People outside Turkmenistan usually have two ways of regarding the Ruhnama, the two-volume compendium of advice, spirituality and ersatz history authored by the Central Asian nation's deceased dictator, Sapurmurat Niyazov. Many outside the country regard it as a farce, as part of the same eccentric, megalomaniacal impulse that made Niyazov name a month after himself, as well as stamp his own image on television screens, currency and coins. Or it can be regarded in more sinister terms, as an essential part of Niyazov's apparatus of repression and autocratic rule.
Almost no one takes the Ruhnama for what Niyazov purportedly intended it to be: a practical guide for living. Almost no one, that is, except "Steve from Wisconsin," the American author of the blog "Reflections on the Ruhnama."
Since May 2007, Steve has been posting blog entries about the Ruhnama - key quotes from the book, news about the Ruhnama's application in Turkmenistan, and Steve's thoughts on the Ruhnama's application to daily life.
Using the blog, he hopes to keep alive the teachings of Ruhnama long after the passing of its author: Niyazov died in 2006, and since then the new president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, appears to be slowly phasing out the use of the Ruhnama. For example, schoolchildren now study the book for an hour a week, as opposed to two hours a day under Niyazov.
In one of Steve's first entries, from June 24, 2007, he wrote that he has a picture of Niyazov - who proclaimed himself "Turkmenbashi," of the "Father of the Turkmen," over his desk. The purpose of the blog, Steve wrote, is "to preserve Turkmenbashi's teachings - to keep the moral, philosophical and spiritual wisdom he set forth in the Ruhnama available into the future (or for at least as long as one person's efforts can succeed in doing so). I now see clearly that there is a reason for what I am doing. I see the following in Turkmenbashi's eyes as I look at his photo:
'Eyes see today, but a wise man's eyes also see the future.' - Ruhnama Book II, p. 12"
Steve consented to an email interview with EurasiaNet under the condition that his real name not be used. He said he first became interested in Central Asia when it was part of the Soviet Union, but his interests shifted and "for whatever reason" lost interest. But his curiosity was again piqued, he said, when he came across an article on the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty website about how many of Central Asia's leaders were also prolific authors. It prompted Steve to get a copy in English of the Ruhnama (which has been translated into dozens of languages, many of them funded by foreign corporations that sought to curry favor with Niyazov).
"I was impressed with what I read. ... Turkmenbashi presented a philosophy and spiritual worldview that could indeed usher in his vision of the Golden Age of the Turkmen. I believe that Turkmenbashi's philosophy, as set forth in Ruhnama, is a realistic blueprint for achieving this end," he said.
Asked why, as an American, he has taken such an interest in a book that is largely dedicated to Turkmen-specific history and advice, Steve said he believes the lessons of the Ruhnama to be universal.
"Turkmenbashi uses the phrase 'Golden Age of the Turkmen' as well as 'Golden Age,'" Steve said. "He writes:
'Ruhnama is not only our book! Ruhnama is also the book of our brothers and other nations that rejoice at our happiness and are proud of our successes and with whom we are together creating our Golden Age in these lands. Ruhnama is also the book of our near and far brothers and neighbors. You become friends after you get to know someone. The foreigners who read Ruhnama will know us better, become our friends faster, and the far and the foreign becomes closer to us on our path to being accepted in the world.'"
While Niyazov intended the book primarily for Turkmen, "I believe that Turkmenbashi's vision was much broader in scope: that other nations, having seen what could be achieved in Turkmenistan, would use the Ruhnama principles to advance their own countries. Ultimately the world would live in peace and harmony," Steve said.
Steve said he understands that his view of the Ruhnama is in the minority among independent observers of Turkmenistan. But he defended his views by asserting the Ruhnama's critics haven't read the entire book.
"I would venture to guess that 99 percent of these independent observers have never read the Ruhnama in its entirety," he said, noting that the book is over 800 pages and is not well organized. "It is not unusual for Turkmenbashi to address different aspects of the same subject multiple times - perhaps separated by hundreds of pages or even continued in the second volume. This is why it is important to read both books. Passing judgment after reading the first book is like preparing a book review after reading the first half of a novel. This is a disservice to both the author and his work. I believe the Ruhnama has merit as a blueprint for a new age - not just in Turkmenistan, but globally."
About half of the visitors to Reflections on the Ruhnama are repeat visitors, and he has received many emails praising his blog and the Ruhnama, Steve said. "Since starting my blog ... I have been surprised at the number of Ruhnama followers. There is considerable interest in Central and Eastern Europe, Germany, Scandinavia, Russia and Turkey," he said. As yet, though, he said he doesn't know of any international Ruhnama appreciation organizations.
Of late, his focus has turned to Turkmenistan's political situation, in particular the apparent moves by Berdymuhamedov to dismantle Niyazov's cult of personality. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. In addition to the decline of Ruhnama studies, once ubiquitous portraits of Niyazov have been replaced with those of Niyazov and the "Arch of Neutrality" that stands in the center of Ashgabat is being moved to the outskirts of the city.
"Until Turkmenbashi's death my interest in Turkmen politics was limited to matters directly related to the Ruhnama and its application in the areas of education, domestic and foreign affairs. However, my interest is now focused on the many ways the country is moving away from Ruhnama," Steve said. He called attention to a June 1, 2008, blog post titled "SPECIAL REPORT: The Mysterious Death of Turkmenbashi the Great." In it, he notes that some observers immediately after Niyazov's death speculated that he might have been poisoned (the official autopsy concluded he'd died of a heart attack) and that Berdymuhamedov has made some overtures to the West since taking power.
The post concludes: "Personally I do not believe that Turkmenbashi died a natural death. Instead I see the murder of an 'independent thinker' whose policies were roadblocks to foreign profiteering and who hindered the ambitions of certain world powers desiring to benefit from Turkmenistan's peaceful, yet strategic, location in the crucible of Central Asia."
Editor's Note: Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.