's president for life recently decided to add the title of spiritual leader to his resume. To this end, he has published "Rukhnama," or "Spiritual Writings," a heavy tome of advice and observations that dominates the country's bookstores and has become required reading for adults and children alike.

Prague, 9 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- For many people throughout the world, it is currently the month of September. But in Turkmenistan, it is Rukhnama, a month named in honor of the latest creation of the country's president for life, Saparmurat Niyazov: a 500-plus-page book entitled "Rukhnama: Reflections on the Spiritual Values of the Turkmen."

When it comes to augmenting his list of personal accomplishments, the Turkmen leader appears tireless. Niyazov recently upgraded his title from Turkmenbashi -- literally, "Father of all Turkmen" -- to Turkmenbashi the Great. He has also renamed the months of the year to reflect the people and qualities he most admires, including his mother, the flag, independence -- and himself.

Now, with the publication of "Rukhnama," Niyazov appears intent on dominating the country's spiritual and literary life as well. The book has been promoted as the single most important source for spiritual growth in Turkmenistan. Bookstores have cleared their shelves to make way for the presidential opus, and television and newspaper reports have likened the work to the Koran, and its author to God's messenger.

Niyazov himself appears no less in awe of "Rukhnama's" spiritual import. In one passage from "Rukhnama," he describes how he was visited by the spirit of a legendary Turkmen hero, Gorogly, who called on him to lead the country to spiritual greatness: "The soul of Gorogly said [to me]: 'The nation that travels a straight road is happy. The happiness of the nation is the basis of the brave preservation of the country and the territory. Today, the happiness of your nation is in your hands. Saparmurat, show the way of the golden life to the Turkmen nation. This will be your task; this will be your way.'"

This grandiose claim may sound laughable to outsiders, but for Turkmens it is anything but. "Rukhnama" has become required reading at all of the country's schools, universities, and research centers. Citizens must now demonstrate sufficient understanding of the book in order to receive documents and licenses. In many ways, knowledge of "Rukhnama" has become as important as carrying one's identification card.

Muhammad Berdiev is a Turkmen historian and ethnosociologist who currently lives in Moscow. He said many outsiders look at Turkmenistan, with its innumerable statues and shrines to Turkmenbashi, as the Disneyland of Central Asia. But beyond the eccentric spectacle of Niyazov's leadership, Berdiev said, the intellectual and spiritual lives of millions of Turkmen are being subjected to cruel ideological manipulation. "This is a purposeful ideological action. Niyazov has usurped all political power [in the country]; he became Turkmenbashi and then he became president for life. He usurped the economy of the country; most of the country's revenue goes directly into his pocket. Now he wants to usurp people's minds. That's why 'Rukhnama' has appeared," Berdiev said.

In "Rukhnama," Niyazov also usurps world history, taking many of world's most seminal moments and recasting them as Turkmen history. He also takes a creative approach in retelling Turkmenistan's recent history, altering events that many Turkmen lived through and still remember, including the fact that he opposed the collapse of the Soviet Union and was among the last of the former Soviet leaders finally, grudgingly, to declare independence.

In "Rukhnama," Niyazov instead fashions himself as the bold founder of independent Turkmenistan. In the book's English-language edition, the year when Turkmenistan declared independence is omitted, making it appear as though the country became independent a year earlier than it did. "On the 22nd of August 1990, I made a declaration that we would establish Turkmenistan as an independent, sovereign, stable state. Dear Turkmens, it was the moment in history that our ancestors had longed for. At that time, together with my colleagues, it was necessary for me to work day and night, without tiring, to establish an independent state, and troubles were not able to deter me. On the 26th of October [the year 1991 is omitted in the English version], we called a convention of the Turkmenistan High Council and we explicitly and definitively declared the independence of the State of Turkmenistan," the book reads.

Writing books on spiritual guidance is not a new phenomenon in Central Asia. Throughout history, most of the region's rulers either came to power as poets or went on to author poetic or philosophical works.

Tamerlane (Temur the lame), who built a powerful 14th-century empire stretching from the Black Sea to the upper Ganges, was the author of the famous "Code of Temur," which laid out key principles of state management.

Tamerlane's descendant, Muhammad Babur, who went on to found the so-called Great Mogol Empire in India in the 16th century, is considered one of the region's greatest poets. His autobiography "Baburnama," is still considered a literary and historical masterpiece.

Berdiev said it is this historical tradition, combined with the superstitious mentality typical of Central Asians, that paved the way for Niyazov's self-appointment as spiritual leader of the Turkmens. "As an ethnosociologist, I can say that the people of Central Asia tend to have a mythologized conscience. These people, by their tradition, believe more in legends than in science. 'Rukhnama,' from beginning to end, consists of legends and story. There is nothing based on research or real facts," Berdiev said.

But if, by writing "Rukhnama," Niyazov is looking to put himself in the historical ranks of great leaders like Tamerlane and Babur, he is also nodding to a more recent tradition. Soviet leaders, inspired by the founders of communism -- Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and Vladimir Lenin -- were zealous writers in their own right, churning out volumes of socialist-realist and Marxist philosophical works.

Niyazov is not the only former communist leader of Central Asia to keep this tradition alive. This month, Uzbek President Islam Karimov published his 10th volume of speeches; his books are also mandatory reading at the country's schools and universities. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev and Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev, together with their wives, have both written several books that are also compulsory reading for students. Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov has also authored a book on the history of the Tajik people.

What sets Niyazov's literary efforts apart, however, is that "Rukhnama" is the only book to present itself as a spiritual guide, and Niyazov is the only president to lay claim to the additional title of spiritual leader. Berdiev offered an explanation. "Here we have another factor in action, the intellectual level of the former communist first secretaries that we inherited from the Soviet period. The presidents of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, as state figures, appear to be cleverer than Niyazov. If they wanted, someone could have written a book as stupid [as "Rukhnama"] for them and they could have just signed their name. But so far, they haven't let themselves sink as low in clownery as Niyazov has," Berdiev said.

But Yurii Byalyi of the Experimental Creative Center, a Moscow-based foundation, said "Rukhnama" and other products of Niyazov's whimsy are not the result of a low intellect. To the contrary, he said, Niyazov is a skillful manipulator of Turkmens looking to get back to essential Central Asian traditions after years under Russian and communist influence. "I would not disparage [Niyazov], and I would not demonize his so-called primitivism. He is far from being primitive. This is an experienced politician, in a very Asian way, which is unusual for those with a European mindset, who find most of his actions, like those of many Asian politicians, incomprehensible. But in Turkmenistan, in this Asian society that has started to return or has returned to its archaic, tribal code of existence, he is, to some extent, in the right place," Byalyi said.

But some question whether Niyazov's megalomania is truly in the interest of Turkmens in search of restoring tribal traditions. Muhammad Solih, a renowned Uzbek poet who has since become a well-known member of Central Asia's political opposition, said that unlimited power is dangerous for any individual and capable of degrading the intellectual and spiritual well-being of not only the ruler but his nation as well.

Solih recalled a time-honored tradition of the Ottoman Empire, in which the sultan, during public appearances, walked several steps behind a man whose responsibility it was to shout out warnings to the leader to remain humble, and that despite his greatness, there was still a higher power to whom he must answer.

Solih said this mechanism kept sultans from becoming overly arrogant and abusive of their otherwise unchallenged power. In an absolute monarchy, it was the one effective way of keeping a quasi-balance of powers. But now, Solih said, some Central Asian leaders operate without even these modest restraints. "Today, there are no such mechanisms, either in Turkmenistan or in Uzbekistan. In such conditions, if Karimov's or Turkmenbashi's arrogance appear to have reached a pathological degree, it would be logical to look for a reason not only in their characters, but in the environment in which they live. Laudation is a simple microbe. In normal conditions, it may be harmless. But microbes may become a dangerous enemy in bodies that have lost their immune system. Metaphorically, to rationally consider ideas that are opposed to yours and to look at your own actions with a critical eye is like the immune system for modern states. We can say that Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are sociopolitical bodies with damaged immune systems," Solih said.

Solih said that with no "immune system" or proper control mechanism, life in Turkmenistan may grow even more subject to the whims of Niyazov. But Turkmenbashi, who at 62 is rumored to be looking ahead to the end of his career as the political and spiritual leader of Turkmenistan, may see his literary accomplishments -- like those of many Soviet leaders before him -- ridiculed and ultimately forgotten.

(RFE/RL Turkmen Service Director Naz Nazar and Turkmen stringer Gozel Khoudaiberdieva contributed to this report.)