Dictators, by their very nature, are unscrupulous, ruthless and egotistical; in time , they also become paranoid and delusional. The term ” benevolent dictator” is an oxymoron; even those who start out with lofty goals soon become indistinguishable from the rest. Once having gotten power, they become determined to cling to it all costs and surround themselves with yes-men who applaud everything they do. Unsurprisingly, the lack of criticism, or even any realistic feedback, causes dictators to think of themselves as supermen who can do no wrong.
North Korea’s Supreme Leader, Kim Jong Un , is a case in point. This chubby 31-year old, who inherited the post from his father, is certainly unscrupulous and ruthless. Recently he ordered the execution of his uncle on trumped up charges and he lives high on the hog while millions of his countrymen are close to starvation. He is egotistical, having commissioned scores of statues and paintings of himself. He is also crazy to think that cozying up to a flake like Dennis Rodman will get the U.S to agree to direct negotiations.
However, compared to Saparmyrat Niyazov who ruled Turkmenistan with an iron fist before he passed away in 2006, Kim is a model of rectitude. Niyazov was such a loony that, even after reading about him from two different sources, I can scarcely believe that such a character existed.
Turkmenistan was one of the Soviet Socialist republics that became independent when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989. Niyazov, an ordinary Communist party hack who rose to become First Secretary, seized power and ruled Turkmenistan as if it was his personal fief. A country otherwise poor in natural resources, Turkmenistan has the fourth largest reserves of natural gas in the world. Niyazov used these to aggrandize himself and his family. He built white marble towers, fountains and scores of statues of himself, some of them in gold. Schools, airports, hospitals , even a meteorite, were named after him. He styled himself Turkmenbashi( Leader of All Turkmen) and renamed the capital of Kranovodsk as Turkmenbashi. He even built a huge mosque , Saparmyrat Hajji, and encouraged his subjects to visit it at least once a year as if it were a pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca. Declaring himself The Prophet ( Prorok) , he wrote a sort of National Bible ( Rukhnama or The Book of the Soul). It was a mishmash of personal history, boasting, Turkmen lore and culture, diet suggestions, poems and much else besides and he declared in a televised speech that anyone who read it three times would go straight to Heaven. He knew that , he said, because Allah had told him so. However the book was such excruciating reading that one man who managed to read it once declared that not even the promise of Heaven would induce him to read it twice more. Of course he took care to see that his sentiments did not reach the ears of the dictator. It would have been the end of him otherwise; Niyazov was a bloodthirsty brute. In the wake of a failed assassination attempt, hundreds of his perceived enemies vanished without trace.
Perhaps the best proof of Niyazov’s nuttiness was the fact that he renamed the months of the year. January was named Turkmenbashi after himself and April became Gurbansultan-ezdhe, his mother’s name. The days of the week were similarly renamed and the Russian Cyrillic script was abandoned in favor of a Latin based Turkmen alphabet. He also abolished all non-Turkmen names and expressions and ordered that all dictionaries be rewritten to reflect his edict. This caused havoc because, without dictionaries, citizens were often at a loss how to express themselves.
As if this was not enough, Niyazov banned beards, circuses, gold teeth, lip syncing at public concerts, imported right hand drive cars and ballet. He had very strong views on dental hygiene and exhorted his countrymen to make their teeth strong by gnawing on bones. The ban on gold teeth had something to do with this but the other proscriptions are a mystery. He built an indoor skating rink near the capital so that those living in the desrt country could learn how to skate. More proof of his craziness: he decreed that TV anchors should not wear makeup because he had difficulty distinguishing between males and females. It must have been a relief to all Turkmen when he passed away in 2006 at the age of 66 in rather mysterious circumstances. He was succeeded by another strongman with a long unpronounceable name. It seems to have been a change for the better because he is not in the news as Niyazov as. No news is good news , I think.
I wonder about all those hundreds of statues, those thousands of portraits of himself that Niyazov commissioned when he was alive. I can’t imagine that they still exist. What an exercise in futility to try and make yourself immortal with statues and other memorabilia. It reminds of the poem ” Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley which I read with pleasure when I was in school. Ozymandias is another name for the Pharoah, Ramses II, and Shelley’s poem makes the point that prominent men and the empires they build are impermanent and cannot withstand the ravages of Time. It could well have been about Niyazov.
Here is the poem in its entirety:
I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: ” Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal, these words appear,
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings.
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”