PERSONALITY CULTS IN TURKMENISTAN: DECONSTRUCTION AND CONSTRUCTION
In May, Turkmenistan’s President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov publicly reviewed the construction plans for a new architectural complex to be built in the capital Ashkhabad commemorating the Turkmen national heroes of the war against Nazism in 1941-1945 and the victims of the devastating Ashkhabad earthquake of 1948. The president’s endorsement came only two weeks following the nationwide celebrations of the Day of Victory in the Great Patriotic War, referred to by Turkmenistan's media for the first time omitting the Soviet epithet “Great Patriotic.” Both moves indicate a further shift away of Turkmenistan from the historical meta-narratives of the Turkmenbashi era entering after Berdimuhamedov’s reelection a new “Epoch of Might and Happiness.”
BACKGROUND: Berdimuhamedov reviewed the planned architectural projects on May 22 in the course of a regular on-spot inspection of construction sites in the capital city. On that occasion, various studies of a new memorial complex were made public where monuments would be erected to commemorate the Turkmen soldiers who died heroic deaths fighting Nazism and the victims of the Ashkhabad earthquake. Turkmenistan's long-term partner in the construction business, the Turkish company Polimeks, authored the original construction plans for the new site. Reviewing the presented plans, Berdimuhamedov instructed the new memorial ought to embody the “wise and indispensable traditions” of the Turkmens “holding in high esteem their heroes and paying tribute to the bright memory of their ancestors.”
Both the war against Nazism and the Ashkhabad earthquake are key formative events that shaped the Turkmen collective memory. Hence, after independence a significant number of “places of memory” have been created in public spaces throughout the country as part of the nation building concept promoted by late Turkmenbashi. As a result, the nation's main memorial complex celebrating the victory over Nazism where nationwide Victory Day celebrations take place today is the Hero of Turkmenistan Atamyrat Nyýazov memorial park in Ashkhabad; the memorial’s conceptual pinnacle with the flame of eternal glory is an oversize bronze figure of a soldier featuring Turkmenbashi’s father. The 1948 tragedy, for its part, is perhaps best symbolized by the Ashkhabad Earthquake Victims Monument not far from the Presidential Palace depicting in monumental form the scene of Turkmenbashi’s mother saving in a deadly cramp her golden infant from the fury of the elements.
Monumentality in architecture and art is a distinctive, and perhaps the most visible, manifestation of the grand ideological concepts prevailing in Turkmenistan after independence, centered heavily on the personality cult of the President himself and his ancestors and family members. Apart from Turkmenbashi himself, Turkmenbashi’s “Great Father” Atamyrat served as a model for countless statues all over Turkmenistan. His typical depiction was as an ordinary soldier to extol virtues of heroism and vigor; the town of Kerki, an oil tanker, and a motor rifle division, among others, were renamed Atamyrat in his honor. Turkmenbashi's mother Gurbansoltan, a most frequent theme of Turkmen cult-building exercise in monumental art, was glorified for being the “guardian of national traditions.” Under the previous regime, she served to embody “great spirit, love for children, and devotion to the family.” A few other relatives of Turkmenbashi have been depicted as well, the most notable being his brothers (who died at a young age during the natural disaster of 1948), his grandfather (said to have gained notoriety among locals for fruit growing), and his great-grandfather (supposedly fallen in 1881 in Gökdepe while defending the Fatherland against the Russian conquest). In addition, the President’s beloved stallion of the outstanding Ahal-Teke breed even appeared on the national emblem.
IMPLICATIONS: Coping with the pervasive ideological legacy left by Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan’s first president-for-life, thus proved a critical challenge for Berdimuhamedov. Coming to power in a successful takeover following Turkmenbashi's death in late 2006, he began to solidify his power base by gradually distancing himself from the personality cult established by his predecessor. Berdimuhamedov has from the very beginning made steps towards the goal of dismantling the personality cult of his predecessor. A good case in point are Berdimuhamedov’s reform efforts in national education aiming to reduce the role of Ruhnama, a peculiar “Holy Book” supposedly written by Turkmenbashi himself.
In 2007 the conventional names of the days of the week and months of the year were reinstated, replacing Turkmenbashi’s calendar celebrating himself, his mother and other supposed great figures of Turkmen history. Furthermore, Turkmenbashi’s name was excluded from the text of the national oath of loyalty. Its mandatory use in the public domain was downgraded and defined and limited strictly to chosen occasions. In the years that followed, Turkmenbashi’s name was dropped from the lyrics of the national anthem, while portraits of the late President were effectively withdrawn from all but one banknote as part of the currency reform of 2008/2009. Finally, in 2010, in perhaps one of his boldest moves ever, Berdimuhamedov decided to remove from the central square in Ashkhabad the architectural structure of the Turkmenistan Arch of Neutrality topped by a thirty-foot golden statue of Turkmenbashi rotating in the direction of the sun with extended arms so as to receive blessings from above.
At the same time, by dismantling the most striking eccentricities of the Turkmenbashi era, Berdimuhamedov was nevertheless careful not to allow the emergence of an ideological vacuum. Turkmenistan under Berdimuhamedov is a highly personalized regime based on a pervasive ideology which – though differing somewhat in its content – is to its form and practices very similar to that of the late Turkmenbashi’s.
Arkadag, as Berdimuhamedov is addressed to underline his supposed role as the nation’s “Protector,” has become a cornerstone of the new ideology system affecting virtually all aspects of public life. Praised as the founder of the “New Renaissance,” a grandiose concept of the nation’s economic, social and spiritual advancement supplanting Turkmenbashi’s “Golden Age” in 2007, Berdimuhamedov was awarded at the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of independence his first Hero of Turkmenistan award.
Moreover, his construction record including the 185-meter-tall Turkmenistan Constitution Monument (included in the Guinness Book of World Records), as well as a Turkmen “Las Vegas” in the Caspian Sea tourist resort Awaza, bear close resemblance to the most ambitious endeavors of the late Turkmenbashi.
In this context, Berdimuhamedov’s latest initiatives aimed at erasing old images of the recent past from the collective memory and replacing them with those in closer conformity to prevailing conceptual notions simply fit the pattern of gradually dismantling the ideological legacy left by the late Turkmenbashi while constructing new epics associated with the person of the present leader.
CONCLUSIONS: From the figures promoted recently by the Berdimuhamedov regime to the rank of peculiar national heroes, his late grandfather Berdimuhamet Annaýev who according to the official narrative, including the increasing number of books supposedly written by the President himself, was injured badly on the battle-front and then died during the 1948 earthquake, appears to serve best the intended purpose. The glorification of the president’s grandfather seems to construct the perfect image to encapsulate both traumatic events in Turkmenistan’s recent past and promote a patriotic upbringing of the youth.
Yet, as the ideology is still in a rather formative stage, only time will tell in which direction the new Epoch of Might and Happiness, symbolically started last winter with the unveiling of a first oversized statue of its chief promoter, will develop.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Jan Šír is Research Fellow with Institute of International Studies of Charles University in Prague. He is co-author of the Silk Road Paper titled Dismantling Totalitarianism? Turkmenistan under Berdimuhamedow (Washington, DC: Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, 2009).