Contents | November 2002
More on politics and society from The Atlantic Monthly.
More by Cullen Murphy from The Atlantic Monthly.
The Atlantic Monthly | November 2002
aparmurat 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.
Getting in touch with your inner Turkmenbashi
by Cullen Murphy
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.
t 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.
onjuring a micro-nation or a cyber-realm or a fictional domain has obvious appeal, but it pales beside holding sway over the real thing. The psychic satisfaction derived from status as the crown prince of New Utopia may be considerable, but who would not trade up for even the modest earthly powers wielded by the commoner Turkmenbashi?
Turkmenbashi has endured sniping for kitschy excess. But, if anything, he can be faulted for exercising restraint. He has so far contented himself with cosmetic alterations and a cult of personality, while amassing a fortune in natural-gas revenues. Absent is the social engineering that would have tempted a truly visionary leader. The world's many presidents-without-portfolio, like myself, can only shake our heads in sadness at the missed opportunities.
If I were in the Great Leader's shoes, with the task of calendrical reform now behind me, I'd be thinking of a more ambitious agenda. One key item would be to make time zones horizontal instead of vertical. This runs counter to the diurnal motion of the planet, to be sure, but at a stroke it would solve the problem of Turkmenistan's remoteness from anyplace you'd actually want to be. Thus the capital Ashkhabad, instead of being fully half a day ahead of New York, with all the logistical problems this entails, would now be in the same time zone.
I would also do something about my people's accent. There are tutors these days who can work wonders—like Sam Chwat, speech therapist to the stars, who specializes in accent elimination and dialect acquisition. It was Chwat who endowed Robert De Niro with an Appalachian accent for Cape Fear. It was Chwat who removed most traces of the South from the voice of Andie MacDowell. Right now everyone in Central Asia sounds like a Manhattan cabbie, but a little bit of effort could bring the level up to that of a Peter Jennings if not a Noël Coward. That way, when a Turkmen called for reservations at Elaine's, the maitre d' would not ask suspiciously, "Are you calling from Turkmenistan?" but would say, "Of course, Mr. Plimpton."
A true mark of leadership used to be endowing your people with a new alphabet and making them adopt the religion you'd just been converted to. No world leader has done either of these things in years. A bolder Turkmenbashi would seek a replacement for the Cyrillic and Latin scripts. The Elvish alphabets from The Lord of the Rings have a striking aesthetic quality, and would enliven the peeling façades of Ashkhabad. And could Quakerism have a future in Central Asia? Conspicuously soft on jihad, this may be one form of theocracy that would not deter Western investors.
Finally, a Turkmenbashi worthy of the name would take steps to create a "usable past"—that is, to invent a noble national mythos for history-short Turkmenistan. Doing so is nothing to be ashamed of: every successful country has made up significant parts of its history, even when it had vast amounts of the real stuff close to hand. Large portions of Scotland's venerable tartan "tradition" were invented out of whole cloth. The French version of World War II is still in rewrite. Turkmenistan needs a stirring new version of its past. It could begin with the arrival of the Quaker hordes. It should be sure to mention the stopover by Borges, on his return from Uqbar. And it might make reference to the verses that all Turkmen children learn to recite, which begin, "Gurbansoltan is the cruelest month ..."
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Cullen Murphy is The Atlantic's managing editor.
Copyright © 2002 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; November 2002; Innocent Bystander; Volume 290, No. 4; 22-24.