May 26, 2016

Cult of personality in Turkmenistan

Месяц назад я побывал в одной из самых закрытых стран мира — Туркменистане. Репортажи оттуда вызвали небывалый отклик и стали самыми посещаемыми в моем блоге за последний год. Так как тема оказалась интересна не только русскоязычным читателям, но и иностранным, я перевел посты на английский язык. Ближайшую неделю буду публиковать английскую версию постов про Туркменистан. А вы распространяйте ;)


The first President of Turkmenistan, Saparmurat Niyazov, ruled the country for over 30 years. Back in 1985 he was appointed First Secretary of the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic’s Communist Party and prior to that he was the Head of Ashgabat City Administration.

When USSR staggered, Niyazov became the Head of Republic’s Supreme Council, which later declared the Republic’s independence. In June 1992 the former communist party employee was already elected President of Turkmenistan. People say it was an absolutely democratic election, with one candidate and fairly earned 99.5% of votes.

In just over a year, Medzhlis (local Parliament) awarded the title of Turkmenbashi to Niyazov, naming him the leader of all Turkmens around the world. Later on, the adjective “Great” was added to the title to make it even more convincing. Some optional titles used during his reign included “Savior of the Nation” and “Messenger of Allah”, a more universal title used by mass media was Serdar, or “Leader”. In addition to this, despite never having served in the army, Niyazov had a title of Marshall and was awarded the title of National Hero five times. On every meeting officials had to kiss his right hand, which was covered with diamond and emerald rings.

You might think that those were just titles, but there were other implications. The national anthem had to be changed each time the titles were changed. One Turkmen guy told me that one line on the school blackboard was always wiped out, so they could insert “Turkmenbashi”, “Great Turkmenbashi” or any other title.

By mid-90s Niyazov was seriously contemplating naming himself the Shah, but rumor has it that the elders were against it along with the state leaders of Iran, Russia and Uzbekistan. As a consolation, Turkmenbashi asked the Republic’s Peoples Council to declare him Lifelong President.

To commemorate his greatness, Turkmenbashi ordered to erect a gigantic 83 meter high monument in the center of Ashgabat, known as the Arc of Neutrality. There is a golden statue of Niyazov on top of the monument, turning to follow the sun.

After Turkmenbashi died, the Arc was disassembled and moved to the outskirts of the city. It’s not turning around anymore, in order to avoid the statue of the Leader showing its behind to the city. Not cool.

Another gigantic statue of Turkmenbashi was erected in 2000, this time in front of the Monument of Independence.

The President Alley where foreign leaders are planting pine trees, is located right next to the Monument of Independence. Here is Medvedev’s pine tree.

And here is Yanukovich’s pine.

In total, 14 000 statues and busts of Turkmenbashi appeared in the country over two decades. Their quantity started decreasing once Berdimuhamedow came to power, but a lot of them are still around.

There is a golden statue of Turkmenbashi in front of the local KGB building, his profile is decorating the buildings of Ministry of Health and Ministry of Publishing. And here is his statue in front of the Turkmenistan’s Ministry of Interior.

Another statue is located in the “10 years of Turkmenistan’s Independence” park in the center of Ashgabat.

The city of Turkmenbashi (former Kransovodsk) was named after Niyazov, as well as the peak of Great Turkmenbashi (former Peak of Airibaba, the highest point of Koitendag mountain range). Nearly all the streets of Turkmenistan’s cities were named after Turkmenbashi or his family members. The rest of them were either numbered, or named after something unrelated to real personalities (like the street of Neutral Turkmenistan). A couple of streets were named after a few historical figures.

All of the state officials’ offices, school classrooms, production facilities and hallways had to have the Leaders’s portrait on the wall. It goes without saying that the magnificent image of Turkmenbashi was looking at his people from national currency bills.

You could also buy a vodka called “Serdar” (“Leader”) and fragrance “Turkmenbashi” made in France. Allegedly, the fragrance was chosen by Turkmenbashi himself.

Personal brand of cognac

Niyazov decided to put the image of his Algerines stallion in the center of Turkmenistan’s Coat of Arms. After his death, his successor ordered to replace him with an image of his own stallion.

As if this wasn’t enough, Turkmebashi published a great work called “Rukhnama”. Niyazov called it “the main book of the people of Turkmenistan” and “Guidebook”.

“Rukhnama” was first published in 2001, and in five years it was translated into over 40 different languages, and the total number of copies exceeded one million. A new subject was introduced in schools and colleges all over the country, devoted to studying the book, and the knowledge of “Rukhnama” was tested at college entrance exams and job interviews.

