Earlier this month, President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow of Turkmenistan declared that universities in his nation would no longer test applicants on their knowledge of the Ruhnama. Most of the world ignored what seemed like a minor domestic issue, but for a population of Turkmenistan watchers—and many Turkmens themselves—this was cause for celebration.
For Turkmenistan, eliminating the Ruhnama from public life is like rooting out the lingering power of its author, Berdimuhamedow’s predecessor and Turkmenistan’s first President for Life, Saparmurat Niyazov. The former Soviet strongman, shielded from scrutiny by geographic obscurity, neutrality, and extreme natural gas wealth, ruled the small country of 5 million from independence in 1990 until his death in 2006. It was sort of like North Korea with no one watching. (International observers still have trouble securing visas, and spies follow anyone visiting.)
The Ruhnama was his magnum opus, a quasi-religious summation of his brand of scatterbrained, smothering paternalism. Although you’d be hard pressed to find many people who could explain what that manifesto contained, given that beyond the inherent distaste of its authorship, it’s a ramble of 800-plus repetitive, disjointed pages split across two volumes. According to an article by Slavomir Horak of Charles University in Prague, who analyzed it in 2005, it’s an uneven amalgamation of the Qur’an, communist brochures, Turkmen (pseudo-) folk histories, and pure invention, blending together spiritual guidance, morality, and autobiography.
In the first section of the first volume alone, entitled “Turkmen,” Niyazov bounces from legends of the founder of the Turkmen, Oguz Khan whom he claims lived 5,000 years ago, to personal reflections and aphorisms, to a rehashing of documents related to Turkmenistan’s independence. Then, suddenly, in section two, “Turkmen’s Path,” he lurches into the lineages of the various Turkmen clans (which, in section three, “Turkmen Nation,” he denies have any relevance to modern Turkmenistan) and litters it with fables and proverbs. By section five, Niyazov gets downright esoteric, dividing Turkmen history into epochs and assigning each one a spiritual leader, symbolic animal, and series of moral and social characteristics. By the second volume, all pretense of thematic and historical organization falls away into roughly divided admonitions on personal life and practice, with sections like “Do Not Be Low, Be A Man!,” “Read, Learn, Know!,” or “The Turkmen Does Not Spare His Life in Battles, and His Property at Weddings!”
So it might not come as a shock that it was the years of effort Niyazov spent trying to crowbar this manifesto into every apparatus of state and society, rather than the actual content of the work, that freaked the world out in the early aughts. When the first volume was published in 2001, Niyazov started requiring schools and libraries to hold copies of the book, then demanded that mosques give it a place equal to the Qur’an, and finally installed Ruhnama rooms in most workplaces. Then he replaced algebra, physics, and physical education with hours of Ruhnama studies for students, made a 16-hour course on the text a mandatory element of driving tests, and included questions on his work in university entrance exams and governmental job interviews. Disrespect for the book was made a punishable offense, and September 12, the day of the book’s publication, became a national holiday. A giant electric-powered statue of the book in the capital of Ashgabat opens at 8 PM every evening to read a passage aloud, and in 2005 a copy was launched into space alongside the Turkmen flag in the hope of enlightening extraterrestrials. At the time of his death in 2006, Niyazov reportedly claimed that reading from the book three times a day would ensure you a place in heaven, although he insisted publicly that the Ruhnama was not religious literature because it was not the word of God. Instead he dubbed it “spiritual literature,” directly inspired by God.
All of that is in line with Niyazov’s personality and severely inflated ego, and arguably had less to do with spreading the content of the book than ensuring he had some direct involvement in the lives of all Turkmen citizens. Niyazov ran his country with the apparently sincere belief that he had not just the right but the obligation to impose his wisdom upon the face of the earth. By 1993, he’d assumed the name “Turkmenbashy,” the Great Leader of the Turkmen, just a year after he’d reworked the constitution to give himself broad and unchecked powers.
His cult of personality grew through the 1990s, as he introduced a 1994 Oath of Adherence for Turkmen to pledge themselves to him and their nation daily and launched a quest from 1996 to 1999 to find traces of the Muslim prophet Muhammad and the Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Great in his lineage. By the end of the millennium he’d declared himself President for Life. Over the next six years he erected the Arch of Neutrality, a 240-foot monument topped off with a 40-foot golden statue of himself—which automatically rotated to face the sun—as well as a sculpture of himself as a child, carried upon the horns of a bull impaling the earth, a representation of the 1948 earthquake that killed his family and left him an orphan in the Soviet state system.
Alongside his personal mythos, Turkmenbashy took the title of Marshal and titlke, meaning “the great one,” while press secretaries suggested in the lead-up to the publication of the Ruhnama that he ought to be called the Prophet of the Turkmen. By 2003, state news agencies were publishing stories about his possible divine powers of rejuvenation, claiming that his hair was turning from white to black. When not building monuments and accumulating titles, Turkmenbashy made gut-intuition decrees left and right, banning opera, ballet, beards, long hair, makeup for TV anchors, gold capped teeth, and renaming every month after his family, his works, and famous Turkmen heroes. He even found the time to create a Ministry of Fairness.
