For all former Turkmenistan dictator Saparmurat Niyazov’s flaws, and they were truly legion, he was never boring.
Ruling the former Soviet republic with a steel fist from 1985 until 2006, Niyazov created a cult of personality that bordered on the absurd:
- Niyazov, who called himself “the Father of all Turkmen,” renamed the months of the year and days of the week, often for members of his family;
- He closed down all hospitals outside the capital of Ashgabat, reasoning that the sick should come in from the countryside for treatment. (This was problematic as Ashgabat is in the south-central part of the country, on the border with Iran. Balkanabat, by comparison, the capital of the country’s Balkan province, is 250 miles from Ashgabat.);
- Niyazov ordered all libraries outside of the capital to be closed, as he believed that the only books that most of his citizenry needed to read were the Koran and a rather dubious tome he authored called the Ruhnama. The latter was required reading for anyone taking a driving test;
- He banned dogs from the capital because of their “unappealing odor”;
- He banned news reporters and anchors from wearing make-up on television because he said he found it difficult to distinguish male anchors from female anchors; and
- Gold teeth were discouraged in the country after Niyazov suggested that the populace chew on bones to strengthen their teeth and lessen the rate at which they fall out. In his words: “I watched young dogs when I was young. They were given bones to gnaw to strengthen their teeth. Those of you whose teeth have fallen out did not chew on bones. This is my advice …”
Because Turkmenistan possesses major energy reserves, Niyazov, who died in 2006, always had plenty of money to indulge his flights of fancy.
This was best demonstrated in the construction of the “Arch of Neutrality.”
“It was a 75-meter-high rocket-shaped tower topped with a gold statue of Niyazov, which rotated throughout the day so that his face is always basking in the sun,” according to Atlas Obscura. “Built in 1998, the marble-covered monument honored his adoption of neutrality as his official policy, and cost over $12 million to create.”
Despite having some of the world’s largest natural resource reserves, most of its 5 million citizens were poor.
Given the fact that dissent was not tolerated under Niyazov’s regime – reports of torture, detention, house demolitions, forced labor and exile were all prevalent during his reign – it’s hardly surprising that he has not been missed.
Three years ago, the Arch of Neutrality was dismantled and a new Neutrality monument, 312 feet tall and costing of more than $200 million, was constructed.
(Top: Statue of Saparmurat Niyazov that first was part of Arch of Neutrality and is now part of new Neutrality monument in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. Photo credit: Eurasianet.org.)