Saparmurat Niyazov, the President of Turkmenistan, knows himself to be a man of destiny. He need only whisper, and hideous confections of marble and gold leaf rise above the souks of his capital, Ashkhabad. He has adopted the honorific Turkmenbashi, meaning "Great Leader of All Turkmen." His face appears on the currency of his desert nation, and on its bottles of vodka and packages of tea. He has introduced a line of cologne. Last summer the President proposed, and the parliament agreed, that the month of January would be named Turkmenbashi. October would be named Rukhnama, meaning "spiritual revival," after the title of Turkmenbashi's collection of philosophical musings, which enjoys a compulsory vogue. April would be known as Gurbansoltan, after the mother of the Great Leader of All Turkmen.
As you might imagine, Turkmenbashi's actions have gotten attention. Shirali Nurmuradov, a poet and one of Turkmenistan's few dissidents, who now lives in Sweden, recently told a New York Times reporter, "There is a saying in our country: 'There is a limit to wisdom, but there is no limit to foolishness.'" Coverage of Turkmenbashi in the West has of course been smug and patronizing, as though the same thing could not happen here. (Imagine if Indiana, say, suddenly came under the suzerainty of Donald Trump.)
Missing in all the commentary is any candid acknowledgment that Saparmurat Niyazov's actions strike a universal chord. We all possess an inner Turkmenbashi. It is the part of us that yearns to be the absolute ruler of some sovereign state, no matter how pitiful; the part that yearns to pepper conversation with references to "my people," or to achieve weight loss simply by changing one's portrait on coins.
It used to be that acquiring a country of one's own was a career option open to virtually any tribal warlord. World governance has since congealed into about two hundred nation-states, with new ones coming on the market very infrequently. (The last big yard sale occurred after the collapse of the Soviet Union.) But opportunities for carving out zones of autonomy still exist in unsettled parts of the world, and attempts are made even in the more established precincts. The boroughs of Queens and Staten Island have at various times tried to secede from New York City. In 1980 nine counties in southern New Jersey launched an understandable but ill-fated separatist campaign. In 1997 Italy's Northern League promoted a referendum to express the desire of northern Italians to form a breakaway Republic of Padania.
The impulse to bring forth a new nation manifests itself in a variety of ways. It has motivated vast amounts of literature, though the boundary between imagination and reality is not always clear. Jorge Luis Borges's short story "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" involves the ancient civilization of Uqbar, which originated in a fictitious entry insinuated into a real encyclopedia but gradually went on to acquire a semblance of reality on the authority of the initial printed reference. Several years ago an advertisement appeared in The Economist announcing the formation of a mini-state to be known as Laissez Faire City, which would be governed according to the "ideals and principles" laid down in Ayn Rand's 1957 book Atlas Shrugged. The persistent hold of Rand's Objectivist philosophy must not be underestimated. In a 1991 survey by the Library of Congress and the Book of the Month Club, which asked readers to name books that had "made a difference" in their lives, Atlas Shrugged came in second, after the Bible. The book describes a libertarian community in Colorado called Galt's Gulch, a redoubt of "rational selfishness" and absolute free-market capitalism. According to the notice in The Economist, the founding fathers of Laissez Faire City sought to lease a hundred square miles of territory, most likely in Central America, where they could make Galt's Gulch a reality—creating an economically autonomous entity free of taxes, tariffs, and the intrusions of big government. So far Laissez Faire City remains a Web site, as does another Ayn Rand derivative—the principality of New Utopia, which is envisioned as a Waterworld-like platform on the high seas.
The Web, of course, is irresistible territory to a latter-day Cecil Rhodes, and the Scramble for Cyberia is the modern analogue of the nineteenth-century Scramble for Africa. There's a cyberland called Absurdistan, which is satirical, and another called the Lunar Republic, which sells real estate on the moon. In 1995 the rogue bishop Jacques Gaillot was stripped of his French diocese, in Evreux, and exiled by the Vatican to the diocese of Partenia, in Algeria. Partenia no longer exists as an inhabited place (it's a ruin in the sands), but the Vatican keeps hundreds of defunct ancient dioceses on the books, mostly as way stations for bishops awaiting the call to living communities but also as repositories for the odd problem case. The entrepreneurial Bishop Gaillot, though, turned Partenia into a bully pulpit: he created a cyberdiocese, with a chat room, an electronic catechism, and an archive of sermons. His is now a voice crying from the wilderness, at www.partenia.org.