The Ruhnama, which literally translates to The Book of the Soul, came along a decade into this father-knows-best madness. Soon after publication on the second volume finished in 2004, Turkmenbashy apparently decided that his genius opus needed to be shared with the world. According to Shadow of the Holy Book, a 2008 documentary, he started pressuring international corporations like Caterpillar, Daimler-Chrysler, John Deere, Nokia, and Siemens into sponsoring translations and printing copies of the book. Thanks to these companies and numerous others who wandered into the nation, the text has been translated into several dozen languages, including Belarusian, Beluchi, Braille, Croat, Dutch, English, German, Hungarian, Italian, Malay, Russian, and Zulu. But none of that seems to have successfully turned the book into the internationally revolutionary bestseller Turkmenbashy might have hoped it would become.
Despite all the lore and self-aggrandizement, a good chunk of the Ruhnama’s core is just a softly lobbed message of peace, dignity, and tolerance that would probably appeal to a wide swath of the world. Turkmenbashy spends much of the first volume using parables as a proof that all peoples, languages, and faiths should be accepted; that Islam should change with the times and reject fundamentalism in favor of a unique, neutral (Turkmenistan was given Permanent Neutrality by the UN in 1995), syncretistic Turkmen flavor; and that divisive factors like tribalism should be set aside in favor of national unity. He speaks of the need to remember and remind criminals of their good personal qualities to prevent them from seeing themselves as evil or socially rejected. He talks of setting aside the sword in favor of a future of the mind, invention, and environmentalism. He defends the state’s decision to completely subsidize natural gas, electricity, salt, and water for all its citizens as serving mankind before serving economic theory. He even has a section in the second volume entitled “Meaning of Life,” which he preciously sums up as: “Love, be loved, and lead a great life!”
That said, it’s still the life’s work of a man who took the book and tried to shove it down his peoples’ throats with sheer force. So predictably, behind all the nicer paeans to human rights, there are strong hints that the work promotes quiescence and deference to the supreme ruler. “The poor man understood that his life was best for him,” explains one parable as to why it wouldn’t have been better for that lowly man to become wealthy. Elsewhere, he calls pessimists infectious downers, expresses a fairly sexist view of women as vessels to nurture and train new Turkmen nationalists, and promises that adhering closely to the set and firm social rules and philosophic ideals laid out in the Ruhnama will purify, justify, and fulfill the reader’s existence.
The Ruhnama is ultimately an extremely paternalistic document, a direct result of Turkmenbashy’s view of his own moral purity and the role of the state as an agent obligated to transform its citizens into utopian cogs. “Unlike for people in the West the state is not ‘a night watchman’ for Turkmens,” Turkmenbashy wrote (as quoted by Horak) in a 2000 article in one of his own state-run social science journals. “They [Turkmens] see in it a paternalistic organ, which displays father-like care for them, transforms the population into a single nation. It also takes care of unity, ensures its security, makes them happy, and provides them with a free life. This is the reason why the Turkmen people adore with devotion the state and its President, believe in it, support it, and are willing to defend it even laying down their lives.”
When Turkmenbashy died in 2006, the new president, Berdimuhamedow, knew that the Ruhnama had to go. But he also knew better than to uproot a deeply embedded personality cult and ideology too swiftly—you’ve got to ease into it. In 2007 he began to slowly cut down the amount of Ruhnama covered in schools. By 2009, Berdimuhamedow still recommended the lessons of Turkmenbashy, but was busy writing his own little manifestoes (alongside scientific treatises on medicinal plants and Akhal race horses), like a memoir about his war hero grandfather, which contained hints that he ought to be considered the new and logical leader of a Turkmen Renaissance, perhaps aiming to overtake the Ruhnama’s social position in the coming years.
Sure, some of the things in the Ruhnama—all the peace, love, and understanding junk—are actually kind of nice. The vast bulk of it is harmless, all the more so because it’s so disjointed. But it’s an encouraging step forward for the country to get rid of a text that promotes quiescence, deference, and massive state paternalism, especially given the craziness Saparmurat Turkmenbashi got up to in the guise of an all-knowing father.
The question now is who’s to say that Berdimuhamedow’s manifestoes won’t turn into a new rambling opus, one that replaces Turkmenbashy’s name with his own and elevates him to the position of a state-sanctioned god?
Topics: Turkmenistan, President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, Saparmurat Niyazov, President-for-Life, Ruhnama, manifesto, communism, remnants of Soviet Russia, Oguz Khan, Turkmen, Arch of Neutrality, The Book of the Soul, Shadow of the Holy Book