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.