Daniel Kalder

Tearing down the statue of a megalomaniac dictator is usually a joy
reserved for the citizens of a newly-liberated country. But when President
Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov of Turkmenistan ordered the removal of
Ashgabat’s notorious Neutrality Arch last month, he was probably the
only individual feeling liberated. For over ten years this monument to his
predecessor Saparmurat Niyazov, AKA Turkmenbashi —a gold figure of
the despot in a superman cape which rotates to face the sun- has stood
atop a giant, futuristic tripod, casting a long shadow over Turkmenistan.
Soon it will be gone, but that doesn’t mean the Turkmen are free.

Niyazov’s rule was legendarily eccentric and mind-bendingly narcissistic.
He disliked gold teeth, the circus and the opera so he banned them; then
he renamed January after himself and April after his mummy,
Gurbansoltan eje. He forced his subjects to read The Ruhnama, a self-
penned ‘holy book’ consisting of myth, autobiography, bad history, moral
platitudes and exceptionally rancid poetry.

His beginnings however were more humble. He was born in the Turkmen
village of Gypjak in 1940; his father disappeared during World War II; his
mother and two elder brothers died in an earthquake in 1948. Niyazov
grew up in an orphanage, studied engineering in Leningrad and married
a Russian Jew by whom he had a son and daughter. Returning to
Turkmenistan he worked as an engineer at a hydroelectric plant. He rose
through the party ranks, becoming prime minister of Turkmenistan and
then, thanks to Gorbachev’s patronage, First Secretary. He acquired a
reputation as an efficient manager of the Central Asian republic, which
had been invented by soviet technocrats with some help from the
regional elite in 1924. Nobody could have predicted that come
independence this servile apparatchik would go berserk, forcing his
people to worship him as a god, while throwing his opponents into grim
desert prisons. Indeed, for a brief period Niyazov seemed poised to
challenge Kim Jong Il for the title of supreme loon of global politics. Then
he died.

Since then, Berdymukhamedov has been steadily dismantling a
personality cult that exceeded Stalin’s. Soon Niyazov will be a footnote of
history, a joke to all except the unfortunate five million who had to endure
his rule. Yet while monsters like Niyazov are rare, they are not as rare as
we’d like to think -- the 20th century was littered with lunatic dictators,
and the 21st century will surely bring more.

Interested in the gap between the man and the living god, I visited
Turkmenistan in early 2006. Almost everybody I met had a tale of a face
to face encounter with the dictator. Sitting in a nomad’s yurt, deep in the
Kara Kum desert, I learned that Niyazov had rested his humongous rear
on the very same rug as me a few years earlier. On the border with
Uzbekistan, I had the same experience in a mountain hut. It was as if
Niyazov’s need to be loved had compelled him to force himself physically
on every person in country. But fear ensured nobody said what he really
thought of the ‘Father of All Turkmen’- although the silence itself spoke
volumes. A year later I visited Moscow to meet with exiles, who I hoped
would be willing to speak more freely. Many of them had also
encountered the tyrannical tub of lard in person. And yet even though
Niyazov was now dead and we were outside Turkmenistan, his ghost
hovered over these meetings, and most declined to divulge their

Lidya had been Niyazov’s neighbour in Buzmejin, the town outside
Ashgabat where he had worked as an electrical engineer after his return
from Leningrad:

“He was very shy. He never associated with his neighbours. He’d just get
in his car and go to the office. He always came home for lunch; he never
ate with his colleagues. His wife forced him to smoke outside, on the
steps; that’s when I’d see him…. He was also obsessively clean. After he
shook your hand, he had to wash his own hands. This was strange, first
because shaking hands is a Russian not a Turkmen custom. And
secondly, in the east water is so scarce, it’s sacred. Normal people don’t
care if they have dirty hands.’

Niyazov never received visitors, not even relatives:

“In fifteen years that happened only once. An uncle from the village came
to see him. He was an old man, with a white beard. But Niyazov did not
receive him. The old man sat outside the building all day, until night
came. Then he left.’

