In late May, Turkmenistan’s capital Ashgabat honoured its totalitarian leader Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov by unveiling a statue in his likeness, where the golden Berdymukhamedov, sitting atop a jagged white marble rock some 20 metres above the ground rides a horse with one front leg raised.
Traditionally, equine statues with one foreleg raised means the subject was wounded in battle. On first glance, the pose of the civilian dentist and long-time apparatchik is another untruth in his burgeoning personality cult - until one recalls Berdymukhamedov’s Vronsky moment in 2013, where he fell spectacularly from his horse in a staged race at the Ashgabat Hippodrome (the YouTube clip remains a source of great amusement to those Turkmen able to circumvent the regime’s internet restrictions). As Berdymukhamedov lies motionless, the announcer says, “Our beloved president was able to finish the race in first place,” as dozens of men in suits race to his aid and the crowd drops with astonishing speed into absolute silence. Given we are expected to consider the totalitarian leader’s propaganda as a service to his country, one wonders whether the raised leg of the horse is not an accident.
Ashgabat, meaning “city of love” in its non-native Arabic, is not short of adoring statues, mostly thanks to former president Saparmurat Niyazov, best known for a 12-metre tall golden statue of himself that would rotate with the sun in a comical pose that saw it nicknamed Batman by locals. After taking over the presidency following Niyazov’s death in 2006, Berdymukhamedov initially sought to temper the excesses of the latter years of Niyazov’s reign, exiling Batman to the base of the mountains in the southernmost part of the city and forcing him to stand still.
While Berdymukhamedov’s decision to move Niyazov’s statue on the outskirts of the city in 2010 seemed to indicate his preference for milder, gentler, form of leader worship, the recent monument to himself suggests the vanity of totalitarian rule is increasingly taking hold.
In the heart of the city, Berdymukhamedov’s image stands in neon colours at a number of major intersections. In ballet they call his unusual stance fourth position, but for Ashgabat, it’s rather unostentatious.
One of the sites of the neon leader, not far from where a statue of Lenin still commands the birds in an empty park, stands opposite the city’s premiere propaganda outlet, a tiny room of books of Niyazov’s and Berdymukhamedov’s thoughts and posters of the men, whose strikingly similar appearances spurred the rumour that the current president was Niyazov’s illegitimate son.
The elevated stature of Berdymukhamedov’s thoughts and image above Niyazov’s shows that the personality cult of the president, who has adopted the formal title “Arkadag”, meaning “Protector”, is on in earnest. It is safe to assume that a personality cult is something that grows, rather than diminishes: something we see evidenced in the reign of regional hero Putin, who continues to show that at the very least, the growing indulgence in a He-Man aesthetic that would make Hemingway blush does not interfere with one’s public approval.
Nowhere is the dawning of Berdymukhamedov’s personality cult more apparent than the country’s two major museums, in Ashgabat and in the northern city of Mary. While later rooms in the museums house remarkably preserved and civilisationally advanced ceramics from inhabitants of the country several millennia before Christ, the opening rooms in both museums are reserved for shrines to the very vital current president, with few signs of his predecessor.
The first display that greets the visitor to the Mary museum is Berdymukhamedov in maritime regalia, clutching binoculars and gazing knowingly in front of a large luxury yacht: a second photo shows him captaining it. Without the need for closer inspection, it’s apparent only the figure of the 58-year-old president is real. Further photos in the exhibition confirm he is at one with nature: atop white horses, brown horses, picking cotton, commanding leashed lambs, and staring down bemused, outsized camels. This is not to say the natural environment is his sole dominion: he comforts old ladies, operates on the sick, runs, cycles, practices martial arts (against a child, mind), sips tea in a traditional setting, and greets world leaders.
Turkmenistan is frequently tagged with comparisons to North Korea, which had some resonance in the later years of Niyazov’s reign, where in addition to his god-like imagery, the entire school curriculum was replaced by his rambling book of thought, Ruhnama (“Meaningless, awkward and bad words tire people; yet, a human-being cannot be content with meaningful and nice words”) and the days of the week were renamed after members of his family. Berdymukhamedov’s abandonment of Niyazov’s all-encompassing spirituality for Putinesque physicality marks a shift in attitude that can be partially explained by the regional pride in the reemergence of Russia as a world power under Putin’s reign.
Contrary to Russia, however, is Turkmenistan’s obsessive state doctrine of neutrality. It is a rare phenomenon that a totalitarian petrostate at the centre of competing great and regional powers is so stridently adverse to foreign policy outside of its gas trade, meaning it is able to focus its paranoia and project its pride almost exclusively inward.
While the machismo of Berdymukhamedov’s propaganda illustrates both his masculinity and a dominance over the natural environment, it highlights the fealty of the elite to the strongman. The dominant culture of the totalitarian leader remains unchallenged, where megalomaniacal excesses are not only tolerated but encouraged by the coterie around him, who rely on his patronage for their wealth and personal safety.
For all the novelty, Turkmenistan is about as repressive as it gets. Ahead of only North Korea in press freedom rankings, it has systematically destroyed any opposition through surveillance and torture.
This is not to say there is a grand revolutionary spirit bubbling underneath: the value of the strongman is heard consistently and genuinely in everyday people throughout Central Asia, where the chaos of 1990s Russia, ineffectiveness of the 2005 and 2010 Kyrgyz revolutions, and the war in Ukraine are widely seen as a greater hardships than the inconveniences and excesses of the status quo.
The Ashgabatans I speak to all find the Photoshopping and the statues amusing, but equally have developed their sense of humour to talk around politics as much as they talk about it. Most Turkmen seem largely desensitised to the political idolatry, and after seeing Brezhnev’s portrait in every building for years, Berdymukhamedov’s handsome and kindlier face must be easier to endure. But a personality cult is something that by definition can’t be modest, and nor do they tend to recede with time. What will matter most to the people of Turkmenistan is whether, like Niyazov before him, they have to suffer the increasingly repressive policies that go in hand with amplified cults of personality.