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Turkmenistan's “Book of the Soul” Facing Difficult Times

Saparmurat Niyazov, Turkmenistan's first President-for-Life, once suggested that reading his “Ruhnama” (“The Book of the Soul”) three times would be enough to guarantee a person's place in heaven. But with the isolated republic now ruled by a different strongman, eager to put his own stamp on Turkmen life, the Ruhnama's place in society is looking ever less prominent.

Despite Turkmenistan having an 80% Muslim population, the Ruhnama, a book on public mores that Niyazov, who died in December 2006, supposedly authored, was once promoted by state officials as being an equal of the Holy Koran. Mass media regularly quoted the book, as did schoolchildren, foreign investors and anyone that wanted to pass a driving test.

President Niyazov (right) authored the Ruhnama, but the book seems to be getting in the hair of President Berdymuhamedov (left), despite Berdymuhamedov kissing the text at his inauguration. Remixed image published on the Turkmen Chronicles news blog.

When it was first published in 2001, the book was portrayed by the government as a source of spiritual guidance and national identity for a society still struggling with the ideological vacuum left behind by the Soviet Union. As its role grew, however, it quickly came to be viewed as just another cog in Nizazov's personality cult, a personality cult that rivaled Stalin's, Mao's and Kim Jong-il's in pomp and audacity.

Although many historians dispute the accuracy of the book's vision of Turkmen history, the message from President Niyazov on the inlay leaves little room for interpretation:

The Ruhnama has absorbed the five thousand year history of our nation, the pearls of its wisdom, philosophy, mentality, its dreams and aspirations, unique culture and lifestyle, as well as its rich inner world.

The Rise and Rise of the Ruhnama

Within a couple of years of the Ruhnama's release it had become national dogma. Vilages and streets were named after the text, and a large statue of the book was built in the center of the capital, Ashkhabad. Every Saturday was proclaimed the day of Ruhnama and September 12 was celebrated as Ruhnama Day, one of the most important in the pantheon of Turkmen public holidays.

Furthermore, foreign investors such as DaimlerChrysler, Siemens and Bouygues International began promoting and translating the Ruhnama into foreign languages in order to curry favour with Niyazov and gain access to the Turkmen market. The producers of Shadow of the Holy Book, a 2007 documentary on the Ruhnama, asked the same question to several of the world's largest multinational companies: Why support a dictatorship by translating a book that oppresses its own population? [Watch full documentary here]. The book has now been translated into 41 languages.

Schoolchildren and university students in particular were forced to study the Ruhnama every day. As Surat Ajdarova recalled in an opinion piece on Fergana news:

It was mandatory to read the Ruhnama in schools, universities and governmental organizations. New governmental employees were tested on the Ruhnama at the job interview and even at [their] driver’s tests.

Is Turkmenistan waving goodbye to its soul?

Copies of the Ruhnama are still widely available in Turkmenistan, but as Gurbanguly Berdymuhamedov, Turkmen president since Niyazov's death and self-appointed “protector” of the Turkmen people has sought to bolster his own public profile [GV] the Ruhnama is no longer the omnipresence it once was. In 2011, for instance, Eurasianet.org reported that the Turkmen government had decided to remove the requirement to pass an exam in Ruhnama knowledge for secondary school students.

A statue of the Ruhnama in  Turkmenistan (Wikimedia commons)

While at the beginning of this month, The Times of Central Asia reported a further blow to the book's status:

A new curriculum prepared by the Turkmen Education Ministry for secondary schools for the coming school year does not include the study of Ruhnama…It means that from September 1, Turkmen school students will no longer study the “sacred book” written by Saparmurat Niyazov, late President for Life of Turkmenistan.

For the most part, the news was received positively by commentators on the diaspora-run Turkmen Chronicles News blog, a reader called Turkmen rejoicing [ru]:

Слава Аллаху!!! Хоть что-то полезное от Аркадага!

Praise Allah!! This is at least one thing that The Protector has got right!

Another user, Leto, waxed philosophical [ru] over the possible legacies of personalized rule in Turkmenistan:

как потом нашим потомкам изучать эпоху туркменбаши? или ее не было? или стыдно будет перед потомками что вообще такое было и теперь продолжается

How will our descendants remember the era of Turkmenbashy [Father of the Turkmen - Niyazov's favourite title]? Or perhaps it never happened? Or will we be ashamed before our descendants that such [an era] even existed and that it continues on to this day?

Anonymous suggested [ru] sarcastically that a host of recently published books connected to the current president could soon be appearing on school syllabi, reflecting the transition from one cult of personality to another:

будут изучать «Верный сын Родины. Дело всей жизни Мяликгулы ага», «Педагог, воин, гражданин. Жизнь-подвиг Бердымухамеда Аннаева», «Имя доброе нетленно», «Ахалтекинец — наша гордость и слава», «Туркмения — страна здоровых и высокодуховных людей»

Now they are going to learn “True Son of the Homeland. The Life Works of Mayalikgul Aga” [a biography of President Berdymuhamedov's grandfather], “Teacher, Soldier, Citizen, The Life of Burdymuhamed Annaev” [a biography of President Berdymuhamedov's father], “A Good Name Doesn't Perish” [a novel purportedly written by Berdymuhamedov], “Akhal-Tekke Horses – Our Pride and Salvation” [Berdymuhamedov's book on the famous horses that hail from his home region], “Turkmenistan – a Country of Healthy and Spiritually Advanced People” [Berdymuhamedov's Ruhnama-like treatise on Turkmen culture and traditional knowledge].

In yet another move that can be perceived as aiming to dilute the influence of the Ruhnama, Berdymuhamedov has repeatedly stressed Turkmenistan's debt to Magtymguly Pyragy, an 18th century poet and spiritual leader born in what is now northeastern Iran. Commenting under an article about the president's promotion of Magtymguly over the Ruhnama on RFE/RL's Turkmen service, a user called Rayat welcomed [Tkm] the “rotting away” of a text that once dominated everyday existence in the country:

Fa$istba$ynyñ absurt ruhnamasyda ozi yaly cüyräp gider. Halk hakykaty bilyar.

Fascist-bashi's [reference to Niyazov] absurd Ruhnama ideology is rotting away just as he himself decays into the ground. The people will discover the truth.

 

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