The Turkmenbashi Cult of Personality in Turkmenistan

With a personality cult to rival that of Kim Jong-un’s in North Korea, Turkmenistan’s Turkmenbashi has built a comprehensive system of secular adulation centered on his life and his teachings as embodied in his various proclamations, speeches, and writings, most famous among which is the Ruhnama.

Having elevated himself to the position of secular god king, Saparmurat Niyazov has transformed the former Soviet republic of Turkmen into his own fief and even requires imams in mosques and teachers in schools to teach his Ruhnama along with the Koran and other scholastic subjects. Indeed, memorization of passages of the Ruhnama is required to hold a driver’s license in Turkmenistan.

An orphan whose mother was killed during an earthquake and whose father died fighting the Germans for the Soviet Union in World War II, Saparmurat Niyazov reportedly favors orphans and has lavished money on projects towards their support. Rising from relative poverty and obscurity to the post of Chairman of the Supreme Soviet of Turkmen SSR, Saparmurat Niyazov was among the Soviet Union’s most hardline, anti-reform communists; however, after the failure of the coup attempt in 1991 to remove Mikhail Gorbachev from power, Niyazov began to move Turkmenistan away from Moscow and had himself appointed president.

He was subsequently elected in a contest in which he was the only candidate and has had his term extended to life following relative economic success in developing Turkmenistan’s natural resources. Awash in mineral wealth and buoyed by a post-Cold War existence betwixt the United States and the USSR’s heir, the Russian Federation, Saparmurat Niyazov has constructed one of the world’s most repressive regimes and shows no sign of relinquishing power anytime soon.