Requiem for a Tyrant

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 surnames.

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

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