Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Rukhnama - Saparmyrat Turkmenbashy

Prophet Noah gave the Turkmen land to his son Yafes and his descendants.”
-Saparmyrat Turkmenbashy

The Central Asian countries are natural experiments on how to build nations out of states that were constructed artificially by the former colonizer. From that perspective, they differ from former colonial enclaves in Latin America and Africa, which had to build the nation and the state at the same time. For all its faults, the Soviet Union brought (some) material progress and education to a region that was previously inhabited by illiterate nomadic shepherds.

The context of the Central Asian countries pushes their leaders to find something that justifies the existence of their countries. Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev has the idea of turning his country into a second Singapore, even though Singapore based its development on becoming a World trade center, an industrial power, and a fiscal haven, whereas Kazakhstan’s main economic activity has selling gas to Russia over the last 20 years. Nazarbayev also sponsors Astana, which used to be one of the most successful cycling teams on earth, and has even paid consultants in Washington, DC to write books to sell the idea that Kazakhstan is the next big thing.

Contrastingly, Saparmyrat Turkmenbashy (his true last name was Niyazov, but I will use Turkmenbashy because that is the name he used to write Rukhnama) decided to create a non-existent national epic and describe what he considers as “Turkmen values” to convince Turkmens that their country must exist. Rukhnama is a book authored by Turkmenbashy while he was president of Turkmenistan. Aware that Heads of State usually do not have time to write books, he offers the following explanation as the motivation to write Rukhnama:

“I want to mention my private and personal reasons for the writing of Rukhnama and the other causes which led me to begin this work. What is the meaning of the Head of State writing on philosophical matters? This has to be explained in the light of the features of the era and the duties borne on my shoulders. Of course, had we lived in another epoch, I would only be occupied with state and political affairs and these would be enough. As it is, our era falls at the turn of the new millennium. In this period, five-or ten-year programmes are not sufficient for the needs of our state. At this time, it is necessary not only to establish a state but also to create a nation, for a netion needs far-reaching moral values and criteria. We have to seek and find ways in which these kinds of criteria can be provided through moral work and traditional and moral philosophies.”

The ultimate purpose of the book is to convince Turkmens that their ancestors were not shepherds and, on the contrary, were a fundamental component in World History. The values held by ancient Turkmens should be preserved. The book devotes large portions to narrate the epic of the Turkmen nation. At one point, Rukhnama was the only book sold in Turkmenistan, and students were forced to memorize passages of it.

Rukhnama was but one of Turkmenbashy’s efforts to create a Turkmen identity. Turkmenbashy also renamed the months and the days of the week using his mother’s and his own name. Turkmenbashy forbade Turkmen women to wear makeup. In addition to building several statues of himself, he erected a moving statue of Rukhnama in the center of Ashgabat that opens in the evening while an automated voice recites a passage of the book. I understand that the moving statue is currently out of service, but the spectacle used to be accompanied by fireworks.

Turkmenbashy may seem ludicrous but he was not an idiot. He knew very well that he needed to create some kind of national identity if his country was to survive. In fact, Turkmenbashy was not very different from some European medieval kings who tried to gain legitimacy by linking their dynasties (and therefore their vassals) to some glorious character. The medieval French historians, for instance, linked Clovis I, the king who unified the Franks, to the Trojans. It is not hard to see parallels between the cathedrals of the Middle Age, with all their colors and images, with Turkmenbashy’s bombastic book: both are designed to impress the masses.

Although the book has a religious air, Turkmenbashy avoided picking a fight with pious Muslims -although he would imprison the imam of Ashgabat for refusing to recite Rukhnama in the city's mosque.  Turkmenbashy tried to place his nation within the greatness of Islam and present it as a favored nation. The following passage is illustrative:

“Turkmen is a nation cherished and beloved by Allah. I understand this truth from this fact: since Allah the Most Exalted loves the Turkmen nation, he has let them live for 5000 years. If he didn’t love them, he would have removed them from history. For this reason, the Turkmen nation bears the great duty of preserving our religion, belief, national dignity, and national values; and the duty to transmit them to future generations without any change.”

In Rukhnama, Turkmenbashy created a national epic only he knows about. He recognizes that Turkmens were mostly shepherds before the Soviet Union, but that was the result of a long decay and a neglect of Soviet historians. The reason offered by Turkmenbashy as to why the history of his country (“the most developed country in the World” after Chenghis Khan died) is unknown to everybody is quite interesting:

“The achievements of the Oguzs between the 1st and the 13th centuries cannot be denied. It is undeniable truth that the Parfiya State, the Gaznalys, the Seljuks, and the Koneurgenchs affected the historical and political development of the world and reached a high level of accomplishment in the cultural and economic realms. But because some historians were Arab and Iranian in origin, they tried to connect all of these historical advances with Iran, or with the Arabs and later generalized them as Turkish… Our historians, brought up in the Soviet era, did not perceive the evil intentions of those historians writing without proper scrutiny of their work, and simply repeated their views. They did not realize that these ideas form part of an invading country’s imperialist purpose.”

Rukhnama is also filled with advices on living a decent life. He obviously advocates for protecting the poor, particularly the orphans (he claims to have been an orphan himself), true friendship, and all that. From a purely literary perspective, Rukhnama is the most boring book you can read, no matter how funny the cover looks. It is like a combination of the Ancient Testament without the pornographic parts (Song of the Songs), the violent parts, and the ridiculous parts (Ex. 17: 8 - 13) with a self-help book. Going through Rukhnama is really painful, probably as much as the physical tortures suffered by those who considered it bogus.

But if you think about it, Turkmenbashy’s main problem was that he was born in the wrong century. Had he been born in the Middle Age, he would be considered a virtuous king and not a lunatic. But now, in this age when nobody believes in anything, nationalism is judged in a negative way, and people care about human rights, his methods to provide his fellow countrymen with a homeland are considered to be wrong.

Nobody will know for sure if Turkmenbashy truly believed in the idea of a Turkmen nation or if he wanted to preserve a personal fiefdom to die in his bed, instead. Judging by his public policies, the second option seems the most accurate, however. Assuming that he just wanted to have a country for himself, he justified his personal wealth in a very funny way in Rukhnama

“The Turkmen nation has access to infinite wealth. Our citizens may become richer and richer if I distribute all we have to them. But are our people ready for such richness after 70 years of poverty?

It is too early to say whether Turkmenbashy’s experiment to create a Turkmen identity failed or not. The man will have some legitimacy as a freedom fighter among those who remember the Soviet era. Additionally, he made gas and water available for free, so he will be loved by the people who will lose those benefits when they become unaffordable.

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