By Daniel Kalder
When the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic was invented in 1925, the literacy rate among its mostly nomadic population was somewhere between 2-3%. By 1970 not only had universal literacy been achieved, but the country had acquired its own national literature and mini-canon of “great authors,” many of them writing in forms—novels, plays, film scripts—that had been alien to Turkmen culture fifty years earlier. These masters enjoyed many privileges under the Soviet system: large print runs, the translation of their works into the other languages of the USSR, plus spacious apartments and trips to exclusive resorts. During perestroika the capitol Ashgabat boasted 12 bookshops; there were also 25 large libraries, of which the grandest was the Karl Marx library, which contained no less than four million books, all available for free to the local populace. The library was even the central image on the cover of the official guidebook to the capitol. It was a golden age of reading.
Flash forward to 2001, however, and the situation was very different. This was the year that the country’s megalomaniac leader Saparmurat Niyazov a.k.a. Turkmenbashi published his Ruhnama (“Book of the Soul”), a rambling concoction of autobiography, bogus history, moral platitudes and appalling poetry. The Ruhnama soon became (literally) required reading as schoolchildren, university students, government workers and anyone planning to take his driver’s test had to prove their knowledge of the gibberish between its covers. It was displayed alongside the Koran in mosques; it was launched into space. Read it three times and you were guaranteed entry to Paradise; criticize the book and you’d spend five years in jail.
In spite of all his success, Turkmenbashi remained jealous of literary rivals. New books by authors popular under the Soviet regime went unpublished, while their older works were available only second hand. Anyone who tried to circumvent these restrictions landed in hot water. For instance, Rahim Esenov the author of 30 books during the Soviet era was forced to publish his three-decades-in-the-making historical epic The Crowned Wanderer in Moscow in 2003; when he attempted to smuggle 800 copies into Turkmenistan he was accused of “inciting hatred” and placed under house arrest. International pressure got him to New York to receive the PEN “Freedom to Write” award in April 2006, but his book remained banned at home.
In February 2006 meanwhile Turkmenbashi declared war on authors of the past: “Nobody reads books, people don’t go to libraries,” he declared. “Central and student libraries will remain; the remainder need to close.” But the war on reading had begun much earlier, specifically in 1993 when Turkmenistan had switched from the Cyrillic to the Latin script. At a stroke, all new books were rendered inaccessible to the older generation, while older books became inaccessible to the younger generation. And with Russian language education on the decline, books in that language were increasingly indecipherable. The nearly five million Turkmen were left with the solipsistic ramblings of their “father”—who continued to churn out volumes of poetry, history and even a sequel to the Ruhnama before he died in December 2006, only to be replaced by his personal dentist, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov.
Since then Turkmenistan has remained an isolated totalitarian state, and without a raving megalomaniac to attract international attention, media reports on the country are rarer than ever. This September, however, a Turkmen delegation attended the Moscow International Book Fair for the first time in fifteen years, a striking development considering the cultural apocalypse that was raging only three years ago. State media reported optimistically on what was achieved:
“For the first time in a long time, the Turkmen publishers reminded the Russian publishing market of their existence. They did it not as timid beginners, but as having a status of worthy holders of advanced technology able to handle the most complex orders.”
Breathlessly, the report continues:
“It’s not a secret that even relatively recently, leading publishing powers perceived Turkmenistan as a backward province of the printing industry. The Turkmen publishers’ resumed participation in the imposing international forum flatly refuted the long-standing stereotypes. Using the language of dry statistics, the Turkmen State Publishing Service exhibited more than a hundred titles on a wide thematic range. The Turkmen printed products attracted visitors by their brilliance and superb publishing execution.”
Indeed, the nation stands on the threshold of a bold new era:
“…the current publishing capacity of Turkmenistan allows the country not only to supply fully all schools with textbooks, annually printing up to 130,000 copies, but also to offer its printing capacity to neighboring countries to fulfill orders for big circulations of book products. Today, Turkmenistan is ready to serve as a major international and regional publishing center.”
Most excellent! The renaissance continued within Turkmenistan three weeks later, as Ashgabat hosted its fourth International Book Forum between the 28th and 30th of September. Stirringly titled: “A Book—the Way to the Cooperation and Progress” this event was attended by 74 delegations from nearly 30 countries, and although the emphasis was on Russian publishers and countries from the Economic Cooperation Organization (established in 1985 by Iran, Pakistan and Turkey for the purpose of promoting economic, technical and cultural cooperation among the member states), there were still some surprises—for the first time ever, Australian delegates visited Turkmenistan:
“One could see how high became the professional attitude of foreign colleagues to the possibilities of the Turkmen publishers. Today, specialists of the global publishing business tend to treat their Turkmen colleagues as partners worthy of respect; together with them one can address the most complex tasks…. on the hospitable Turkmen seashore of books the publishing business is becoming larger in scale, not falling behind the global trends, and keeping up with the advanced technological innovations.”
Poorly translated propaganda aside, the mere fact that such an event is being held at all inside Turkmenistan is a sign of progress. But the publishing situation remains far from rosy. In July the dissident site Chronicles of Turkmenistan reported:
“The Turkmenistan population can only be termed a reading nation by a stretch of the imagination. The number of book stores can be counted on one hand. In large cities there are about 2-3 bookstores, whereas there are none in towns and urban settlements not to mention the villages.”
The purported success of the book fair also masks a bleak reality unchanged since Niyazov’s day. According to Kumush Ovezova:
“Over 18 years of independence in the country, no single work of belles-lettres of contemporary Turkmen authors has been published. Many national authors continue to work but their works remain unpublished. All their efforts to get through to the readers are hopeless.”
Indeed, it is striking that in both Moscow and Ashgabat the jewel in the national crown was Medicinal Plants of Turkmenistan by President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov. The world, we are told, was very excited:
“On the first day of the exhibition several book selling organizations from Russia and CIS countries have applied to purchase this unique publication and all subsequent nine volumes of the complete encyclopedia of medicinal plants of Turkmenistan.”
The president even received an award. Also prominently featured was his epic work on Akhal Tekke horses which has already been snapped up by the Ukrainians. But then, the world was also very excited by the Ruhnama, but it usually had little to do with the quality of the book, and a lot more to do with flattering the local Khan in exchange for lucrative business contracts.
Thus the door may have opened a crack, but substantive change remains elusive in Turkmenistan. And so the old Turkmen proverb holds true:
“Of many words but a few are good words, And of those few, still less are truthful.”
Daniel Kalder is the author of Strange Telescopes. Visit him online at www.danielkalder.com.
VISIT: The homepage for the Turkmenistan International Book Fair.
READ: Entirety of the Ruhnama Vol. 1 online.
BROWSE: A New Yorker article discussing novelist Rahim Esenov’s 2006 visit to the United States.
BONUS: A Short History of Turkmen Literature