In a country far, far away there once was a dictator that controlled an entire nation. He was in charge of all three branches of government, plus the economy and the media. Everybody had to do as he pleased. He was the richest man of the country. But the dictator was not satisfied, he wanted more. And so the dictator sat down at his table, took his pencil and wrote a book.
Ruhnama the book was named, and it was to serve as a spiritual and moral guide, a heroic revision of Turkmen history, a source of inspiration for arts and a definition of social, family and religious norms. It was written by Saparmurat Niyazov, or as he liked to call himself, Türkmenbaşy, leader of the Turkmen, who ruled over Turkmenistan between 1991 and 2006. He is deemed one of the most totalitarian and repressive rulers and effectively turned Turkmenistan into one of the most closed countries in the world. Most interestingly though is the Kim-like cult of personality that he constructed around himself. Niyazov was very fond of placing statues and portraits wherever he could, including a 70-meter high, golden one that rotates along with the course of the sun so it will always face the sun, and renamed school, airports, a city, the days and months and eventually a meteorite after himself or his family members.
His masterpiece however, definitely is the Ruhnama book. As mentioned before, it is basically all encompassing and therefore very useful for educational practices. In fact, education in general was severely drained because the Ruhnama alone would suffice. This however was not enough to ensure that every Turkmen would read the Ruhnama carefully and understand its wisdoms completely. Therefore, mandatory exams on the Ruhnama were installed and became prerequisites to occasions ranging from job interviews to driving licenses.
The Ruhnama provided important spiritual guidance and could of course not be subordinate to another book claiming the ultimate wisdom in the predominantly Islamic country: the Quran. Hence Niyazov declared the two books equally important and ordered them to be displayed nextto each other in every mosque. When some Islamic scholars objected to this, a couple of mosques were demolished, after which it quickly became clear to the imams that the two books were indeed of equal importance. A final argument to read the Ruhnama as often as one could was provided by Niyazov after he had spoken to God and agreed with him that reading the book three times would grant irrefutable access to heaven.
The Ruhnama reached its literate height in 2005 when it was put in an orbit around the world so it could ‘conquer space’ as well. After Niyazov’s death its role in Turkmen society remained strong although its importance was tempered somewhat by Niyazov’s successor, who reversed some of its predecessor’s excessive policies and is downplaying its cult of personality. The education system is no longer build around the Ruhnama, even though it still is a compulsory reading. The book is continues to be omnipresent in Turkmen society and in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan’s capital, a huge statue of the Ruhnama remains erected, opening every night and reading out a verse to the attendees. So, where Niyazov’s page might be turned, the story of the Ruhnama is far from ended.
Intrigued by this bizarre country? In the upcoming edition of the Checks & Balances magazine there will be an in depth country study on Turkmenistan.