In a new weekly series, The Grand Inquisitor will profile world history’s most brutal, repugnant and in some cases, downright ridiculous Despots. Emperors, Kings, Military Dictators, Presidents-for-Life – whatever their titles may have been, these were all men who combined severe autocratic rule, wholesale villainy and in most cases, immense physical repulsiveness. Welcome to The Grand Inquisitor’s new regular column, Despot of the Week. First to come under the microscope is Turkmenistan’s Saparmurat Niyazov, a man so ruthless he banned lip syncing at public concerts and renamed the month of April after his mother.
Country of Rule: Turkmenistan
From: October 27, 1990 – December 21, 2006
Official Title: His Excellency Saparmurat Türkmenbaşy, President of Turkmenistan and Chairman of the Cabinet of Ministers
Demise: December 21, 2006, of cardiac arrest. Aged 66.
Death Toll: Minimal. Preferred incarceration of political dissenters to execution. The worsening standards of public health in Turkmenistan under Niyazov probably contributed to many indirect deaths.
Physical Defects: Nothing immediately apparent. Niyazov didn’t even boast much in the way of extravagant facial hair, unless you count his eyebrows, which looked like two hairy caterpillars had crawled across his forehead and then died there. Like so many despots, however, Niyazov was remarkably short in stature and regarded as exceedingly unattractive by members of the opposite sex.
Bio: His father was killed fighting Germans in World War II and the rest of his family perished in an earthquake, so little Niyazov spent his formative years in a Soviet orphanage. Given the perennially dilapidated state of most Soviet institutions, with their culture of senseless bureaucracy and systematised bullying, orphanages became a typical breeding ground for petty thugs, fascists and tormentors of every description.
Niyazov joined the Communist Party in 1962, the perfect place for an ambitious, inveterate goon in the Soviet provinces to rise rapidly through the ranks by means of corruption, backstabbing and general maliciousness. By 1990, Niyazov had become Chairman of the Supreme Soviet – effectively the leader of Turkmenistan – albeit still answerable to the central Soviet government.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Niyazov was elected as newly independent Turkmenistan’s first President. The significance of the election, however, was rather undermined by the fact that Niyazov was the only nominated candidate. Niyazov went on to declare himself the “Türkmenbaşy” (Chief of all Turkmen) and extended his term in office to a period of ten years, in order to oversee a decade long development project. Several years later, Turkmenistan’s Parliament elected to declare Niyazov the “President for Life”. Each member of Parliament had already been chosen by Niyazov himself.
Niyazov’s government was largely dependent on the revenue derived from Turkmenistan’s vast reserves of natural gas. However, little of the profit in the centralised economy trickled down to the general population. Instead, Niyazov used the wealth to build up an eccentric cult of personality around himself.
Niyazov wrote a book called The Ruhnama (The Book of the Soul) which combined his autobiography with spiritual and moral guidance and bizarre revisionist history. The book was intended to become the cornerstone of a new Turkmen culture and was made compulsory reading for all students and civil servants in Turkmenistan. Any criticism or insufficient reverence displayed towards The Ruhnama was considered an act of high treason and punishable by incarceration, possibly involving torture.
In fact, any remote hint of opposition to the government in Turkmenistan under Niyazev whatsoever was considered treason and punishable by life imprisonment. Niyazov’s autocracy was maintained by strict control over the nation’s media. According to the “Reporters Without Borders 2006 World Press Freedom Index” Niyazov’s Turkmenistan had the third worst record of press freedom in the entire world.
Niyazov’s regime was perhaps best characterised, however, by his increasingly eccentric decrees. Some of Niyazov’s more bizarre public decisions included:
- The banning of lip syncing at public concerts. Niyazov felt that this undermined the development of Turkmenistan’s musical arts.
- Banning TV presenters from wearing makeup, as Niyazov felt this made it difficult to tell men and women apart.
- The banning of gold teeth. Niyazov felt that the public should seek to strengthen their teeth through the chewing of bones. He declared: “I watched young dogs when I was young. They were given bones to gnaw to strengthen their teeth. Those of you whose teeth have fallen out did not chew on bones. This is my advice…”
- The renaming of public holidays and even months of the year after himself, members of his family and Turkmen folk heroes.
- The renaming of common every day items, such as bread, which was renamed after Niyazov’s mother.
- Commissioning the construction of a palace made entirely from ice. This project was eventually cancelled.
- Ordering the closure of all hospitals outside the capital of Ashgabat. Niyazov reasoned that sick people should make their way to the capital for treatment.
- Requiring that all doctors in Turkmenistan swear allegiance to Niyazov himself rather than to the traditional Hippocratic Oath.
- Some of the things outlawed under Niyazov’s regime included the wearing of long hair by men, facial hair, video games and Internet cafes.
- Ordering hundreds of golden statues of himself to be erected across the country. The Neutrality Arch in Ashgabat features a statue of Niyazov that rotates to always face the sun. Niyazov declared that: “I’m personally against seeing my pictures and statues in the streets – but it’s what the people want”.
Following Niyazov’s death in 2006, succeeding President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow has taken steps to repeal many of the more eccentric of Niyazov’s decrees. However, Turkmenistan remains a land where corruption, election fraud and press censorship are rife.
Despot Rating: Niyazov scores impressive points for instituting one of the most censorious and severely autocratic governments in the modern world. He reduced his nation’s media to a state of fawning appreciation and imprisoned dissenting voices at the drop of a hat. He scores further points for forcing Turkmenistan’s citizens to abide by his own grotesquely comic eccentricities. However, Niyazov has been penalised points for the lack of a serious death toll under his regime. There were no ethnic genocides, wars or large scale massacres in Turkmenistan under Niyazov’s rule. He also outlawed capital punishment and provided free water, gas and electricity to his citizens, displaying a worrying streak of occasional humanitarian concern.
3 Hitler Moustaches / 5 for Saparmurat Niyazov.
* This article was compiled with the assistance of renowned Despot aficionado, Danny Soos. If you’d like to see your own particular favourite Despot featured in an upcoming edition, please use the suggestion box below.