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Back Roads Beat

Tragicomic Tones in Turkmenistan

By Published: August 13, 2007
They added a fourth player for the second set and launched into a heavy blues/rock with him singing something not in English. It continued during the next few songs and they steadily cranked the volume to the point of distortion. Others players were getting more involved, notably the drummer contributing far more elaborative backings and some energetic soloing, but my ability to appreciate it was eroding quickly. Plus the place was filling beyond comfort capacity and people, many shouting to be heard in the din, seemed ready to hit the dance floor discotheque style. So, as usual, when everyone else was ready to party, I hit the road.

At least I was over my first case of nerves, or at least enough so to be irked by taxi rates tripling in that part of town late at night. That's still cheaper than almost anywhere else in the world, but it's amazing what sense of entitlements people develop in a short time. We passed by the Presidential Palace and all the other buildings lit at their nighttime best, but after my earlier adventures I wasn't tempting fate by taking illegal pictures. If you've ever wondered what Vegas might look like if all the people suddenly vanished, what we drove through was a good facsimile.

Where The Odds Are Good Of Being Odd

Unlike Vegas, outsiders visiting Turkmenistan have a long history of beating the house.

Part of the ancient Silk Route, it's a country numerous armies conquered on their way to someplace else, sort of like L.A. claiming Barstow on its way to invade Sin City. Part of the reason was the vast desert and recalcitrant nomadic tribes establishing their own historical niche as horse breeders made governing difficult. Russia finally conquered Turkmenistan in 1894, establishing its current borders in 1924 when it became one of the original six republics of the Soviet Union.

Although the country's inherent traits made it the detested Soviet stepchild, officials rapidly developed Ashgabat (whose name means "city of Love") into a contemporary European-style town because of its close proximity to British-influenced Persia. But a magnitude 7.3 earthquake on October 6, 1948, killed two-thirds of the city's 180,000 residents (Soviet officials claimed the death toll was 14,000). Among them was Turkmenbashi's mother and two brothers when he was age 7, making him an orphan because his father died in World War II. According to official news sources, which seem credible in this instance, virtually every building was destroyed and construction during the 1950s focused on quick and functional housing with little regard for aesthetics. Another 30,000 people died in an earthquake in 1974.

Turkmenistan became an independent nation after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Niyazov, a career Politburo bureaucrat who became First Secretary of the Communist Party's Central Committee in 1985, was appointed to the same title in Turkmenistan by then-Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev. Niyazov quickly transformed himself into the demiurge Turkmenbashi, apostle of Islam and Turkmen culture (Blogmenbashi quips he may be the first Communist to be declared a prophet). He expanded the powers of his office, was declared president-for-life in 1999 by Parliament after he picked its members, and his new identity soon became associated with everything of meaning and plenty of insignificant things like table salt.

One of the most dominant amusing/tragic themes of his reign was constant vilification of post-Soviet Russia and its people, blotting from his official biography various aspects of his previous career and Russian-Jewish wife. In 2003 the Turkmen government canceled a dual-citizenship agreement with Russia, according to BBC articles, causing thousands of ethnic Russians to flee after losing their property. About 100,000 remained, but access to work has been dramatically reduced and universities are encouraged to reject them. Russian TV, radio and newspapers were also banned (this is no longer the case—my hotel's bar was tuned to a channel with a variety of Russian programs, including news and their version of one of those home/family swapping reality shows).

Turkmenbachi's more severe and bizarre decrees began in 2001 and they accelerated rapidly after an alleged assassination attempt on his motorcade in November of 2002 by political opponents. The Turkmen leader temporarily rediscovered a historical sentiment for his former homeland in announcing his intention to construct remote desert gulags similar Stalin-era labor camps of the 1930s for people who "lost faith and deserve universal disapproval."

"In their time, the ancestors of the Turkmens turned to this humane but effective measure, and it served to make society healthier, cleansing it of people who compromised themselves (and letting them) atone for their guilt with hard but honest labour," Turkmenbashi wrote.

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