‘The Age of Maturity for the Turkmen Spirit’: The Ruhnama and identity production in post-Soviet Turkmenistan 

Photograph: Beth via Flikr.

Towering above Ashgabat’s Independence Park is a ten-metre monument of the Ruhnama: the magnum opus of Turkmenistan’s first president, Saparmurat Niyazov.1 Translated into English as ‘Book of the Soul’, it has gripped the country’s social, political, and intellectual life for nearly two decades, encapsulating the personality cult constructed by Niyazov in the years following Turkmen independence.  

A rambling account that lurches between historical and moral discourse, autobiography and poetry, the Ruhnama monopolised public life in Turkmenistan from 2001 until Niyazov’s death in 2006. As the main textbook for students of all ages and in all fields of study, its publication quickly precipitated the closure of conventional academic faculties (as well as the Academy of Science and National Library) and was granted equal prominence with the Quran in mosques throughout the country.2 

Most boldly of all, Niyazov declared that reading the Ruhnama three times would guarantee believers entry into paradise, or Jannah as per Muslim scriptures.3 In a 2004 speech to political officials, the President dismissed existing educational and religious norms as ‘obscure and disconnected from reality’, instead privileging his own account of the nation, its people, and his totalitarian assumption of the role of Turkmenbaşi, or ‘Father of the Turkmens’. 4 Thus, as argued by Michael Denison, reality became inseparable from the most radical ‘ethno-national foundation narrative’ of the post-Soviet sphere, defined by a highly selective and ‘normatively laden’ epistemic approach that gave rise to a distinct, albeit profoundly mythologised, Turkmen geo-cultural space. 5 

But what does any of this mean, in practice? We may find our answer through a closer look at the Ruhnama’s components. However, as is clear from first glance, the book largely defies definition. Turkmen epic, notes Amieke Bouma, is central to Niyazov’s account. 6 The epoch of Oghuz Khan, ‘the mythical forefather to whom all Turkmens supposedly trace their ancestry’ is particularly important to Niyazov’s account and is continually invoked throughout its two-dozen chapters. 7 Oghuz Khan’s life is presented as an exemplar of Turkmen values, morality, and ‘national spirit’: the vague and rather freighted invocation that Niyazov makes throughout his text.8 Epic history, in turn, is schematically complemented by Niyazov’s autobiography, from his orphaned beginnings to specific political triumphs such as a 1992 debt agreement between himself and Boris Yeltsin.9 These two components are crucially interwoven to situate Niyazov at the new apotheosis of Turkmen epic, as the paternalistic figurehead of the Third Millennium. Through such a lens, the Ruhnama serves ‘as the next milestone in the Turkmen epic tradition’, to quote Bouma, and commemorates what Niyazov terms ‘the age of maturity for the Turkmen spirit.’ 10 It is a lofty and magnificently despotic composition, heralding the ‘Fifth Golden Age of the National Turkmen Spirit’ (there it is again) that Niyazov, styling himself as the sole heir to Turkmen heroism, takes all the credit for. 

Historical revisionism is one of the Ruhnama’s most potent structural devices and is identified by Denison as the central crux of identity production in the post-Soviet nation-building project.11 Despite Niyazov’s opposition to Turkmen independence and his suppression of anti-USSR dissidents in the years preceding dissolution, the Ruhnama presents the Soviet period in very different terms: as an oppressive aberration in Turkmen history, despised most by the Turkmenbaşi himself. 12 The period is only mentioned on one page, where it is briefly invoked to lament the ’terrible conditions in our towns and villages’ and to foreground the loss of cultural identity that was suffered: ‘O Turkmen! You almost lost your native tongue in that period.’ 13 Cultural eradication, or conflict, is not mentioned elsewhere: Niyazov’s neglect of the issue reinforces his mythologisation of Turkmen culture, and privileges immaculate mythogenesis over a fraught national evolution moulded by external influences, including the Soviet national delimitation processes of the early 1920s.14 It is a narrative that not only dismisses the realities of Soviet occupation (inextricable from their legacies in the contemporary nation) but lapses into Stalinist formulations of national identity that pay little attention to historical materialism.  

To adhere to historical accuracy would challenge the idea of a unified Turkmen state prior to the creation of the Turkmen SSR and would undermine ‘the golden personality of [the] Turkmens’ that allows Niyazov’s exceptionalist myth to exist.15 Riccardo Nicolosi’s article ‘The Invention of Turkmenistan’ neatly illustrates Niyazov’s project: the creation of an epideictic space – divorced from its Soviet legacy, and from empirical historiography more broadly, ‘staging a permanent, unanimous exultation of the person of Niyazov.’ 16 No effort is made to negotiate past wounds, much less to heal them. A new, highly centralised Turkmen hegemony is merely installed to replace its Soviet precursor. 

