What with the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of Islam, there’s been a huge proliferation of Stans in the news. There’s Tajik and Uzbek, a Nuristan and a Nurestan. There’s a Baluchistan and a Balochistan and probably a Biloxistan. There are Kremlin-pressured Stans (Bashkortostan) and vowel-challenged Stans (Kyrgyzstan) and Stans that sound vaguely like some big Corporate-Mergerstan (Karakalpakstan). There’s Waziristan, where Osama bin Laden is said to be holed up like a Muslim Pimpernel: They seek him in Waziristan, they seek him in Overtheristan.
So, in a world of Stans, with every Nickelandimistan clamoring for attention, how do you make yours Stan out from the crowd? This was the challenge faced in 1991 by an obscure Communist apparatchik named Saparmurat Niyazov when his Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic suddenly found itself pushed out onto the world stage as the newly independent nation of Turkmenistan. In Soviet Central Asia, Turkmenistan was pretty much the end of the line Stan-wise. You flew in across the Caspian Sea, from Baku in Azerbaijan—the Stan that thinks it’s a Jan—and you pretty much had to fly back, there being nothing to fly on to apart from remote northern Iran and its crazy mullahs, and rubble-strewn Afghanistan with its even crazier ones. So President Niyazov had a problem: How to put Turkmenistan on the map?
He could have used the world’s fifth-largest natural-gas reserves to transform his nation into an economic powerhouse with an educated population and a vibrant cultural scene. But that would have been too obvious. Instead, he determined that his was going to be the nuttiest Stan, a by-no-means uncompetitive field to those for whom the suffix conjures large numbers of excitable young chaps in beards jumping up and down shouting, “Death to the Great Satan!” In fact, Niyazov banned young men from sporting facial hair: Under his leadership, Turkmenistan was the most pogonophobic Stan in the world. He didn’t really require excitable men, hirsute or otherwise. His was a one-man Stan, a cult of personality under which airports, major cities, and a passing meteorite were named after the great leader.
A short man with the worst dye job in Central Asia, Niyazov loomed large and gilded in public. Statues abounded, including a glittering behemoth on the tallest edifice in the capital that supposedly rotates to ensure his features are always bathed in sunlight, though it has a tendency to break down and jerk into action as erratically as he did. There are multiple statues of him as a baby: In one he is sprawled across the globe, in another held aloft by his mother atop a raging bull. If he never quite succeeded in sprawling across the global scene, he certainly rode high on his bull. He produced five volumes of poetry and read nightly on television, one remorseless Turkmenistanza after another. He banned news anchors from wearing makeup because he found it hard to tell the men from the women and had no desire to see the country degenerate into a sad Eastern imitation of the decadent Ratherstan and Couricistan.
In 2005, he banned lip-synching because he was tired of seeing elderly singers mouthing to their old hits and reducing Turkmen culture to just another Millivanillistan. He banned ballet because … well, it just wasn’t his bag. “How can the Turkmen people be encouraged to love ballet if there is no ballet in their blood?” he asked. “I do not understand ballet. What use is it then to me?” But melons he did understand: They were in his blood, and they were a lot of use to him. He declared a national holiday in honor of melons and urged his people to “let the life of every Turkman be as beautiful as our melons.” He deployed them in folksy aphorisms: As he sagely observed, “You can’t catch two melons in one hand.”
That was Turkmenistan’s problem. Juggling the twin melons of societal progress and self-glorification, its leader chose to let the first one drop. He preferred to be known as “Turkmenbashi,” which I believe means “Basher of the Turkmen”—no, wait, “Father of the Turkmen.” It was an Atatürk-like touch that led a lot of commentators who should have known better to try and pass him off as Turkmenistan’s Kemal, a modernizing reformer. He was a repressive dictator increasingly prone to show trials and torture and Stalinist purges, but the world will cut you a lot of slack if you’re a kook: To modify the old actors’ line, killing is easy, comedy is hard. And, in an age of gray thugs, Turkmenbashi was every Fleet Street tabloid’s favorite totalitarian nutjob. His finest hour was his redesignation of the days of the week and months of the year under a law passed in 2002. January he renamed for himself: It’s now the month of “Turkmenbashi.” April he’d proposed to call “Mother” in honor of mothers in general, but he was prevailed upon to rename it “Gurbansoltan” in honor of one mom in particular—his own. Gurbansoltan had saved her infant child but perished, along with the rest of the family, in the 1948 earthquake that leveled the capital city Ashgabat.
