Saparmurat Atayavich Niyazov was born on February 19, 1940, and orphaned by age eight. His father was killed during the Great Patriotic War and his remaining relatives, including his mother, were killed in the earthquake which leveled Ashgabat in 1948. He may not have known his parents, but the memory of them was a major part of Niyazov’s identity and philosophy. In 1962, Niyazov began his career with the Turkmen Communist Party, an affiliation infrequently mentioned after the achievement of Turkmen independence. From 1985-1991, he served as First Secretary of the Party and on January 13, 1990, he became Chairman of the Supreme Soviet. Ten months later, Niyazov was declared President of Turkmenistan. Thus began his sixteen year term of office, during which Niyazov redefined Turkmen identity.
The Turkmen people confirmed Niyazov’s position on June 21, 1992, when he became the first popularly elected President, though it is unlikely that anyone would have been permitted to defeat him. In 1993, Niyazov became Turkmenbashi and began the struggle to separate Turkmenistan from its Soviet past by replacing the Cyrillic with the Latin alphabet. The next year Niyazov’s presidency was extended to 2001, but parliament declared him President for Life on December 28, 1999. Turkmenbashi’s regime was characterized by a need to control every aspect of his citizens’ lives. All non-governmental internet licenses were revoked in May 2000 and all internet cafes were closed in June 2001, making it easier for Niyazov to control information flow inside Turkmenistan. He also provided the Turkmen with a useable Turkmen history. The Ruhnama, completed in September 2001, is Niyazov’s handbook to all things Turkmen, including a history of the Turkmen from Ögüz Khan to the present, the philosophy of what it is to be Turkmen, and the poetry of Niyazov himself. Knowledge of the Ruhnama is required for entrance into higher education and most professions. Great emphasis is placed on honoring one’s parents, especially mothers. When he renamed days, months, and years with names of Turkmen significance, Niyazov honored his father with 2003 and his mother with 2004. Turkmenbashi also rejected the Turkmen people’s nomadic past, instead placing an emphasis on Turkmenistan as the ancestral homeland of the Turkmen. The emphasis on territory and language as defining characteristics of Turkmen identity was learned under the Soviet Union – a period Niyazov has tried to omit from his narrative. No matter how hard Niyazov denied it, the Soviet Union was responsible for creating modern Turkmenistan through the development of identity, infrastructure, and a social hierarchy. Niyazov’s extreme nationalism is a remnant of the Soviet indigenization policy, which fostered the initial creation of a Turkmen national identity.
Niyazov’s actions as President have not all been received favorably in Turkmenistan. On November 25, 2002 he survived an assassination attempt and during the summer of 2004 a leaflet campaign called for his overthrow and arrest. Indeed, several of his actions have been detrimental for the Turkmen population. He closed all hospitals outside of Ashgabat in February 2005, forcing people to travel across the country to receive medical care. As of January 2006, a third of the elderly population had their pensions discontinued. Instead of caring for the Turkmen people, Turkmenbashi created a cult of personality around himself greater even than Stalin’s. Golden statues of Niyazov fill Ashgabat and portraits of Turkmenbashi can still be found everywhere, even after Niyazov’s death on December 21, 2006.
Saparmurat Niyazov single-handedly crafted the modern Turkmen identity narrative, picking and choosing which parts to include in the Ruhnama. He used the ancient heritage of Ögüz Khan and the identifying traits of language and territory, but rejected the nomadic and Soviet narratives to which those traditions belonged. Under Niyazov, the Turkmen people were cut off from the rest of the world and forced to live frugally while Turkmenbashi built gold statues and marble apartment buildings, where no one could afford to live.
- Paul Theroux, “The Golden Man: Saparmurat Niyazov’s Reign of Insanity,” The New Yorker, 28 May 2007, 54-65.
- Adrienne Lynn Edgar, Tribal Nation: The Making of Soviet Turkmenistan (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006).