Saparmurat Niyazov

Turkmenbashi during a summit meeting with Hamid Kharzai and Pervez Musharraf
Saparmurat Niyazov, also known as Turkmenbashi, first president of Turkmenistan. Getty Images

Banners and billboards trumpeted, Halk, Watan, Turkmenbashi meaning "People, Nation, Turkmenbashi." President Saparmurat Niyazov awarded himself the name "Turkmenbashi," meaning "Father of the Turkmen," as part of his elaborate cult of personality in the former Soviet republic of Turkmenistan. He expected to be next only to the Turkmen people and the new nation in his subjects' hearts.

Early Life

Saparmurat Atayevich Niyazov was born on February 19, 1940, in the village of Gypjak, near Ashgabat, the capital of the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic.

Niyazov's official biography states that his father died fighting the Nazis in World War II, but rumors persist that he deserted and was sentenced to death by a Soviet military court instead.

When Saparmurat was eight years old, his mother was killed in a magnitude 7.3 earthquake that struck Ashgabat on October 5, 1948. The quake killed an estimated 110,000 people in and around the Turkmen capital. Young Niyazov was left an orphan.

We don't have records of his childhood from that point and know only that he lived in a Soviet orphanage. Niyazov graduated from high school in 1959, worked for several years, and then went to Leningrad (Saint Petersburg) to study electrical engineering. He graduated from the Leningrad Polytechnic Institute with an engineering diploma in 1967.

Entry into Politics

Saparmurat Niyazov joined the Communist Party in the early 1960s. He quickly advanced, and in 1985, Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev appointed him First Secretary of the Turkmen SSR's Communist Party.

Although Gorbachev is famed as a reformer, Niyazov soon proved himself an old-fashioned communist hard-liner.

Niyazov gained even more power in the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic on January 13, 1990, when he became Chairman of the Supreme Soviet. The Supreme Soviet was the legislature, meaning that Niyazov was essentially the Prime Minister of the Turkmen SSR.

President of Turkmenistan

On October 27, 1991, Niyazov and the Supreme Soviet declared the Republic of Turkmenistan independent from the disintegrating Soviet Union. The Supreme Soviet appointed Niyazov as the interim president and scheduled elections for the following year.

Niyazov won the June 21, 1992 presidential elections overwhelmingly - this was not a surprise since he ran unopposed. In 1993, he awarded himself the title of "Turkmenbashi," meaning "Father of all the Turkmen." This was a contentious move with some of the neighboring states that had large ethnic Turkmen populations, including Iran and Iraq.

A 1994 popular referendum extended Turkmenbashi's presidency to 2002; an astonishing 99.9% of the vote was in favor of extending his term. By this time, Niyazov had a firm grip on the country and was using the successor agency to the Soviet-era KGB to suppress dissent and encourage ordinary Turkmen to inform on their neighbors. Under this regime of fear, few dared speak up against his rule.

Increasing Authoritarianism

In 1999, President Niyazov hand-picked each of the candidates for the nation's parliamentary elections. In return, the newly elected parliamentarians declared Niyazov "President for Life" of Turkmenistan.

Turkmenbashi's cult of personality developed apace. Nearly every building in Ashgabat featured a large portrait of the president, with his hair dyed an interesting array of different colors from photo to photo. He renamed the Caspian Sea port city of Krasnovodsk "Turkmenbashi" after himself, and also named most of the country's airports in his own honor.

One of the most visible signs of Niyazov's megalomania was the $12 million Neutrality Arch, a 75 meter (246 foot) tall monument topped with a rotating, gold-plated statue of the president. The 12 meter (40 foot) high statue stood with arms outstretched and rotated so that it was always facing the sun.

Among his other eccentric decrees, in 2002, Niyazov officially renamed the months of the year in honor of himself and his family. The month of January became "Turkmenbashi," while April became "Gurbansultan," after Niyazov's late mother.

Another sign of the president's lasting scars from being orphaned was the odd Earthquake Monument statue that Niyazov had installed in downtown Ashgabat, showing the Earth on the back of a bull, and a woman lifting a golden baby (symbolizing Niyazov) out of the cracking ground.

Ruhnama

Turkmenbashi's proudest achievement seems to have been his autobiographical work of poetry, advice, and philosophy, titled Ruhnama, or "The Book of the Soul." Volume 1 was released in 2001, and Volume 2 followed in 2004. A rambling screed including his observations of daily life, and exhortations to his subjects on their personal habits and behavior, over time, this tome became required reading for all citizens of Turkmenistan.

In 2004, the government revised primary and secondary school curricula across the country so that approximately 1/3 of classroom time was now devoted to study of the Ruhnama. It displaced supposedly less important subjects such as physics and algebra.

Soon job interviewees had to recite passages from the president's book in order to be considered for job openings, drivers license exams were about the Ruhnama rather than the rules of the road, and even mosques and Russian Orthodox churches were required to display the Ruhnama beside the Holy Koran or the Bible. Some priests and imams refused to comply with that requirement, regarding it as blasphemy; as a result, several mosques were shuttered or even torn down.

Death and Legacy

On December 21, 2006, the state media of Turkmenistan announced that President Saparmurat Niyazov had died of a heart attack.

He had previously suffered several heart attacks and a bypass operation. Ordinary citizens wailed, cried, and even threw themselves on the coffin as Niyazov lay in state in the presidential palace; most observers believed that the mourners were coached and coerced into their sentimental displays of grief. Niyazov was buried in a tomb near the main mosque in his hometown of Kipchak.

Turkmenbashi's legacy is decidedly mixed. He spent lavishly on monuments and other pet projects, while ordinary Turkmen lived on an average of one US dollar per day. On the other hand, Turkmenistan remains officially neutral, one of Niyazov's key foreign policies, and exports increasing amounts of natural gas, also an initiative he supported throughout his decades in power.

Since Niyazov's death, however, his successor, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, has spent considerable money and effort undoing many of Niyazov's initiatives and decrees. Unfortunately, Berdimuhamedov seems to be intent on replacing Niyazov's cult of personality with a new one, centered around himself.

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Szczepanski, Kallie. "Saparmurat Niyazov." ThoughtCo, Feb. 9, 2017, thoughtco.com/saparmurat-niyazov-195770. Szczepanski, Kallie. (2017, February 9). Saparmurat Niyazov. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/saparmurat-niyazov-195770 Szczepanski, Kallie. "Saparmurat Niyazov." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/saparmurat-niyazov-195770 (accessed January 23, 2018).