Wednesday, September 17, 2008
I thought that a few websites with information on Turkmenistan might be helpful for those who know little about the country. And lets be honest, that is most everyone! There is lots of information out there that focuses on the past president's cult of personality, but there is still little that highlights the progress and improvements that have been made since 2006. This is due in part to the fact that few people visit Turkmenistan, and write about the unique country, and because it still remains isolated from the rest of the world. Turkmenistan has a long and tumultuous history, with strong tribal pride and deep traditions. The name, Turkmenistan is derived from Persian, meaning "Land of the Turkmen." The capital, Ashgabat, also derived from Persian, translates as "The City of Love." During medieval times, the city Merv (today known as Mary) was one of the great cities of the Islamic World and an important part of the Silk Road. From the 13th to the 16th centuries, the Turkmen people formed a distinct ethnolinguistic group, and as they migrated toward the modern day Iranian border region, tribal Turkmen society further established cultural traditions that would create the basis of the Turkmen national consciousness that can still be seen today. During The Great Game between the British Empire and Tsarist Russia, they were met with enduring resistance by the proud Turkmen. By 1894 however, Russia had gained control of Turkmenistan and incorporated it into their empire. The October Revolution of 1917 officially made the area known as the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic. The tribal Turkmen were encouraged to become secular, adopt a more European lifestyle and saw their alphabet changed from the traditional Arabic script to Latin and finally Cyrillic (it has been changed back to Latin in recent years). Despite the pressure to conform to this new way of life, the Turkmen people refused to abandon their previous nomadic ways and their religion, Islam. The Turkmen people tried to preserve the Turkmen identity in the midst of the Soviet Union and communism in the area was not fully embraced until as late as 1948.
In 1991, Turkmenistan declared independence from the Soviet Union and the former Soviet Leader, Sapamurat Niyazov, remained in power as Turkmenistan's leader after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. He called himself, Turkmenbashi, or "leader of the Turkmen people," and he wrote a book telling a revised, "nationalistic" version of Turkmen history and culture, to be made mandatory reading in schools, and he cultivated an extravagant cult of personality. Statues, busts and billboards of him were erected throughout the country, and months and days of the week were re-named after his family members. He tightly controlled the media and outlawed the teaching of foreign languages in schools. In 1999 he became president for life and his power only increased. Niyazov unexpectedly died in 2006 and was succeeded by Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, personal dentist and former deputy prime minister. Although Berdymukhamedov has pledged to follow the ways of Niyazov, he has instituted several reforms since inauguration. He has restored pensions to over 100,000 elderly citizens, released political prisoners jailed by Niyazov, reintroduced foreign languages into the school curriculum and extended the required number of years a Turkmen student must stay in school. There have been changes, things are progressing, but sometimes at a pace that us Americans might find frustrating. I have heard that Turkmens are happy with their government, and of course the government in no way really defines who the Turkmens are as a people. Turkmenistan has been labeled the "North Korea of Central Asia" by Lonely Planet and voted "The worst place to live" by the Economist in 2004, but I have to stay optimistic because this is going to be my home for the next 2 years. From what I have heard from T-16 volunteers has been nothing but positive and fascinating. And really, since when has the Peace Corps been known for being easy, huh? I think that after 27 months in country, we should be the ones writing the Turkmenistan section of every travel book out there!!!
So, after that history/culture tangent (I hope I don't do that so much in the classroom), here are some websites to check out for further information:
BBC Website Country Profile:
Website about Peace Corps Turkmenistan:
A website by a Belgian freelance photojournalist on Turkmenistan with video and commentary on Ashgabat:
Listen to a Turkmen dittie or watch a video clip from this website:
Friends of Turkmenistan is an NPCA afficiated organization made up primarily of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers:
The Turkmenistan Project: