Like anyone who travels often, I’m frequently asked what country I found most intriguing. I have learned something valuable everywhere I have journeyed; being in the world offers a practical education in international relations beyond what any formal degree or credential can convey. That said, Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, the capital city of the former Soviet Union’s southernmost territory, stands out as the most distinctly unusual place I’ve been — a bizarre combination of wealth and persecution. In 2009, Ashgabat was an oppressed Potemkin village of neon and marble; wide boulevards and beautiful buildings void of people or movement. Today, by all accounts, the city remains a weird fusion of opulence and tyranny. Think Las Vegas meets North Korea.
Turkmenistan is sandwiched between Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, Iran, and the Caspian Sea. The Turkmen are not Turks, and they are quick to contrast their ancestry from their Anatolian neighbors to the west. The Turkmen hail from five tribes, each of which is represented on their flag. Nominally Muslim, the capital remains atheist (a legacy from Soviet days) and a majority of Ashgabat’s occupants are ethnically Russian. The country’s five provinces roughly correspond with each Turkmen tribe’s traditional grazing grounds, and the patterns represented on the national flag were once woven into carpets and pillows as tribal banners when nomads roamed the Asian steppes. These woven patterns were tribal marks of their identity, and clans remain the major organizing structure in the hinterlands.
But autocratic federal power, not tribal or clan authority, is the strongest political force in Turkmenistan. Although the country lacks significant geopolitical influence, sales from the nation’s extensive natural gas reserves — primarily to Russian-owned energy companies — give the government tremendous wealth. Saparmurat Niyazov, who appointed himself leader of all Turkmen, or “Turkmenbashi,” after the Soviet Union dissolved, harnessed this wealth and authority to establish an emperor-like cult of personality dynasty. In addition to repressing political and religious freedom, Niyazov imposed his personal eccentricities on the people, including renaming all the months in a calendar year after his family members. Niyazov died in 2006, and his loquaciously named successor, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, has retained both the Turkmenbashi title and the cult of personality.
To the world, Ashgabat, Turkmenistan is a relatively unimportant place. To me, the visual expression of so much simultaneous wealth and repression brought to mind Einstein’s dictum of genius being the ability to hold two opposite thoughts simultaneously. I counted dozens of enormous marble buildings around Ashgabat without occupants. I saw few vehicles transiting the city’s wide streets. I watched groups of uniformed students — boys in suits; girls in traditional Turkmen dresses — amble in a haphazard formation of bobbing, aligned columns. I saw a people rich and repressed, compelled to embrace ethnicity without religion, but lacking any real ability to practice an expression of either. Turkmenistan has little incentive to change, which is what made it such an interesting place. It will offer an object lesson in humanity’s perplexing oddities if you ever have a chance to visit.