Niyazov's humble Soviet beginnings provided no hint of the road that lay ahead.
His father, Atamurat, was killed in 1942 while fighting the Germans in the Caucasus. His mother, Gurbansoltan, and two brothers perished in a 1948 earthquake that leveled Ashgabat. The young Saparmurat was raised first in an orphanage and later in the home of a relative.
Rise To Power
But the orphaned Niyazov worked hard to make the best of the opportunities the Soviet system offered him. He joined the Communist Party in 1962, and in 1967 he graduated from the Polytechnic Institute in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). A job at a power plant in the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) led to a series of increasingly important positions in the local Communist Party bureaucracy.
In 1985, after a brief stint in Moscow as an instructor at the Central Committee of the Communist Party, Niyazov became chairman of the Turkmen SSR's Council of Ministers and first secretary of the Turkmen Communist Party.
Described by those who knew him during the Soviet era as self-effacing and ingratiating, Niyazov took a cool stance on the reforms begun by Mikhail Gorbachev. When a group of hard-liners attempted a coup against Gorbachev in 1991, Niyazov supported them. But as the futility of efforts to hold the Soviet Union together became apparent, Turkmenistan struck out on its own, declaring independence on October 27, 1991.
Freed from Soviet constraints, the once-modest party functionary rapidly established himself as the center and source of all power in independent Turkmenistan. Niyazov became president of the new nation, and the uncontested 1992 presidential election he won was the last to be held.
President For Life
By 1993, he had assumed the title Turkmenbashi (head of all the Turkmen), and in 1999, the country's docile legislature proclaimed him president for life.
Two parallel tendencies quickly emerged under Niyazov's rule. First, he stamped out not only dissent, but the very possibility of dissent, using his security services to remove all potential threats to his power. Second, he encouraged a cult of personality, dotting the landscapes with monuments to himself, renaming the months of the year, and authoring a book -- the "Ruhnama," or "Book of the Spirit" -- that became a compulsory part of curricula at all levels of the country's educational system.
Niyazov survived an apparent assassination attempt in 2002, responding with purges and show trials. In a memorable and disturbing spectacle, Boris Shikhmuradov, a former deputy prime minister, gave a self-abasing videotaped confession in which he called himself a "criminal" and Niyazov a "gift to the Turkmen people."
State television broadcast the confession nationwide, and audiences cried out for Shikhmuradov's execution at public screenings. Shikhmuradov received a 25-year prison sentence and has not been seen since.
Energy And Excess
Amid the megalomania, Niyazov took care to channel some of the export revenues from his country's abundant natural-gas reserves to populist initiatives, providing ordinary people with free salt, electricity, and gas.
But much of the profit went to fund projects as lavish as they were bizarre, from the construction of a winter wonderland to the creation of a vast artificial lake. Meanwhile, accounts seeped out painting a dire picture of rampant corruption, a failing health care system, and education subordinated to one man's cult of personality Niyazov's penchant for regulating the smallest details -- with decrees banning lip-synching and forbidding opera and ballet -- made him a darling of international media, which served up regular reports mocking his dictatorial excesses.
But for Turkmenistan's 5 million people, shut off from the world under the watchful eyes of the secret police amid an arbitrary jungle of directives and decrees, it has all been deadly serious. Now, with Niyazov gone, we may finally learn what life under his fickle rule was really like.
Human Rights In Turkmenistan
LIFE UNDER NIYAZOV: On July 21, RFE/RL's Prague broadcasting center hosted a presentation by TAJIGUL BEGMEDOVA, chairwoman of the Bulgaria-based Turkmenistan Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights (THF). Begmedova discussed the human rights situation in Turkmenistan under President Saparmural Niyazov, focusing on the arrests in June of THF activists and RFE/RL Turkmen Service correspondent Ogulsapar Muradova. Begmedova, who graduated from the Institute of Economy in Moscow in 1987, fled Turkmenistan in 2002 and lives in exile in Sofia.
LISTENListen to the complete presentation (36 minutes; presentation in Russian with consecutive translation into English):
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ARCHIVE RFE/RL coverage of Turkmenistan.