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Turkmen "Holy Book" Still on Shelves

By News Briefing Central Asia
  • The Ruhnama, the book written by Turkmenistan's last president. (Photo: IWPR)
    The Ruhnama, the book written by Turkmenistan's last president. (Photo: IWPR)

Nearly six years after the death of Turkmen president Saparmurat Niazov, the book he wrote as a set of instructions for the nation refuses to go away.

On September 12, the Ruhnama’s official birthday will be celebrated with all the pomp the government can muster, in a clear sign that the text remains part of the post-Niazov administration’s ideology, for now at least.

The Ruhnama, an eclectic collection of Turkmen folklore, history and myth, attained near-sacred status in Niazov’s lifetime. Everyone was forced to read it and it was taught extensively in schools and universities.

Aspiring public servants were tested on their Ruhnama knowledge during the recruitment process, and long passages from it were read on TV and quoted in the press. The government even went to the trouble of having the book translated into 40-odd languages.

When Niazov died at the end of 2006, he was replaced by Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov, who was elected amid promises of reform. Images of the new president began replacing the once-ubiquitous Niazov, and there were signs the Ruhnama might fade into obscurity as the old leader’s legacy was gradually effaced.

Last year, educational institutions cut the hours devoted to studying the Niazov book and replaced this with more normal subjects. But it is unclear whether it has been dropped altogether as it is still being taught in some places.

When Berdymuhammedov confirmed on September 4 that Ruhnama Day 2012 was to be celebrated with all the trimmings, he used Niazov-like phrases about inculcating a spirit of patriotism and “timeless national values” appropriate to the present “epoch of power and happiness”.

A straw poll of people in Turkmenistan suggests that the Ruhnama has been sidelined to an extent, but is still mandatory in certain places of study.

A first-year student at the Transport Institute in the capital Ashgabat said he had yet to come across Ruhnama classes, while a medical student said it was part of the curriculum, but the lecturer "pays more attention to social sciences, regarding that as more useful".

Pupils and teachers at two Ashgabat schools said Ruhnama classes and exams remained mandatory.

"It’s orders from above," a teacher at one of the schools said. "Teachers work to [curriculum] plans approved by the education ministry, and these cannot be approved unless they incorporate the Ruhnama."

However, a teacher at another school in the city said Ruhnama studies remained part of coursework only because it was impossible to replace it with new textbooks all at once.

"Ruhnama is taught as a subject at schools and universities, but now it’s accorded less weight and it doesn’t take precedence over other classes," he added.

Staff at two bookshops in the capital confirmed that they had Ruhnama books for sale, although these were copies left unsold since Niazov’s days.

"But people still buy them," one bookseller said.

While some see the Ruhnama as something that will fade into history once the government can think up an ideology to replace it, others still believe it has a lot to offer in terms of moral advice.

"This book is very important to our nation," a third-year student of the Institute of World Languages said, arguing that everyone in Turkmenistan had grown up with the text.

In a reference to the Russian rocket which put a capsule containing the Ruhnama into orbit in 2005, the student said, “It’s even on the moon.”

This article was produced as part of IWPR's News Briefing Central Asia output, funded by the National Endowment for Democracy.

If you would like to comment or ask a question about this story, please contact our Central Asia editorial team at feedback.ca@iwpr.net.

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