In 2002, the month of September changed its name to “Rukhnama”, and the construction of the university named after “Rukhnama” started in 2005. However, Niyazov passed away a year later, and this plan was never implemented. At least they were able to erect a monument to “Rukhnama” in Ashgabat.

Very few people believe that Turkmenbashi wrote “Rukhnama” himself; rumor has it that the book was written by “literary slaves”. However, it’s impossible to prove at this point. Turkmenbashi’s successor Berdimuhamedow partially debunked the cult of “Rukhnama”, but instead delighted his people with literary works of his own.

In addition to September getting a more up-to-date name, Niyazov renamed the whole year, paying respect to himself (January was named “Turkmenbashi”) and to his mother (it’s currently the month of Gurbansoltan-Adge in Turkmenistan, not at all April).

Turkmens even had a joke: “To arrive in Turkmenbashi (city), during Turkmenbashi (month), driving along Turkmenbashi (street) to “Turkmenbashi” (hotel).”

The cult of Niyazov’s mother is an integral part of the cult of Turkmenbashi. First of all, following the president, his parents became National Heros of Turkmenistan. The type of national bread “chorek” was named after Gurbansoltan-Adge. In addition, Justice started being portrayed as Turkmenbashi’s mother instead of Femida.

And of course there were monuments of Gurbansoltan-Adge and Leader’s father, Atamurat Niyazov, in Ashgabat, but they were dismantled in 2014.

The biggest single dome mosque in the world “Turkmenbashi Rukhy” was built in 2004 in the town of Kipchak where Niyaziov was born. The walls of the mosque were decorated with citations from “Rukhnama”.

A mausoleum was thoughtfully built next to the mosque, where Niyazov’s parents and two brothers were buried, and later Turkmenbashi himself was buried in the central sarcophagus in 2006.


After Niyazov passed away, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow bacame the President of Turkmenistan (rumor has it that he is Niyazov’s son born out of wedlock). Since the very start of his presidency, Berdimuhamedow has been trying to replace the cult of Niyazov with his own personality cult.

However, there are still golden statues of Turkmenbashi in front of the majority of government buildings. Berdimuhamedow didn’t dare to take them down just yet.

After two years of Berdimuhamedow’s presidency, one of the state officials announced that they were receiving “multiple requests from individuals, businesses, state and public agencies, suggesting to award the title of National Hero to the President”.

Local mass media commented that “these words... were met with a long standing ovation during a government session”.

Berdimuhamedow was modest and said that he was too young and wanted to prove himself a little bit more before accepting this high award. The Council of Elders of Turkmenistan decided to obey and wait, and awarded him with the title of National Hero only two years later. Berdimuhamedow has yet to receive four more National Hero titles to match the number of highest government awards of Turkmenbashi.

His faithful subjects came up with the title “Arkhadag”, which means “Protector”, so that the
new President can keep up with Turkmenbashi on all fronts. The title was awarded to Berdimuhamedow during the military parade in 2010.

The hosts of the local radio station are quoting an unnamed blogger to describe the events of that day:

“A large military unit marching by Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, suddenly stopped, turned to face the President, and kneeled in front of him. Perhaps, it was symbolic of the nation kneeling in front of its Protector (“Arkhadag”). Interestingly, after the marching of the military, the subservient horsemen brought an Algerine stallion to Protector’s podium and tried to make him kneel, but failed. Either the stallion was too pure bred, or it wasn’t properly explained to him who he was facing.”

Nonetheless, the government website “Turkmexpo” wrote that the magnificent stallion stopped in front of the main tribune, and honored the Leader of the Nation with a gracious bow.

There are not too many monuments to Berdimuhamedow at this point, the construction campaign is just getting started.

On the other hand Arkhadag is takes advantage of the latest technology and loves to display his images on multimedia screens along the streets of the city. Usually he is portrayed against the light carpet, or a waving flag on the background.

But sometimes he just walks into the bright future on a green carpet. To add persuasiveness to the image, the main places of interest of the city of Ashgabat are placed behind him.

Local writer Gozel Shaguliyeva published “The song of joyous celebration in honor of dear President of Turkmenistan Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow receiving the title “Man of the Year- 2010” (this title was awarded to him by the Institute of Foreign Affairs and Economic Partnerships of Romania, and many are puzzled as to why they decided to do so). Here is the
quote from “The Song”:

“First of all, I just wanted to say how happy I am that I am a witness to the great deeds during the great era of the Great Son. I am happy because I consider it my duty to sing about the days of the great deeds of my country’s Renaissance Era, famed all over the world. Internationally recognized Arkhadag, our rock, pillar and hope, is the one reviving the ancient Silk Road of Turkmen people with his sympathetic heart, and he is the one who turned his Motherland into a peacemaking center.”

