The Land of Turkmenbashi
Of the fifteen states of the former Soviet empire, Turkmenistan, just north of Iran, is the one that has turned out to be a cruel blend of Kim Jong Il’s North Korea and L. Frank Baum’s Oz. Not long after the Soviet collapse, in 1991, a former Communist Party hack named Saparmurat Niyazov became President-for-life, dubbed himself Turkmenbashi—Leader of All the Turkmen—and commenced building the strangest, most tragicomic cult of personality on the Eurasian landmass. Doctors there now take an oath not to Hippocrates but to Turkmenbashi; the month of January is now called Turkmenbashi; and in the capital, Ashgabat, there is, atop the Arch of Neutrality, a two-hundred-and-fifty-foot gold statue of Turkmenbashi that, like George Hamilton, automatically rotates to face the sun.
It is extremely difficult to get a visa. Journalists can visit only rarely. But imagine a society in which the ubiquitous, inescapable leader’s image (on the currency, on billboards, on television screens night and day) is that of a saturnine frump who resembles Ernest Borgnine somewhere between “Marty” and “McHale’s Navy.”
Niyazov is a leader of whims. He has banned opera, ballet, beards, long hair, makeup (for television anchors), and gold-capped teeth. He demands that drivers pass a “morality test.” At his command, the word for “April” became Gurbansoltan eje, the name of his late mother. Evidently, he prizes fruit: there is now a national holiday commemorating local melons. And, as if the shade of Orwell were not sufficiently present in Turkmenistan, Niyazov has established, despite an abysmal human-rights record, a Ministry of Fairness.
Rahim Esenov, a veteran of the Second World War, is unlucky enough to be a novelist and journalist under the reign of Turkmenbashi, and in February, 2004, he was placed under house arrest by the Turkmen security police. He was accused of smuggling eight hundred copies of his novel “The Crowned Wanderer” from Moscow to his apartment in Ashgabat. When the novel, which is set in the Mogul era, was first published, in 1997, Niyazov denounced Esenov for “historical errors.” After suffering a second heart attack, Esenov, who is seventy-nine, was taken to the hospital, but three days later he was removed for interrogation. The security police charged him with “inciting social, national, and religious hatred.” And Esenov had undoubtedly given further offense to the regime by sending periodic reports to the U.S.-funded Radio Liberty.
Esenov had every reason to believe that, like so many other members of the Turkmen intelligentsia, he would suffer for a long time. But when PEN American Center, the writers’ organization, sent word, through the American Embassy in Ashgabad, that Esenov had won its Freedom to Write Award and invited him to its annual dinner in New York, the regime, sensing an international scandal, relented and let him go. A day after leaving Turkmen airspace, Esenov found himself in the most surreal of all New York venues––under the ninety-four-foot-long blue whale in the Museum of Natural History’s Milstein Hall of Ocean Life––where more than six hundred formally garbed members of PEN rose to cheer him.
“The night was tumultuous for me,” Esenov said, a couple of days later. “When they all got up to applaud, well, I couldn’t get any words out for a minute. I was so moved. Then, after I spoke, they rose and applauded again. No one in my country gets that kind of treatment except––maybe a dictator!”
Esenov laughed and reached into his coat pocket to pull out a tiny bottle of pills bearing a label from a Turkmen pharmacy.
“I’ve had two heart attacks lately,” he said. “I carry around these nitroglycerin pills. But since the award I haven’t had to take one!”
As a young man during the Stalin era, Esenov joined the Communist Party and worked as a reporter for Pravda. “I can’t describe to you how cut off we were from places like the United States,” he said, “except to say that I once had to write some small article and said that Columbia University, which had sent some books to my country, was in Colombia. And no one—not one of the editors––thought it was a mistake. It was as if we were under a veil.”
Niyazov, like Mao or Qaddafi, insists on being his people’s favorite writer. He is the putative author of the “Ruhnama,” a book that is meant to be a spiritual guide, a celebration of the Leader, and a newly contrived history of the Turkmen people. Niyazov has suggested that if one reads the “Ruhnama” one will surely go to Heaven. Other contemporary books, like Esenov’s, are generally considered rivals and are banned. For obvious reasons, Esenov was reluctant to speak directly about Niyazov, but about his own novel he said, “In any era, the writer reflects the feelings and protest of the people, and I’m a child of my people. In ‘Animal Farm,’ the animals are there as an allegory for the people.”
Walking near Bryant Park on a perfect spring day, Esenov took time to admire the Public Library, but when someone pointed out the spire of the Empire State Building he squinted vaguely. He had no idea that this tall building was any more distinguished than any other.
“You know, when I got out of jail and was told I was coming here, I thought about leaving the country forever—getting refugee status and living here,” he said. “For a while, it was a stubborn thought. But I can’t do that. My wife is ill. I have family. I’m too old. It’s too late. It’s Turkmenistan for me to the end.”
Then he got in the back seat of a taxi, and it pulled away. In a few days, Rahim Esenov would return home to the land of Turkmenbashi.