Turkmenistan's Tragicomic Publishing Revolution (Publishing Perspectives)

When the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic was invented in 1925, the
literacy rate among its mostly nomadic population was somewhere
between 2-3%. By 1970 not only had universal literacy been achieved,
but the country had acquired its own national literature and mini-canon
of “great authors,” many of them writing in forms—novels, plays, film
scripts—that had been alien to Turkmen culture fifty years earlier. These
masters enjoyed many privileges under the Soviet system: large print
runs, the translation of their works into the other languages of the USSR,
plus spacious apartments and trips to exclusive resorts. During
perestroika the capitol Ashgabat boasted 12 bookshops; there were also
25 large libraries, of which the grandest was the Karl Marx library, which
contained no less than four million books, all available for free to the
local populace. The library was even the central image on the cover of
the official guidebook to the capitol. It was a golden age of reading.

Flash forward to 2001, however, and the situation was very different.
This was the year that the country’s megalomaniac leader Saparmurat
Niyazov a.k.a. Turkmenbashi published his Ruhnama (”Book of the
Soul”), a rambling concoction of autobiography, bogus history, moral
platitudes and appalling poetry. The Ruhnama soon became (literally)
required reading as schoolchildren, university students, government
workers and anyone planning to take his driver’s test had to prove their
knowledge of the gibberish between its covers. It was displayed
alongside the Koran in mosques; it was launched into space. Read it
three times and you were guaranteed entry to Paradise; criticize the
book and you’d spend five years in jail.

In spite of all his success, Turkmenbashi remained jealous of literary
rivals. New books by authors popular under the Soviet regime went
unpublished, while their older works were available only second hand.
Anyone who tried to circumvent these restrictions landed in hot water.
For instance, Rahim Esenov the author of 30 books during the Soviet
era was forced to publish his three-decades-in-the-making historical epic
The Crowned Wanderer in Moscow in 2003; when he attempted to
smuggle 800 copies into Turkmenistan he was accused of “inciting
hatred” and placed under house arrest. International pressure got him to
New York to receive the PEN “Freedom to Write” award in April 2006, but
his book remained banned at home.

In February 2006 meanwhile Turkmenbashi declared war on authors of
the past: “Nobody reads books, people don’t go to libraries,” he
declared. “Central and student libraries will remain; the remainder need
to close.” But the war on reading had begun much earlier, specifically in
1993 when Turkmenistan had switched from the Cyrillic to the Latin
script. At a stroke, all new books were rendered inaccessible to the older
generation, while older books became inaccessible to the younger
generation. And with Russian language education on the decline, books
in that language were increasingly indecipherable. The nearly five million
Turkmen were left with the solipsistic ramblings of their “father”—who
continued to churn out volumes of poetry, history and even a sequel to
the Ruhnama before he died in December 2006, only to be replaced by
his personal dentist, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov.

Since then Turkmenistan has remained an isolated totalitarian state, and
without a raving megalomaniac to attract international attention, media
reports on the country are rarer than ever. This September, however, a
Turkmen delegation attended the Moscow International Book Fair for the
first time in fifteen years, a striking development considering the cultural
apocalypse that was raging only three years ago. State media reported
optimistically on what was achieved:

“For the first time in a long time, the Turkmen publishers reminded the
Russian publishing market of their existence. They did it not as timid
beginners, but as having a status of worthy holders of advanced
technology able to handle the most complex orders.”

Breathlessly, the report continues:

“It’s not a secret that even relatively recently, leading publishing powers
perceived Turkmenistan as a backward province of the printing industry.
The Turkmen publishers’ resumed participation in the imposing
international forum flatly refuted the long-standing stereotypes. Using the
language of dry statistics, the Turkmen State Publishing Service
exhibited more than a hundred titles on a wide thematic range. The
Turkmen printed products attracted visitors by their brilliance and superb
publishing execution.”

Indeed, the nation stands on the threshold of a bold new era:

“…the current publishing capacity of Turkmenistan allows the country not
only to supply fully all schools with textbooks, annually printing up to
130,000 copies, but also to offer its printing capacity to neighboring
countries to fulfill orders for big circulations of book products. Today,
Turkmenistan is ready to serve as a major international and regional
publishing center.”

Most excellent! The renaissance continued within Turkmenistan three
weeks later, as Ashgabat hosted its fourth International Book Forum
between the 28th and 30th of September. Stirringly titled: “A Book—the
Way to the Cooperation and Progress” this event was attended by 74
delegations from nearly 30 countries, and although the emphasis was on
Russian publishers and countries from the Economic Cooperation
Organization (established in 1985 by Iran, Pakistan and Turkey for the
purpose of promoting economic, technical and cultural cooperation
among the member states), there were still some surprises—for the first
time ever, Australian delegates visited Turkmenistan:

“One could see how high became the professional attitude of foreign
colleagues to the possibilities of the Turkmen publishers. Today,
specialists of the global publishing business tend to treat their Turkmen
colleagues as partners worthy of respect; together with them one can
address the most complex tasks…. on the hospitable Turkmen seashore
of books the publishing business is becoming larger in scale, not falling
behind the global trends, and keeping up with the advanced
technological innovations.”

Poorly translated propaganda aside, the mere fact that such an event is
being held at all inside Turkmenistan is a sign of progress. But the
publishing situation remains far from rosy. In July the dissident site
Chronicles of Turkmenistan reported:

“The Turkmenistan population can only be termed a reading nation by a
stretch of the imagination. The number of book stores can be counted
on one hand. In large cities there are about 2-3 bookstores, whereas
there are none in towns and urban settlements not to mention the

The purported success of the book fair also masks a bleak reality
unchanged since Niyazov’s day. According to Kumush Ovezova:

“Over 18 years of independence in the country, no single work of belles-
lettres of contemporary Turkmen authors has been published. Many
national authors continue to work but their works remain unpublished. All
their efforts to get through to the readers are hopeless.”

Indeed, it is striking that in both Moscow and Ashgabat the jewel in the
national crown was Medicinal Plants of Turkmenistan by President
Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov. The world, we are told, was very

“On the first day of the exhibition several book selling organizations from
Russia and CIS countries have applied to purchase this unique
publication and all subsequent nine volumes of the complete
encyclopedia of medicinal plants of Turkmenistan.”

The president even received an award. Also prominently featured was
his epic work on Akhal Tekke horses which has already been snapped
up by the Ukrainians. But then, the world was also very excited by the
Ruhnama, but it usually had little to do with the quality of the book, and a
lot more to do with flattering the local Khan in exchange for lucrative
business contracts.

Thus the door may have opened a crack, but substantive change
remains elusive in Turkmenistan. And so the old Turkmen proverb holds

“Of many words but a few are good words, And of those few, still less are
From Publishing Perspectives December 4th 2009