A Turkmen Tome Gets Foreign Aid
Corporate Patrons Help Spread the Writing of
'President for Life'
By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 23, 2005; Page A13
MOSCOW -- In Sicily, a reception was held recently to
launch the Italian translation of a controversial book
written by Saparmurad Niyazov, dictator and "president
for life" of Turkmenistan. In Amsterdam, a Dutch
translation of the book was unveiled at a party in a
historic 17th-century house.
The various releases this month of the two-volume
"Book of Spirit" -- "Ruhnama" in Turkmen -- are part
of an international drive to boost the book's
circulation as well as what the government-controlled
Turkmen media call a "victorious march around the
world" by the author-president, 65, also known in his
country as Turkmenbashi the Great.
The book contains Niyazov's moral code as well as his
philosophical and historical musings. Its translation
into 30 languages and publication outside Turkmenistan
have been underwritten by international firms doing
business in the natural gas-rich Central Asian
republic, according to Turkmen media reports, exiled
opposition groups and a number of the companies
involved that were contacted by The Washington Post.
Human rights groups say the book is at the center of
Niyazov's cult of personality and is ravaging
educational and cultural life in his country. Almost
everyone in Turkmenistan is compelled to study the
book and pass exams about it, and the country's
libraries have largely been emptied to leave little
but the Ruhnama and Niyazov's collections of poetry.
This month, Niyazov ordered most libraries in
Turkmenistan closed, according to Russian news
"If the Ruhnama were a benign text, like the memoirs
of a U.S. president, this would be harmless, but the
Ruhnama is the principal instrument for indoctrination
and brainwashing in Turkmenistan," said Erika Dailey,
a specialist on the country at the Open Society
Institute in Budapest. "Companies cannot ignore that
and they have to be called to account."
Those involved in the translation and publication of
the book, however, described their efforts as
"We sponsored it for inter-cultural understanding,"
said Arantxa Doerrie, a spokeswoman for Zeppelin
Baumaschinen, a German machinery company that
translated the second volume of the book and presented
it to Niyazov this month. The company plans to
distribute the book in Germany, she said.
"In principle, yes, it is a dictatorship," Doerrie
said, "but simultaneously we see that very much is
being done to help the people there -- for the
infrastructure with the building of streets, for
example. That is what we understand. We sell building
equipment, so yes, there is a market for us there, but
we see our contribution as a way to help the people
Niyazov, who allowed the United States to use his
country's airspace during the war in Afghanistan, has
been in power since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
He tolerates no dissent and has turned the country of
5 million into a monument to himself.
The president's image adorns vodka bottles and is
shown constantly in the top right corner on national
television. A 36-foot-tall, gold-leaf statue of the
president rotates atop a 250-foot base to follow the
sun. The streets of the capital, Ashkhabad, are shut
down when he chooses to whiz around town in one of his
cars. And he has renamed months of the year after
himself, his mother and his book.
Niyazov appeared in a 90-minute live broadcast from
one of his palaces last September to read from his new
poetry collection, "The Spring of Inspiration." He
also interrupts government meetings to recite his
poems, including a session last May when he told his
military leadership that he had some verse about the
dangers facing the country:
Be vigilant and be cautious, that is my request to you
Even when you and your country are facing luck
And you are as mighty as King Solomon
And when you feel yourself strong
Be aware, for there are many traitors with traps to
Foreign distribution of the Ruhnama began several
"Dear Mr. President," wrote a director of the Finnish
electricity concern Ensto in a letter last year. "The
publication of your book will undoubtedly serve as a
stimulus for the development of relations between our
countries. It will allow for close acquaintance with
the culture and national traditions of your people,
and the political principles of Turkmenistan. . . .
The international industrial concern has an important
role in the manufacture and maintenance of energy
The company's chief executive, Seppo Martikainen, said
in a telephone interview that the company now planned
to translate the book only for its employees. "The
situation has changed," he said. "We had discussion on
how far we should go with this, and it's only for our
The Irish firm Emerol, which has contracts in
Turkmenistan worth tens of millions of dollars,
published the book in Lithuanian -- one of its
directors is Lithuanian, according to company
registration documents filed in Dublin.
DaimlerChrysler, the automobile giant based in
Stuttgart, Germany, and Auburn Hills, Mich., sells
ambulances and other vehicles to the Turkmen
government. The firm published the first volume of the
Ruhnama in November 2003.
"I can tell you that employees of DaimlerChrysler
translated the book," said Ursula Mertzig-Stein, a
company official. "A contract was signed and the book
was presented to the leader." She said the company did
not otherwise publish books but noted that "there are,
I believe, not many other heads of state who are
authors." She declined to be quoted on the human
rights situation in Turkmenistan.
When a translation is complete, the book is launched
abroad with coverage in the Turkmen media.
"Millions of readers whose mother tongue is Italian
are looking forward to an opportunity to [get in]
touch with the great history of the ancient Turkmen,"
reported the State Information Agency of Turkmenistan
after this month's reception in Sicily, which was
attended by local schoolchildren.
A sales representative for an Italian water company
with major contracts in Turkmenistan organized the
Turkmen opposition leaders say they are dismayed by
what they see as a cynical quid pro quo -- books for
"Having millions of copies of his nonsense in various
languages is immoral when children in school have no
textbooks," said Khudaiberdy Orazov, a former deputy
prime minister under Niyazov. He is now in exile in
Sweden, where he leads the opposition group Watan.
"For these companies, who should know better, it's
unforgivable," he said.
A spokesman for the Turkmen Embassy in Moscow said the
companies were under no obligation to publish the
president's work and acted on their own initiative.
"Who can prohibit this if they wanted to do it of
their own free will?" said Grigory Kolozin, the
embassy spokesman. "The Turkmen leadership approaches
the issue of making contracts with foreign companies
on the basis of pragmatism."
"We felt it was only polite to do it," said Imre
Sesztak, head of the gas industry firm Turbo Team in
Hungary, which paid for the publication of 1,000
copies of the book in Hungarian in October. "People
know very little about Turkmenistan, so we feel we're
Russian news media reported recently that the energy
giant Gazprom, which has been involved in a dispute
with Niyazov over huge natural gas contracts, is
behind a recent proposal by a number of renowned
Russian poets to translate the president's poems into
Russian. The offer kicked up a literary storm.
Alexander Tkachenko, general director of the Russian
PEN center, condemned the offer as a "disgrace and a
shame." He also said that Niyazov's "gibberish is
impossible to translate."
A Gazprom spokeswoman said the report was untrue. One
of the poets, Mikhail Sinelnikov, would say only that
"a sponsor with business interests," whom he declined
to identify, had suggested that they write to Niyazov
offering to translate his work. The poets, who had
planned a volume of classical Turkmen poetry, now
suspect they were hoodwinked into a second project.
"We made ourselves targets by signing this in haste,"
said poet Yevgeny Rein, who co-signed a letter to
Niyazov that read, "Your verses about mother, moral
purity, about family and statehood have become secular
prayers in the life of Turkmens. Their publication in
Russian would raise the significance of poetry."
Special correspondents Shannon Smiley in Berlin, Stacy
Meichtry in Rome and Kriszta Fenyo in Budapest
contributed to this report.