Arkhadag is greeting you, traveller.

Sometimes you can witness succession of generations: the golden statue of Turkmenbashi is blocking the view of Berdimuhamedow’s image.

In 2013 Berdimuhamedow was attending the horse races in celebration of Akgerine Stallion Day. He wanted to participate in the races himself, and the judicial board included him in the “Masters’ Race”. He was riding his horse named Berkarar, and came in first to everybody’s surprise. The only thing that marred the jubilation of the crowd was the sudden fall of Berkarar and his rider after they crossed the finish line.

The crowd froze for a few seconds before security services, special forces and ministers rushed towards the motionless Berdimuhamedow. He was driven away by an ambulance, and the spectators nervously waited to hear some news for about an hour. At the end of the event the alive and almost unscathed President made a public appearance and even talked to the guilty stallion.

Berkarar was eventually brought back to the racetrack. The Leader of Turkmenistan, known for his love of horses, tried to kiss the stallion, but the stallion made a step back. The President didn't give up and pulled him forward. The stallion was forgiven. The crowd cheered.
Once the event was over, security services were sifting through the crowd at the exit. People who had cameras were brought to a space under the tribune, and persuasively asked to delete all the photos and videos of the event.

Volunteer students were making sure nobody could hide the memory cards. There were some foreign visitors and journalists present at the event; their laptops, tablets and phones were confiscated at the airport. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Turkmenistan announced that several dozen people were arrested for the attempt to export abroad “the illegal materials”.

Anyway, the President received $11.5 million for the first place in the race. He promised to donate the prize to the state organization “Turkmen Stallions”. By the way, the horses that came in second and third, also belonged to Berdimuhamedow.

In addition to the horse races, the President participates in the car races. He always wins the car races and even beats the records. Usually the events are described in the following manner:

“The Leader of the nation comes out to the track followed by the thunderous applause of the spectators. The race cars are taking off and gaining full speed instantaneously, rapidly going around the race track... But number 7 (usually this number belongs to Berdimuhamedow, as this is his favorite number) is not leaving any chance to the rivals. It is a well-known fact that the Leader of the Nation has been fond of cars since he was a child, and proved to be an excellent car racer. Demonstrating the highest skill level at driving a race car, the unconditional victory belongs to... number 7 – the President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow!”

Overall, Berdimuhamedow doesn’t miss a single chance to show his people that he is in excellent shape.

Berdimuhamedow likes everything golden. Including garden tools. Here is a golden watering can.

And here is a golden cart. Obviously we are not dealing with a regular person.

Berdimuhamedow also writes books. One of them is titled: “The Good Name is Immortal” and is dedicated to his grandfather Berdimuhamed Annayev, who was a teacher. Some of his other works are “Turkmenistan is the Country of Healthy and Spiritual People”, “Akhal-Teke Stallions are Our Pride and Joy”, “The Flight of Celestial Stallions” and “Medicinal Herbs of Turkmenistan”. In 2009, following the President’s orders, all copies of Turkmenbashi’s “Rukhama” were replaced with Berdimuhamedow’s books in all the country’s schools.

Two new books were published in 2016: “The Source of Wisdom” (collection of proverbs and sayings of the people of Turkmenistan) and “Tea as a Medicine and Inspiration”. Usually Berdimuhamedow presents his new books to the Deputy Prime Ministers and the heads of ministries, and they bow down in front of him as a sign of gratitude and press the gift against their forehead.

Berdimuhamedow loves to be portrayed against the background picturing his people, children and/or elders. There are a lot of pictures of him where he is walking somewhere, young and cheerful, leading his people.

Classic photo of the Leader against the light wall rug background. This is the model photo owned by almost everyone in Turkmenistan.

Whenever possible, the portrait is hung against the wall rug. Of course the frame has to be golden.

This is the box office of the amusement center with the Ferris wheel. An image of the Arkhadag isurrounded by children greets everyone at the entrance.

Portraits are everywhere. They are in the airports, railway stations, most administrative buildings, and, of course, the government (and even private) offices. Here’s the office of MTS (cell service provider). The Arkhadag is next to the flag and coat of arms of Turkmenistan.

At the hotel.

