As with many tales in Turkmenistan, however, this cheery scene at the amusement park has a darker side. For a start, it was one of the many works ordered by the country's dictatorial first president, Saparmurat Niyazov, with little regard for its impact on the local population. The $50-million project, which opened in late 2006, was haunted by accusations of summary evictions and other mistreatment of residents living on or near the site. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The distinctions were haphazardly made in Niyazov's despotic mind. For example, the Russian drama theater survived, despite being moved to a less central location. Meanwhile, the story-telling robots at the theme park apparently made the project sufficiently Turkmen, even though they clearly mimic Western amusements. Locals have even nicknamed the park "Disneyland."
Despite its inconsistencies, the goal of Turkmen cultural policy has always been clear: to establish a uniform myth of national identity that is closely identified with Niyazov himself -- one that shoved aside the subtleties and local variations that arise in any culture.
Farid Tuhbatullin, director of the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, monitored Turkmen cultural issues under Niyazov. He said many artists whose talents did not fit into the new ideology left the country, if they could. "Those that had to stay were forced to devote themselves to work which propagandized Niyazov's idea[s] and his convoluted book [of autobiographical and spiritual writings], the Ruhnama. That is, one can say they became not artists, but state propaganda workers," he said.
Paradoxically, although cultural outlets devoted to Turkmenistan's national minorities Russians, Uzbeks, Kazakhs were especially hard hit, purely Turkmen art forms also fell victim to Niyazov's quirky interpretation of culture. "They also stopped letting [Turkmen folk groups] on television, under the pretext that they did not sing about today's Turkmenistan, that is about Niyazov and his policies," Tuhbatullin said.
A Turkmen intellectual living in Ashgabat said the attack on Russian influence had been most damaging. "We only know Russian, and through Russian, all European culture," the man said. "If we will only acknowledge national culture, we cannot know Shakespeare, Moliere, Lev Tolstoy," he added. "It's a crime."
Meanwhile, other residents of the capital, faced with a shrinking array of leisure-time activities, seem resigned to making the best of it. "In the beginning, people didn't like it, but now it's a way of life," a local woman explained.
The gleaming new national theater was packed with spectators for a free performance of a Turkmen legend, while just down the road the old Mir movie house continued its slow decay. Also popular is the fantastical new puppet theater, attached to "Disneyland" and again devoted mostly to Turkmen themes. Even Niyazov's health walk on the edge of town a strenuous hike along a ribbon of concrete in the foothills near Ashgabat attracts a fair number of locals, perhaps inspired by the government officials who dutifully made the trek each year at Niyazov's behest. (Apparently healthy enough, Niyazov reportedly took a helicopter to the finish.)
As in other areas of social and economic policy, the Berdymukhammedov administration is considering a more open approach on cultural issues. "Now the situation appears to have changed a bit, and they have held a number of international art festivals," Tuhbatullin said, noting that Berdymukhammedov also expressed a desire to open a pair of arts-oriented schools.
According to Tuhbatullin, Niyazov's legacy continues to constrain the new president's initiatives. The arts have been neglected so long that restoring the damaged cultural infrastructure will not be easy, Tuhbatullin said.
Tuhbatullin added that many of the first president's cultural policies remain in force, as illustrated by an April conference on the Ruhnama. Another example: state support to children's musical groups who regularly travel the country, often performing songs dedicated to Niyazov. "Yes, there are some really talented children among them, but unfortunately they do not even know how to read music," Tuhbatullin said. "They try to present these kids as the future of Turkmen culture."
The Ashgabat intellectual said that some independent, well-trained artists remained inside the country, but that they had become used to being isolated from each other and from their audience. "They broke us of public life," the man said.
A deeper consequence of that detachment, he added, was the destruction of the educated elite as a source of free thinking. "People of a high intellectual level but with nothing in their pockets don't support [the government]," he said. "But they stay silent."