Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Compulsive Reading in Turkmenistan
People in Turkmenistan may laugh and joke in private about their president’s handbook to life, but whatever walk of life they come from, they find it makes compelling reading.
President Saparmurat Niazov, who styles himself Turkmenbashi or “Leader of the Turkmen”, finished the Ruhnama – the Book of the Spirit – in September 2001, with the aim of providing the nation with a compilation of thoughts about how to be a good Turkmen citizen. Volume two came out in September last year.
The president says he wanted to create “a charter of behaviour for people, a code of canons and regulations for Turkmen society”.
Critics say the book is little more than a meandering collection of folksy platitudes and garbled historical references.
Volume one is already compulsory reading in all areas of public life, from the schoolroom to the professional workplace. Knowledge of its contents is arguably more important than any specialist skills when it comes to advancing one’s career. Attempts have even been made to supplant the Koran and Bible, to the dismay of the traditionally Muslim Turkmen and the Christian Russian minority.
Last month, volume two became available to English readers for the first time, in line with the policy of translating the president’s works into languages as diverse as Japanese and Zulu. The state news agency commented, “All those who have read the first volume of the outstanding literary work are looking forward to the sequel.”
The president’s book is obligatory study material from kindergarten to university. All prospective students are tested on it before enrolling in higher education, and for the specialist, there is even a degree-course faculty devoted to its contents at the country’s main university.
Anyone working in the dominant public sector is tested on Ruhnama knowledge as a condition of employment.
In the schools, the national curriculum has been changed radically so that 15 minutes out of every lesson are dedicated to reading the Ruhnama, whether the class subject is science or the arts. That is in addition to a new curriculum subject: Ruhnama studies. To make space, other subjects as physical education, foreign literature, chemistry, biology and world history have been cut back or dropped altogether.
“I’ve been a teacher for more than 30 years, and now I am seeing a situation when our children are having their minds filled with nonsense,” said an Ashgabat teacher who asked not to be named. “The result will be that after a few years of this propaganda, we will have an totally ignorant generation devoid of ideas.
“Children are impressionable, and you sow what you reap. If all-round education suffers and all we have is ‘Ruhnama-isation’, it will be impossible to alter their way of thinking and re-educate them later on.”
Many parents are as concerned as the teachers.
“I am frightened,” said Svetlana, the mother of a nine-year-old daughter. “My daughter hears all this ideology from the Ruhnama and she accepts it as the sole indisputable truth. When she comes home, she tries to convince my husband and me until she’s blue in the face that our president is a holy man chosen by God. None of my pathetic attempts to explain that this isn’t the case, that presidents are chosen by the people, has worked.”
Some parents try to get their children educated outside Turkmenistan, even though foreign degrees are no longer accepted as valid inside the country.
“The forced study of the Ruhnama is simply coercive ideology, a fooling of our people, especially youth,” said Jeren, a student at a Russian university. “In a few years, an entire generation will be practically illiterate, because there is no fundamental education in Turkmenistan any more, just the ubiquitous Ruhnama…. That’s why I’m studying in Russia, and it’s hard for me to imagine reading a course on this work instead of our specialist field of study.”
In case anyone slips through the educational net, all public-sector employees including doctors, teachers and lawyers have to sit an exam consisting of 30 questions on the Ruhnama.
A doctor working at a hospital in the capital Ashgabat was bemused when he sat verbal and written tests in his specialist field of urology.
“No one asked me about my medical skills or questioned me on my field, they just asked questions about the Ruhnama and the policies of our president,” said the doctor, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “In the [written] test, I also answered questions devoted to the dates and figures in the book.”
All government offices have to have a copy of the book and a portrait of the author, and in addition each institution has a special Ruhnama Room containing yet more copies.
On Saturdays, state employees have to turn up for extra classes where their colleagues discuss the book in turn.
“If I don’t come to Ruhnama lessons on Saturdays, I will be harshly reprimanded, and employees who don’t attend regularly are told they will be the first to be laid off,” said Nurbibi, an accountant.
In fact Saturday is not even called that any more – it is Ruhgun, Spirit Day, renamed so that everyone can spend it reading the book
Controversially, the Ruhnama is now placed next to the Koran in Turkmenistan’s mosques, and Russian Orthodox churches also have to have copies available.
Believers have been especially unhappy at the suggestion that Turkmenbashi’s work could be on a par with the Koran, which is a sacred text for Muslims consisting of the words of God.
The country’s former chief Muslim cleric, Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah, was once compliant with the regime, but his patience finally ran out when it was decided to decorate mosque cupolas with quotations from the Ruhnama alongside verses from the Koran. The cleric reportedly refused to declare Turkmenbashi as a “true messenger of God” – the title applicable to the Prophet Muhammed.
The president dealt with these objections in summary fashion: sacked in 2003, ibn Ibadullah was given a 22-year jail term in March 2004 for “treason”. The largest mosque in the country – in Turkmenbashi’s native village of Kipchak – is now decorated not only with Ruhnama inscriptions, but also portraits of the president and his family.
Even the army is increasingly guided by Turkmenbashi’s collected thoughts, with the usual lessons and tests devoted to the subject.
A soldier, who asked not to be named, commented somewhat churlishly, “After such thorough study of our leader’s works, our grenades will hit their targets more accurately, the tanks will run around the training zone more rapidly, and the troops will be better fed.”
As coronavirus sweeps the globe, IWPR’s network of local reporters, activists and analysts are examining the economic, social and political impact of this era-defining pandemic.
- Europe & Eurasia
- Latin America
- Middle East & North Africa
- Focus Pages
- Training & Resources
- Print Publications
- IWPR Spotlight