Here is the showcase of “Kamaz” (Russian automotive company) during one of the trade exhibits in Turkmenistan. All of the showcases have to be decorated with Berdimuhamedow’s portrait, otherwise, people say, the business won’t thrive in the country.

State institutions and businesses have to renew the portraits of the President. There is a special committee created for ordering, evaluation and approving the new portraits. They are different for different establishments – for the hospitals, Berdimuhamedow poses in a white lab coat; for military and special forces, he wears a brown uniform and looks very serious; and for presidential building’s facades, he is photographed in a suit with his hand raised in a greeting. All the organizations have to pay for the portraits themselves. As an example, school teachers paid 33 manat (approximately $10) for the portraits last year, in order to hang them in their classrooms.

Overall, the cult of Turkmenbashi is gradually becoming history, but the presonality cult of his successor is strengthening. Recently Berdimuhamedow decided to build a monument to himself.

Here it is! Monument “The Arkhadag” – the equestrian monument to Berdimuhamedow, reminiscent of Peter the Great’s monument in St. Petersburg, only bigger.

Here is the opening ceremony.

Raising funds for the monument was announced as voluntary, but according to the journalists from “Turkmenistan Chronicles” the “donations” were just withdrawn from the salaries of state employees. The plan was for the monument to outshine the Arch of Neutrality with the golden statue of Turkmenbashi on top, which was earlier transferred to the outskirts of the city.

The first Presidential term of Berdimuhamedow was titled “The Era of Great Renaissance”. The second term was titles “The Era of Power and Happiness”.

The secret museum of gifts to the president of Turkmenistan

When I saw everything in Ashgabat and had some spare time, the taxi driver proposed to drop me at a museum! I was curious about what museums they had.

“We have the most remarkable museum! Even two in one!”

“What kind of museum is it?”

“Well, it is our main national museum! There are various antiquities which were found in archaeological excavations, traditional garments, and antique rugs – very beautiful!”

To be honest, neither the history nor the ethnography of Turkmenistan preserved on museum shelves had aroused my interest. I was tempted to spend the rest of my day looking at smithereens, ancient arrows, and other artifacts found in excavations at old Nisa and the ancient Merv, but I resisted.

“And do you have anything else interesting?”

“Well, there is also a museum of gifts for the president, but usually no one visits it...” said the driver in a sad voice.

“Why does no one visit it?” I perked up – the museum of gifts seemed to me far more interesting than other museums.

On the way I googled what types of gifts are presented there... I imagined grandiose golden guns, rhinestoned horses and old-fashioned cars. Well, what else would you expect in a dictator’s museum?
But Google didn't respond to any of my requests. That’s strange, I thought...

When we reached the museum’s ticket office we discovered that photography was not permitted! There we go! There was an option to buy a photography permit for the museums of history and ethnography, 1000 rubles by the way, but photography was strictly forbidden in the museum of the president’s gifts; you couldn’t even enter the museum with a camera. The driver took my camera and promised to keep an eye on it while I enjoyed the exposition.

Totally accidentally I had my phone camera on and taking pictures, and when I had already left the museum I found a few photos...

So, the museum of the president of Turkmenistan was established in 2009. It would be fairer to name it the museum of Berdimuhamedow instead of the museum of the president of Turkmenistan. Or maybe the great leader and wise sovereign [of the Turkmen nation] Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow is suggesting that he will stay in the president’s chair for his entire life, like Turkmenbashi? The museum was started as a museum for all presidents, not just one, but later the Arkadag decided that one is enough.

By the way, “Ruhnama”, the book of the prior president Turkmenbashi, which Berdimuhamedow received when he was inaugurated as president, is absent from the collection of gifts. Instead there are books written by Berdimuhamedow himself, devoted to Berdimuhamedow, and books containing selected citations from Berdimuhamedow’s public speeches and so on.

The halls of the museum are full of photos of Berdimuhamedow. They illustrate the great achievements of the national leader, who confidently guides the nation to an era of prosperity and [inevitable] happiness.

Special attention is paid to gifts given to Berdimuhamedow. This collection is comparable to the supply warehouse for The Price Is Right. Here all sorts of gifts are represented: gifts from leaders of other countries, from the Turkmen people, from official cabinet visitors, and from local and international businesses. Here you can also find presents Berdimuhamedow made to himself and then passed on to the museum.

Okay, to be completely fair, the idea of this museum is not unique: Berdimuhamedow borrowed the idea from his colleague [The Eternal President] Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan.