The eight-year-old Saparmurat was sent to an orphanage and went on to study engineering. Working at the Bezmeinskaya Power Station, he became active in the local Communist Party. He married a Russian. In 1985, when Moscow needed a new first secretary for the Turkmen party, Niyazov’s non-Turkman wife, his Little Orphan Annie childhood, and the loss of every close relative in the earthquake were seen as signs that he’d be less prone to the stand-by-your-clan corruption that had plagued Ashgabat politics. Niyazov was a loyal Communist hard-liner longer than necessary: He approved of the 1991 coup against Gorbachev and opposed Turkmen independence. But after the Soviet Union liquidated itself, he didn’t have a lot of choice in the matter and embraced Turkmen nationalism as best he could.
In 1992, he was elected president with 99.5 percent of the vote. Two years after that squeaker, 99.9 percent of the electorate voted to extend his five-year term to ten years, and, in 1999, he “reluctantly” acceded to the wishes of his People’s Council to become president-for-life. The lifelong Communist with the Russian bride dedicated himself to root-and-branch Turkmenization. Cleansing his country of Soviet influence meant little more than replacing it with a sickly suffocating cult of personality, but in dictatorships the line between necessary political hygiene and nauseating self-promotion is often a fine one, and especially so in a land where the leading soap powder is called Barf. Like a Central Asian Vegas, his desert kingdom began sprouting ever-more-startling attractions: man-made lakes and cypress forests, ice palaces, and the world’s largest handmade carpet (his mother had been a rug maker)—a three-thousand-square-foot celebration of “The Epoch of the Great Saparmurat Niyazov” that tended to confirm the impression that the entire nation was his oversized doormat.
But, of course, not everything could be swept under the carpet. He might reasonably have expected that his term as president-for-life would continue awhile yet. Unfortunately, he had a history of heart trouble. He’d closed every hospital in the country outside Ashgabat on the grounds that they were “not needed,” ditched the Hippocratic oath for a personal pledge of allegiance to himself, and replaced the remaining doctors with new medical staff more or less straight off the farm. While everything from anemia to bubonic plague took hold in Turkmen villages, Turkmenbashi flew in German specialists for his own health needs. Yet it seems likely that his unexpected death derives at least in part from the prevailing ethos in what was left of his country’s medical system.
His legacy is the Ruhnama, the spiritual tract he published in 2001. Its prose was barely workmanlike and barely Turkmenlike: It’s what the Little Red Book would have been had Mao spent too much time with Deepak Chopra and Dr. Phil. But it was immediately raised to equal status with the Bible and the Koran. It was hailed as “The Answer to All Questions,” including those on the driver’s test. Ninety percent of the population is Muslim, yet Turkmenbashi promoted himself to prophet and demanded that the Ruhnama be displayed in every house of worship and kissed by all who enter therein. When the chief imam, Nasurallah Ibadullah, objected to what he regarded, reasonably enough, as an act of idolatry, he was arrested (along with other dissenting imams) and sentenced to twenty-three years in jail.
Turkmenbashi got away with it, as he did with naming the biggest mosque in the country after himself. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Iran has exported huge sums of money and thousands of imams to Central Asia to transform hitherto relatively relaxed Muslim populations. It’s worked everywhere except Turkmenistan, where the president’s subjects have proved all but immune to the blandishments of the mullahs or, indeed, of the Taliban, another neighbor. At a time of rapid radicalization of Muslim communities from Indonesia, Thailand, and Bangladesh to Britain, Belgium, and Scandinavia, it’s instructive to find an example of a successful counterstrategy.
As Stans go, his model was Stan Laurel: This is another fine mess you’ve gotten me into. Turkmenistan was a fine mess its leader got himself into: 60 percent unemployment, 60 percent poverty, massive health crises. Yet no jihadists. If he dropped the democracy melon, he nevertheless booted the Islamist one way off into the long grass. No doubt, in the wake of his death, prancing ballerinas, pancaked news anchors, bearded lip-synchers who use the Roman calendar, and many more unsavory types are emerging from under their rocks. It will be interesting to see what other pathologies take hold.