The Ruhnama’s revisionist approach similarly relies upon the elision of tribal differences. As Nicolosi observes, the Turkmens’ traditionally tribal society, composed of five principal groups, poses a threat to Niyazov’s unitary vision.17 The ‘fatal dichotomy between tribalism and national spirit’ is reiterated forcefully throughout the text, with Niyazov entreating his subjects to ‘abandon the outdated process of identification of tribal difference.’18 Instead, ‘national feelings and values’ (alongside the vague notion of ‘Turkmen spirit’, of course) must predominate, and it is these synthetic, post-tribal values that the Ruhnama takes pains to develop.19 As ever, autobiography is close to the fore, with Niyazov emphasising his upbringing in a Soviet-run orphanage as evidence of his own radical detachment from tribal bonds, and his resultant legitimacy to rule a united Turkmen state.20 Here, the importance of the epic resurfaces. If Oghuz Khan is taken as the mythic patriarch of a flourishing, pre-tribal Turkmen world, then Niyazov is his logical successor, delivering his people from decades of Soviet rule into the freedom of a cohesive, reborn Turkmenistan. This political dogma, notes Sebastien Peyrouse, has disenfranchised the country’s minority groups. In 2004, all schools teaching in the Kazakh and Uzbek languages closed, while the Russian minority has been systematically dispossessed of political and civil rights through a series of ‘anti-colonial’ measures.21 The country’s fixation with political neutrality has been used to justify such a Turkmen-centric approach, condemning pluralism in all its forms as a relic of a dark past. 

Since Niyazov’s death in 2006, there have been efforts by his successor, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, to moderate the Ruhnama’s ubiquity in public life.22 Textbooks have returned to the country’s schools, while the study of the Ruhnama, and Niyazov’s cult of personality more broadly, have been consigned to specific lessons. However, international observers have stressed that Niyazov’s current influence in the country is hard to assess, with the lack of civil society or free press imbuing all international commentary with a dose of speculation. Whether Turkmens continue to burrow their noses in yellowing editions of the Ruhnama, hoping to gain access to paradise, cannot be said, but Niyazov’s version of Turkmenistan appears to be largely intact. Besides, direction and cohesion are comforting, especially with regards to national identity. In his own words, the President positioned the Ruhnama as ‘the only source that will connect the Turkmen’s present with his past. Up until now, there were a number of words, special words, but never one whole word.’ 23 Despite its inaccuracies, the sense of pride and belonging provided by Niyazov’s glorious version of Turkmen history cannot be underestimated. 


[1] Macy Halford, ‘Shadow of the Ruhnama’, The New Yorker, 27 April 2010. https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/shadow-of-the-ruhnama [accessed 26 October 2023]

[2] Riccardo Nicolosi, ‘Saparmyrat Niyazov’s Ruhnama: The Invention of Turkmenistan’, in Tyrants Writing Poetry, ed. by Albrecht Koschorke & Konstantin Kaminskij (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2011), 233–249 (p. 234).

[3] Ibid., p. 236.

[4] Sebastien Peyrouse, Turkmenistan: Strategies of Power, Dilemmas of Development (New York: Routledge, 2014), p. 96.

[5] Denison, p. 1167 & 1173.

[6] Amieke Bouma, ‘Turkmenistan: Epics in Place of Historiography’, in Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas, 59.4 (2011), 559–585 (p. 561).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Denison, p. 1179.

[9] Bouma, p. 562.

[10] Bouma, pp. 572 & 563.

[11] Michael Denison, ‘The Art of the Impossible: Political Symbolism, and the Creation of National Identity and Collective Memory, in Post-Soviet Turkmenistan’, in Europe-Asia Studies, 61.7 (2009), 1167–1187 (p. 1169).

[12] Ibid., p. 1173.

[13] Ibid, p. 1177.

[14] Ibid., p. 1172.

[15] Nicolosi, p. 247.

[16] Ibid., p. 236.

[17] Ibid., p. 247.

[18] Ibid, p. 248 & 247.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Denison, p. 1175.

[21] Peyrouse, p. 93.

[22] Ibid, p. 67.

[23] Nicolosi, p. 241.