One colorful detail: the museum opened its doors on Berdimuhamedow’s birthday, the 29th of June 2009, with a decadent ceremony crowded by ministers, deputies, journalists and “gilded youth”. But the Arkadag himself didn’t appear at the ceremony because he was busy opening a cotton factory.

Half of the exposition consists of statuettes made in the exquisite national style… I don’t even know the right name for them. Always colored gold, decorated with rhinestones and every one proudly shows the national leader’s portrait.

Here is a composition with an armchair.

But usually they look like this... The guide insisted that they are made from real gold and gems.

I don’t want to insult people who gifted these statuettes but they look like things bought in a subway crossing gift shop.

Here each trinket bears the noble name “composition”. These “compositions” are gifted by collective groups from different fields of work. For example, by the taxation department or some university.

Somewhere in Turkmenistan there must be a factory producing these tatty things.

Thousands of them! All different kinds! [Gotta collect them all!]

To my understanding, at every celebration and ceremony the Turkmen tsar is given these shiny rhinestoned compositions.

The entire first floor represents a collection of these compositions.

Everything is protected with glass and framed in gold.

The second floor displays presents from national leaders of other countries. Of course, the Russian contributions are displayed prominently among all others.

Here are the gifts from [Russian prime minister Dmitry] Medvedev. For instance, this crystal vase, which caused an amusing accident. I took a look at it and decided to say something funny...

I told the guide:

“Oh! My granny had same vase but then it got lost...”

“How!?” the girl who guided me went pale and almost fainted.

“Ah, it was just a joke,” I didn’t want to catch and reanimate the fainted guide and decided to retreat.

“How was that a joke?” she asked in trembling voice.

“Well, just a joke: my granny simply lost it and here Medvedev gives the same one...” I realized that the joke was not appreciated and we needed to forget it and change topics.

“But he is the president! Aren’t you afraid of making such jokes?” she looked at me as if I’m boasting about planning Medvedev’s attempted murder...

“Well, we can make such jokes about presidents in Russia...” and we didn’t joke anymore.

By the way, one cannot walk through the museum on one’s own. You will be accompanied by a guide and two security guards.

This is a gift to Berdimuhamedow from “the Russian business community”. All gifts given by businesses are subscribed in the museum as “business community” gifts, never mentioning names of companies or businessmen who had given it. [I'm sure none were from Enron, Tyco, or the like.]

The Indians gave caskets... and this awful owl was gifted by... the Ukrainian business community! Ahahaha, it’s from a pawn shop, no doubt ) I don’t understand how one can choose such nonsense as a gift. Apparently they chose whatever was more glittery ;)

The Saudis have sent a ship!

Where do they get this crap? You might not see it on the photos, but the entire ship is covered with rhinestones. There is a chess set from a Russian business community on the right.

Romanians make a difference here – they didn’t go to a pawn shop for shiny things.

You might not see it on the photo but the Germans gave a small plate ) Well done.

This was brought by Turkmenistan sportsmen from Beijing. All in rhinestones.

The pride of the exposition! A picture made by students! This is the grand opening of Berdimuhamedow’s golden statue! How beautiful!

The funny thing is that the artist placed photographers in the crowd!!! Ahahahaha, a lambent mockery taking into account how they prohibit taking pictures of everything in the country.

This needs more gold and rhinestones!

The museum has gifts from the Turkmen tsar himself. For example, this is his shooting target. The guide proudly narrates how Berdimuhamedow is as sharp-eyed as a falcon, as fast as the wind and as wise as Kaa the boa (he was wise, right?).

The 12 deeds of Hercules Berdimuhamedow.

Here is a regal bicycle he gave to the museum.

And here is a dirt bike. There is a racing car as well.

Beautiful rugs.

This rug honors the first Turkmen satellite, which was launched into the orbit last year.

Awesome rug, by the way, it’s a pity it is not for sale.

I was the only visitor in the museum...

To be continued...

Written by Ilya Varlamov
Photos by Ilya Varlamov
Translated by Elena Leonard , Serdar Kurbanov and Sean Kalafut
Edited by Serdar Kurbanov, Sean Kalafut and Olga Ronchinskaya

I will publish fresh chapters of my Turkmenistan reportage every night at 0:00 AM Moscow Time (10 PM WET; 5 PM EST).

You'll learn all about:
Prohibitions in Turkmenistan and Turkmen communism;
Architecture in Ashgabat, New Ashgabat district and The biggest Ferris wheel;
The city of the living, The city of the dead and The dark side of the moon (Hidden Turkmenistan);
Awaza – the pride of Turkmenistan and The city of Turkmenbashi.

Previous chapters: