May 31, 2016

Turkmenistan: the dark side of the moon

The dark side of the moon

Do you know how to tell a high grade furniture apart from cheap knock-offs? Check the inverse side of a counter top, or a chair's backrest, or the rear side of a closet. If the finish is just as polished as the front side, that is the hallmark of an excellent artisan. However, if the veneer isn't finished, the surface is poorly treated with nails sticking out here and there, then it's a poor grade furniture. A good artisan would not allow himself negligent craftsmanship, even if the shortcuts won't be immediately visible. Exactly the same reasoning applies to a city. Take a look at a backyard and it'll all become obvious. A good proprietor keeps things tidy.

To actually see the real city, you only have to turn off the main avenue, where the theater ends. In Turkmenistan that difference is omnipresent. Every city is divided into two zones: one, visible to the great leader of the Turkmen people Berdimuhamedow, and one escaping the gaze of his Holy Awesomeness. Turkmenistan is a bit like a crappy housewife, who sweeps the floor underneath the rug before the guests arrive.

If you take it easy and let the Turkmen show you, say, Ashgabat, you'll see huge palaces of white marble, golden statues, fountains and parks. The only thing which might confuse you is the complete absence of people on the streets, but it'll be attributed to being at work or at school. You'll take home awesome pics of a neat white city which you'd be thrilled to show to your buddies.

Ashgabat and other Turkmen cities today are built in such a way so as to inspire awe from a window of a passing car or a tourist bus. The country created an entire show industry to that effect. Let's have a look at the flip side of this Turkmen marvel.

Front entrance, fountains, backlighting. The wise ruler Gurbanguly Mälikgulyýewiç Berdimuhamedow gazes upon us, may his path be lit both by the sun and the moon, and may his robes shine in all their glory.

As soon as you walk past the arch, you face a complete mess.

The walkways end, god knows what (cables? concrete reinforcements?) sticks out of the ground. This isn't an abandoned construction site, all this is made for the people.

This is a grand park in the city center to amaze the tourists.

... and this is a park in the city center, which the tourists do NOT visit.

You surely won't believe it, but this is actually a kindergarten.

A kindergarten in Turkmenbashi. It's on the main avenue on the way to Awaza. The locals show off the castle clad in white marble!

This is an average kindergarten in the country's capital. Obviously, not much has changed since the Soviet era.

One of the main streets in Ashgabat

Sergey Dolya called Ashgabat fantastic.

All these white marble buildings really do seem fantastic from a passing car. When one shows these pictures to people, who've never been to Turkmenistan, they'll be amazed and keep passing on that amazement.

The beauty ends pretty quickly, though, once you turn the corner. Because round that corner is where the real Ashgabat starts... with dirty unkept streets.

The flip side...

This old house can be seen from the main road.

... and this is its flip side.

This four story building in Ashgabat is on the way to the airport. A proud cabby told me that all buildings have been renovated.

I asked him to turn the corner and a similar 4 story building sprang forth in all its glory. This building was far less lucky, since it's not visible from the main road.

If one can't cover the ugly shacks with marble, the banners will do just as well.

Pictures of the glorious future hide the real Turkmen life from the visitors' prying eyes.

But even if you can't be bothered to scout the backyards, you still notice some odd details. Since Ashgabat has not been built for the people, there are plenty of really weird urban solutions. E.g. here is a pedestrian crossing right on the highway exit ramp. I have never seen this before in my life.

Wheelchair accessibility isn't a top priority, since pedestrians really aren't one either.

Solid work... NOT

Quality of the work

Since the Turkmen are incapable of asphalting the roads properly and building the appropriate draining facilities, Asghabat employs a vast army of ladies with brooms, who sweep the water out of the way after a rain shower. On this picture you can see the rain has ended a while ago, the road is dry, but the puddles are everywhere. This street was built very recently.

This is an underground crosswalk near the presidential palace. You can't see it in this photo, but here we have the same puddles, mold has taken hold and everything is gradually falling apart.

In Ashgabat, the backyards aren't always paved.

Downtown Ashgabat. The beauty ends here.

Regular decrepit Soviet backyards with banged up roads.

Other cities have it worse. This is Turkmenbashi.

Here come the backyards.


There is no miracle in Turkmenistan. There is the tourist show and then there is real life.

Some things that the emperor and the tourists will not see.

Real Turkmenistan

Some would say that this is still work in progress, everything is being built and the progress simply hasn't made it this far. It's a lie, obviously.

Turkmenistan isn't poor and has been under construction for quite some time. Millions of dollars are flushed down the drain on insane projects, on golden statues, on glorifying the emperor. It's far more important to Turkmen that they have the largest golden statue, rather than the most practical backyards.

One of my acquaintances had moved to Moscow a while ago and he used to rent a room at some old lady's apartment on the outskirts of the city. He did not have a lot of money, but whatever he did have, he spent on fancy clothes, shiny shoes. Then he bought a car (all the while renting that room at the old lady's place). The lady was old and kept on annoying my buddy and one would think that he should have rented a decent flat and moved out. But he had different priorities. His provintial inferiority complex made it far more important to show off. It looked rather hilarious from the sidelines.

Turkmenistan is not being built for people, but for postcards. There isn't a single decent backyard in Turkmenistan. And this is far more important than all the insane palaces and statues.

Banning of

On the second day of daily reports about Turkmenistan my admin managers noticed some suspicious activity from a Turkmen IP address. It turned out that this was caused by people from the Turkmenistan ministry of communication.

They were sitting and reading, taking their time.... I was watching them carefully. They opened comments, reading every one of them.

Page after page the 2 guys from the ministry of communication of Turkmenistan studied my publications. They were well coordinated. When one was finishing the 9th page of comments on the first article, the other was already starting to read the new one.

Right after that my site was banned... That's it.

Now there's only one person from Ashgabat reading my posts. After the banning that is. Who do you think that might be?

Just like that, and I haven't even started really. Now you know how the Turkmen censorship works.

Turkmenistan strikes back!

And for dessert — the story of the Turkmen patriots' reaction to my publications. First of all, they've banned my blog on their territory of course, I mentioned that already. Then strange events began to unravel. The Turkmen leader issued a decree regulating the activities of the foreign media in Turkmenistan. The text is not published openly. New prohibitions appeared. My acquaintances from there tell me that some functionaries lost their jobs in the government, some were reprimanded. Coincidence ? Don't think so.

But that's not important. The greatest thrill is the articles they've started to write back in response. It's an absolute pleasure to read them every day. I don't want to hide them from you. Here is, for example, the site "Gundogar News" that published four of those articles.

They've chosen usual tactics and explained my publications as COMMISSIONED WORK! What a surprise! Their first version is that criticizing Turkmenistan was commissioned by my – what they call it – masters...

A venal blogger Ilya Varlamov just hatched in Turkmenistan

Day by day modern Turkmenistan attracts more and more attention of the world society as well as ordinary tourists.
No wonder that the country has also attracted the attention of "the masters" of the indiscriminate constellation of liars – the disgraceful blogger from Russia Ilya Varlamov. I didn't call him Russian on purpose, this implies somewhat patriotic feelings (toward Russia) – something that Ilya can't pride himself upon.

So, the poor blogger, who disgraced himself in 2014 by doing commissioned work for his abroad masters, has now obtained a Turkmen visa with no problems. What else can you call it if not openness? So, in order to pull through his next commissioned work he referred to the fact of his visa obtainment as a miracle, even blaming some Turkmen functionaries of negligence. By attributing all that was previously written about Turkmenistan as gratitude, he decided to drill deeper into the truth with his “Varlamov style”, in other words in a boorish way and in accordance with his commissioned task. How otherwise would you explain his prelude about Turkmenistan either being lucky or unlucky with its riches and governors?

If you don't like the portraits of our president, go there where you are paid and look at your own idol. We luckily don't have such corrupt bloggers, ready to bark at everyone and everything around just because they are paid to do so. Even in Russia there are less and less people like you by the day!

The very next day the version changes. As my blog has been banned in Turkmenistan by their swift secret service, the Turkmen journalists had no other choice but to read it in re-prints. In this case they found some copy stolen by shrewd Ukrainians and accused me of being published on Ukrainian sites. But they abandoned that quickly and went on accusing me of fulfilling a commissioned work for Russian chekists (secret service), and that it was them who supposedly helped me get the Turkmen visa!

“Don Ilya de la Mancha” or About dummy doll Varlamov “gone nuts”

Wikipedia calls Ilya Varlamov a “famous Russian blogger”. So, not so long ago Ilya (as he puts – “by pure chance”) had visited Ashgabat (although he claimed that he had managed to visit the whole of Turkmenistan). As a result he published his next “masterpiece” with photos. At first I was discouraged by the fact that Varlamov had chosen the 112.UA as the platform to publish (Informational Agency, Ukraine), but knowing about his habit of setting others up I accepted it. For some the Ukrainians are enemies for others partners and friends.

So what exactly was so unpleasant in Ashgabat to “the famous Russian blogger” that he poured his next bucket of bullshit on people that he doesn't know?

It seems there are many reasons. First of all, he didn't obtain a visa because of Turkmen's “secret service” people celebrating Nowruz, but because of his acquaintances with his own “secret service”.

It's not without reason that Wikipedia calls Varlamov a pro-kremlin blogger and that he even flew in the same plane with the heads of state several times. So to obtain the visa was an easy task for such a “famous Russian blogger”. Therefore my suggestion is that once again, it was his regular commissioned work. He is so used to doing them.

Having saved some money Ilya became a blogger (not that you have to be smart for that) and began to travel around the world offending everyone and everything around himself, and indeed became famous by doing so. He got himself in some troubles with police in the city of Ufa. And there were also some rumors about his sexual preferences (about his more than friendly relationship with his business partner Maxim Katz). Knowing all that one shouldn't be so surprised that Ilya was so upset that “Facebook is banned, LiveJournal is banned, YouTube, Rutube, Yandex.News, all porn sites are banned, even Pikabu is banned!!!”.

I'm pretty much sure that no matter what he would create in his future episodes (“...there will be many episodes about Turkmenistan in the nearest future! Yes, I do realize that I won't be able to return to Turkmenistan ever again, but the truth is more important,” he says) his truth won’t be more “important” as he says, but rather more “sponsored” and he can do nothing about this fact.

Without any intention to spoil the relationship I consider it my obligation to convey to our “Don Quijot de la Mancha” the simple truth – that in Ashgabat every little Ilya will have his...

The author was so pleased with the version of “commissioned work” from Russian secret service that he started developing it even more in the third article. You can almost smell the FSB (Federal Security Bureau)!

Three days in Ashgabat

The assumption that the Ashgabat series were in fact a commissioned has been confirmed, even if it might sound strange, from Varlamov himself.

“They threaten to cut my head off!” that was the report that Varlamov submitted to FSB and by doing so has acknowledged his relationships with the Russian secret service. Why the FSB in particular? Let's try to figure it out. I must clarify, a blogger or a journalist who feels threatened, no matter what country they are from, will never ever go to the secret service. There are other authorities for this matter: police, legislative affairs office, ministry of public security and justice and so on. Some articles of some little blogger that nobody cares about, it's not something that the secret service will be bothered with, they have other stuff to do, don't they? Probably there were some hotheads that threatened Varlamov, but what have the FSB and Turkmenistan got to do with it?

Or Ilya sees himself as Sakharov or Solzhenitsyn being persecuted for his dissent? But I beg your pardon, where is that dissent in the blank “Turkmenistan reviews”, as he himself puts it. Well, if he thinks that description of a couple of dirty puddles in the suburbs of Ashgabat is worth a wanted notice for his head, well, let him think so.

Isn't it stupid to take pictures of some buildings that are no longer being built? What city doesn't have them, Moscow, Washington, Beijing ? And second of all, everyone knows that Varlamov is digging in dumps like an animal, always seeking for dirt.

However let's to to the gist of Varlamov's “Turkmenistan stories”. Did he tell us anything new? Nothing! Could he? Well, probably he could, since he calls his odes “journalist investigations”, put some 50 year old photos of Ashgabat to compare.

But, the commissioned work remains commissioned. Taking some pictures of dirty puddles and running to the FSB for protection. He probably values his head so much that he puts no trust in Investigation Committee nor in Prosecutor office nor in Department of Internal Affairs.

It is not very clear why he declares himself as opposition since he flies in government airplanes with other journalists. And why isn’t he, if he is indeed a member of the opposition, outraged by the numerous portraits of his own country leaders that can be found in much greater numbers in his home country than in small Turkmenistan ? We can count them and I'm sure the numbers won't be in his favor. So what exactly does he advocate for, without citing any human rights violation in Turkmenistan? Just another ranting that has been written before him.

But he hasn't done the most important thing that was asked from him by his masters. He didn't justify the trust placed in him. Nobody during his three days’ stay in Turkmenistan or after, has paid any attention to his "outstanding reviews" that were supposedly ment to anger, to disturb, to bother.

So let him fear for his life. Hotheads can be found anywhere. Let him fear, even in his own home country especially after traveling to such regions as Dagestan and Chechnya. Turkmenistan is a foreign country for him, it's easier to hide from a foreign country than Chechnya. But it seems to me, he is still not brave enough to take pictures of the back streets of Grozny. Then even the FSB won't save you. Even if they are your friends.

I was offended by the comment about Grozny...

Varlamov's coffin lid was finaly nailed... It is said in the last material that Varlamov is simply a fool and on top of all an illiterate one.


It was always considered as “mauvais ton” when a mediocre photographer would start writing articles for his pictures. Nothing good would come out of it. It has always been and will always be like that. The thing is that it is much more difficult to write about something or describe something then to take a picture of it (here photography as art is not taken into consideration). Varlamov is not an exception. Having spent only two days in Ashgabat he has managed, unlike some experts, to “get the gist” of the whole Turkmenistan life. And all this resulted in total rubbish.

Calling his work a journalist investigation (very poor though) he descended to the level of some primary school children who received a homework assignment to add captions to some photos. As is often said, he made a bid for a dollar, but his “pay” wasn't worth a penny. Varlamov admitted himself that Turkmen people speak better Russian than in any other in the former USSR country. So being able to understand that language they were very ashamed to read such stylistically illiterate “investigations” of his, not believing that it was written by a representative of the entitled nation of the great Poushkin. It is obvious that Varlamov is one of those few who never managed to pass the traditional yearly Russian dictation. There is absolutely nothing but acrimony and anger in his “investigations”.

They were also shocked by his cowardice. In the morning, probably after sobering up he would start to present his “investigations” as either Ukrainian or Belarussian.

And the post spectacular are of course the Turkmen patriots. Here is the example of Akmal Khojamuradow , who by the way had studied in the Pedagogical University of Cheboksary in Russia!

And here is his friend Maksud Rozmetov, judging that the photos are from the same university.

And our parade is finished with Abai Stepnoi from Astana...

“Don't touch somebody else's home with your tongue.”

And don't lick the iron swings on an ice cold winter’s day!
And that's it.

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

Previous chapters:

Awaza and Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan

Ashgabat: the city of the living and the city of the dead

Prohibitions in Turkmenistan

Cult of personality in Turkmenistan

Ashgabat, 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 ;)