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Analysis: A River Runs Through It

Ashgabat already boasts a 40-meter-high, gold-plated statue of President-for-life Saparmurat Niyazov that rotates a full 360 degrees each day, the better to bask in the full glory of the sun's rays. But the Turkmen capital lacks one indispensable accoutrement of a truly great city -- a mighty river. Now, plans are afoot to remedy nature's oversight. And while they are of a piece with other grandiose projects conceived under the watchful eye of Niyazov, they are also part of an older Soviet legacy of schemes to subordinate and remake the natural world.

On 24 July, the Russian-language newspaper "Neitralnyi Turkmenistan" described an ambitious construction project to divide Ashgabat into east and west with an 11-kilometer-long man-made river. Slated for completion by 19 February 2006 -- the president's birthday -- the 15-meter-wide, 3.5-meter-deep river will draw water from the Karakum Canal. Flanked by fountains and small waterfalls, crisscrossed by footbridges, the river will flow past meter-high granite embankments, providing a rolling scenic backdrop to the golden age that President Niyazov claims to have ushered in since his ascent to power.

The article stresses that the project's authors intend to line the river bottom with waterproof material as a safeguard against unwanted environmental consequences. But if previous large-scale urban-development efforts in Ashgabat are any indication, city residents may receive short shrift. As the Institute for War and Peace Reporting detailed on 13 February, a project to construct a Disneyland-style amusement park resulted in the summary eviction of 200 families, with city officials turning a deaf ear to the complaints of bothersome citizens rendered homeless by wrecking balls and excavators. One can only guess at the number of residential dwellings that would have to be cleared to make way for an 11-kilometer-long, 15-meter-wide river through the center of Ashgabat.

While it may be tempting to view the idea of a river for the leader's birthday as a manifestation of indigenous megalomania, its roots may run deeper. The Soviet past was a patchwork quilt of grandiose schemes justified by an ideology that, in quasi-mystical fashion, took precedence over reality. As Mikhail Heller and Aleksandr M. Nekrich wrote in their history of the Soviet Union, "Utopia in Power" (1985): "Soviet ideology has long since ceased to be a philosophical doctrine or even a system of views. It has become a technique for conditioning human consciousness and spirit and for transforming man into Soviet man." Soviet man possesses two outstanding characteristics: an unshakeable faith in the party's infallibility, and an implacable hatred of the Soviet system's enemies. For a leader like Niyazov, who formed his worldview as a conformist cog in the Soviet system, this pliable "ideology" has proved eminently useful.

In the practical sphere, Soviet ideology proved a perfect tool for justifying rationally unjustifiable projects, or simply ignoring inconvenient realities. Under Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet Union witnessed a number of ideologically approved, yet practically disastrous, agricultural initiatives, including attempts to treble meat production, cultivate corn on a grand scale, and reduce the amount of fallow land to stimulate grain harvests. Heller and Nekrich concluded: "An indisputable reality remained. Agriculture refused to budge on orders from above."

In an essay on the Soviet ideology of labor, cultural theorist Mikhail N. Epstein grappled with this strange penchant for manhandling nature. He explained it as an Oedipus complex in which the mother is mother nature. He wrote: "A psychoanalytic interpretation of materialism can go still further to explain a paradox that cannot be solved in the framework of Marxist philosophy: Why did the materialistic approach lead to an unprecedented violence of man over nature and over society in the Soviet era? Soviet ideology allegedly proclaimed the priority of matter, but, in actuality, such entities as the 'planned economy' and 'ideological and Party commitment' devastated living matter.... Now, in the early 1990s, we are able to witness the last stage of materialism's destruction of matter in the USSR: there is nothing to eat and no clean air to breathe, many natural resources are exhausted, and agricultural production is marginal at best."

One of the most grandiose Soviet-era projects sought to redirect the flow of Siberian rivers to water the arid plains of Central Asia. The idea emerged to combat the ill effects of another vast endeavor gone awry -- the pursuit of ever larger cotton crops in Uzbekistan. As Elisa Schaar wrote in "Harvard International Review" in fall 2001: "In 1959, under General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev's self-sufficiency plan, the Russians diverted the courses of the [Amu Darya] and Syr Darya rivers, the Aral Sea's two main feeders, to irrigate newly planted cotton fields in Uzbekistan. With the diversion of two of its feeding rivers, evaporation took its toll on the Aral Sea. To exacerbate matters, the pesticides used to accelerate cotton growth heavily polluted the water system. Moscow's attempt to transform one of its republics into a major agricultural center was a shortsighted project and was abandoned within a decade. But the environmental effects were not so transient: the Aral Sea has lost three-fifths of its water in the past 40 years, and its shoreline has at some areas receded more than 60 miles [100 kilometers]. What remains of the sea is salty and polluted."

The basic idea of a solution to this problem is simplicity itself. Siberia's abundant rivers flow north into the Arctic, yet their waters would do much more good in the parched south. As "New Scientist" wrote on 7 February: "The proposed scheme would be roughly equivalent to irrigating Mexico from the North American Great Lakes. It would drive a canal 200 meters wide and 16 meters deep southwards for some 2,500 kilometers...." Interest in the project peaked in the 1980s. "The New York Times" reported on 6 May 1983 that "at least 60 technical institutes have been hard at work for the last two decades [on the idea]." The article went on to note that the Communist Party's 1983 long-term agricultural plan included a directive "to realize by 1990 the construction necessary for the first stage of the diversion of part of the flow of northern rivers to the Volga River basin." Yet even in the closed conditions of the Soviet Union, the idea encountered fierce resistance from principled scientists, a nascent environmental movement, and local Siberian patriots. Mikhail Gorbachev shelved the project in the mid-1980s, and the demise of the Soviet Union seemed to seal its fate. Periodic attempts to revive the plan, most recently by Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov, have failed to gain traction in the face of staggering costs and disturbing environmental consequences.

The plan to bisect Ashgabat with a river seems to bubble up from the same ideological wellspring that fed many a harebrained Soviet scheme. It is also sufficiently plausible and President Niyazov's power sufficiently great that it could, conceivably, happen. Still, Niyazov should take note that attempts to carve proof of a self-proclaimed golden age in the geography of a capital city sometimes end badly for the sculptor. Nicolae Ceausescu, the communist dictator of Romania, flattened a fifth of Bucharest in the 1980s to make way for an urban topography more to his liking. But while communism ended with a whimper in the rest of Eastern Europe in 1989, it went out with a bang in Romania, where Ceausescu and his wife faced the firing squad.

For more on Turkmen plans to build a river through Ashgabat, see:

Turkmenistan: Ashgabat Has Grand Plans To Create Man-Made Lake, River (Part 1)

Turkmenistan: Projects Sounding Alarm Bells In Region (Part 2)

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