In a highly traditional culture which esteems elders, Niyazov’s rejection of
his relative was scandalous. It was a theme explored further by Batir
Mukhamedov, an ex-member of the soviet Turkmen politburo:

‘I met Niyazov many times. I liked him. He was businesslike, energetic,
competent in many areas. Better than most first secretaries. But
something happened in the early 90s… of course he had suffered a
trauma in childhood with the loss of his parents. But in Turkmen culture,
if a husband dies in war, well- the entire family cares for the widow and
her children. It’s an iron rule. But Niyazov’s mother, who had three
children, was rejected by her family. She had to raise Niyazov on her
own, and after she died, he was raised in an orphanage. I have never
heard of a case like this. What could explain it? Well, you can guess what
a young lady, with her husband away at war, might have done to stay
alive, bringing shame on the family… And decades later, once he was in
power, Niyazov kicked all of his relatives out of any positions they held-
which is the reverse of the usual Turkmen custom, of course.”

Batir also remembered a bizarre encounter with Niyazov, late at night in
the mid 90s.

‘I was walking round Ashgabat and I stopped at some traffic lights. There,
sitting in the back of an old Lada was Niyazov. There was no security,
just him and the driver. He often went out incognito among the people,
like Harun al-Rashid. I think he liked fairytales….’

Niyazov’s penchant for undercover expeditions into Ashgabat was
legendary. During the Soviet era he would regularly visit bazaars in
disguise. If he caught shopkeepers cheating their customers he would
fire them. This made him popular, and his honest, ‘man of the people’
image persisted in the early years of independence. Most Turkmen were
grateful that under Niyazov the country had not slid into Russia- style
anarchy. Indeed, Niyazov had summarily executed the leading Turkmen
gangsters, and displayed their corpses on TV. He also promoted inter-
ethnic tolerance- initially, at least. However he already felt liberated from
the standards of normal behaviour. Avdy Kuliev, an ex-foreign minister
claimed that while on the Hajj to Mecca, Niyazov had drunk alcohol, as a
result of which the Saudi King refused to grant him an audience.

Soley was a celebrated artist in Turkmenistan. To make money, he had
touched up official portraits of Niyazov. He airbrushed out pockmarks,
scabs, burst capillaries, changed his hair colour and freshened up
crumpled suits; in one instance he was even instructed to remove
Niyazov’s shadow from a group photograph. The president’s
apparatchiks might cast a shadow, but not the Father of All Turkmen.
Soley was the most psychologically liberated of the exiles I spoke to:

‘In Turkmenistan, heroin is cheaper than marijuana. There are junkies
everywhere. And Niyazov, he also loved drugs. A friend of mine worked
in the presidential bodyguard at Firyuza, Niyazov’s estate. He wore a
helmet and a suit of body armour- not for protection from assassins, but
for protection from Niyazov because the president liked to get high and
then run around the estate shooting pistols. He shot at my friend. But
ultimately Niyazov had to stop taking drugs. His heart couldn’t take it.’

Bizarre as it seems, Niyazov’s drug use was a recurring theme in my
conversations, which included two meetings with a man who had served
in the president’s personal guard. Rustem Safronov, a historian, political
analyst and confidante of Boris Shykhmuradov, the ex-foreign minister
who led a failed coup against Niyazov explained:

‘It was paranoia. Niyazov thought his enemies were waiting in the
darkness and so he’d run out and shoot at them. Possibly yes, it was
drug-fuelled. And there were also rumours about his relationships with
very young girls. But even if he was degenerate, well- so what? It’s what
he did to the country that counts; these scandals distract us from his
political crimes.’

There were other stories: I was told Niyazov’s war hero father was
actually a deserter, a former secret policeman related accounts of
consignments of drugs seized at the border with Afghanistan and then
spirited away by the president’s office, and I heard tales of chilling
campaigns of persecution against anybody who had known him before
he became dictator for life. I was even told that Niyazov had banned
Pepsi, which he disliked, in favour of Coke. Much of the material was
outlandish and impossible to prove. But considering that the reality
Niyazov created in Turkmenistan was utterly fantastical, it was not that
difficult to believe that the megalomaniac Turkmen leader might also
have been a lecherous paranoiac drug-addicted Caligula.

Except - unlike Caligula, Niyazov was not mad. Otherwise he would not
have succeeded at creating a system so perfectly suited to his
pathologies. Indeed, he was so good at building a mechanism for total
power that his successor Berdymukhamedov now enjoys a thriving
personality cult of his own. The eccentric ‘Golden Age’ of the damaged
narcissist has given way to the drab ‘Renaissance’ of the ex-dentist while
the people of Turkmenistan remain absolutely unfree. For regardless of
the fate of Turkmenbashi’s revolving gold statue the strange prison-world
he built for his people in the desert will persist for a long time to come.
And that’s his true legacy.

Published in the Spectator Feb 2010