Badass of the Week.

Saparmurat Niyazov

"There are no opposition parties, so how can we grant them freedom?"

You can say what you want about His Excellency Saparmurat Niyazov Turkmenbashy the Great, Father of the Turkmen People, President of Turkmenistan, and Chairman of the Cabinet of Ministers (unless of course you happen to live in Turkmenistan, in which case saying anything bad about this dude will probably get you arrested and/or possibly beaten with sticks), but you and I both know that if we were ever given supreme totalitarian dictatorial control over an oil-rich third-world developing country we would play it exactly the same way he did – by abusing the hell out of our power, banning everything we don't like or understand, and bending the entire landscape of the country according to our fickle whims. I mean, this is a dude who changed his language's word for bread to his mother's name, renamed the month of September after the book he wrote, and once tried to build a permanent structure made out of ice in the middle of the damned desert just to prove that not even the weather could stop him from completely and utterly dominating everything that stood before him. He's an epic world leader and crazy person who takes the whole over-done "delusional megalomaniac tyrant" thing, flips it on its head, and makes it so absurdly awesome that you actually find yourself pulling for the dude.

Born February 19, 1940, in the former Soviet Republic of Turkmenistan, the most badass world dictator of the 21st century basically came from an absolutely dirt-poor ass-nothing family that found itself constantly mired in horrific tragedy. His grandfather was purged by Stalin in the 30s for the crime of owning his own business. His father died fighting Nazis in North Ossetia during World War II. His mother and both his siblings were killed in a horrific earthquake that leveled the city of Ashgabat in 1948, and 8 year-old Saparmurat Niyazov only managed to become the sole survivor of his nuclear family by spending eight days digging his way out of the ruined rubble of his crushed apartment with his bare hands. When he clawed his way out of the rubble Saparmurat was given a little rudimentary medical treatment by EMTs and then shipped off to some miserable Soviet-run orphanage in the middle of the Caucasus mountains. This cannot possibly have been an easy life, but Niyazov persevered, got a scholarship to Leningrad Polytechnic, earned his degree in Power Engineering (which is like regular engineering but more Xtreme), took a crappy job in a tiny little electrical routing station near his hometown, and secretly plotted and schemed how he might assume complete uncontested control over his homeland and rule it with an iron fist. This is, of course, something almost every miserable desk-job employee does in his or her spare time, but as it would turn out Niyazov somehow possessed that extra drive/insanity to actually make this happen in real life.

To this end Niyazov got hardcore involved in politics, rising through the ranks quickly to be chosen First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Turkmenistan (basically the supreme ruler of the Turkmen SSR) at age 45. He assumed a hardline communist position, firmly opposing touchy-feeling freedom-of-the-press bullshit like Perestroika and Glastnost, but when the military coup to overthrow Gorbachev failed in 1991 this guy immediately changed his shit, declared Turkmenistan an independent Western-style Democracy, and arranged for free and open Presidential elections across his country.

Saparmurat Niyazov ran unopposed and won the position with 99.9% of the popular vote. He was so excited about this that he bypassed the usual process and immediately gave himself an annually-awarded national medal for "furthering the goals of the Turkmen people." Then he went out and founded the Association of Turkmens of the World, an organization that existed only so Niyazov could officially and formerly announce himself supreme ruler of all ethnic Turkmen people on the planet. To appropriately commemorate this new responsibility he then officially changed his last name to Turkmenbashy, an honorific title that means "Father of all the Turkmens," which is kind of along the lines of Ataturk only this title self-appointed rather than heaped on him by millions of devoted followers. Then, since Niyazov wasn't all that keen on other people digging into his beeswax, one of his first actions as Supreme Authoritarian All-Powerful Dictator was to declare that Turkmenistan would be permanently neutral in all matters of foreign affairs, and that it would never join any economic, political, or military alliance ever. Niyazov had this proposal typed up on letterhead and got it passed through the United Nations as an official declaration signed by all 185 UN member countries.

As a testament to his great act of international diplomacy (and to demonstrate his neutrality to everything except his own raging megalomania), Niyazov ordered the construction of a 250-foot tall "Neutrality Arch", a towering marble analogue for his boner topped by a $12 million gold statue of himself mounted on a mechanical axis that rotates 360-degress every day so he's always facing the sun.

Ruling his own private Tropico from a $60 million gold-plated white marble presidential palace, Saparmurat Turkmenbashy the Great next proceeded to go on an epic binge of totalitarian despotism unrivalled since the days of psycho Roman Emperors appointing their pets to lofty Senate positions. He created a new Turkmen alphabet, basing it on the Latin one instead of the Cyrillic. He renamed the months and the days of the week after himself, his book, members of his family, and Turkmen heroes from history, including guys like Alp Arslan who weren't actually Turkmen but whom he took credit for anyways. He changed the word for bread to the name of his deceased mother. He named several schools, two airports, a city, some theaters, a brand of vodka, two kinds of cologne, a kind of tea, and a meteorite after himself. He plastered the entire country with hand-painted portraits of himself, his mother, and his book, put his face on every denomination of currency, ordered every citizen of his country fly a Turkmenistan flag over their homes at all times, and wrote a new national anthem so that every sporting event started with a choir singing about how great he was. He changed the programming of all three national state-run television channels so that at any time during the day the citizens of Turkmenistan would flip on the TV and see a real-time live feed of Niyazov holding meetings in his presidential office. Instead of the FOX or NBC logo at the bottom of the screen, Turkmenistan national TV naturally had a portrait of Saparmurat Niyazov emblazoned in gold instead.

Saparmurat Turkmenbashy the Great then abolished the death penalty, algebra, physics, P.E., the Internet, the Hippocratic Oath, libraries, and free press. He also banned recorded music, smoking, beards, and chewing tobacco, outlawed the ballet, opera, the circus, symphonic orchestras, and the National Academy of Science, and had musicians arrested for lip synching at concerts because he thought that was the biggest load of crap ever. He ordered that every car imported into the country have the steering wheel taken out and moved over to left-hand drive instead of right-hand drive because he wanted people to drive on the wrong side of the road, but while he was doing this he did not also order that the stereos be removed from these cars – he just made it illegal to listen to them. He banished dogs from the capital because he thought they smelled bad. He banned gold teeth, saying that if people wanted to harden their teeth they should chew on soup bones instead. He forbid make-up on women, because Turkmen chicks were hot enough already and didn't need it. They were so pretty in fact, that if you were a foreigner and you wanted to marry a hot Turkmen babe, you first had to pay a $50,000 fee to the government in order to get a permit to have the ceremony performed.

Then, content that he'd put in a good day's work, he ordered the construction of more gold statues of himself.

"If I was a worker and my president gave me all the things they have here in Turkmenistan, I would not only paint his picture, I would have his picture on my shoulder, or on my clothing... I’m personally against seeing my pictures and statues in the street - but it’s what people want."

When Turkmenbashy the Great wasn't populating the capital with larger-than-life statues of his parents or hand-embroidered depictions of himself riding bears into the sunset on a unicorn rainbow, he wrote a towering work of literary greatness called the Ruhnama. In the Ruhnama Niyazov almost completely fabricates the entire history of the ethnic Turkmen people dating back to the days of Noah's Ark, retconning their entire history to include many significant figures who almost certainly were not Turkmens. Niyazov then goes on to provide spiritual guidance, self-help advice, and a couple literary poems he wrote about Turkmenistan, then finishes it off with whatever random personal anecdotes popped into his head while he was writing the thing.

Naturally, when he was done and the book was published Niyazov was so pumped up by how awesome it was that he awarded himself the National Award for Literature, ordered copies put in every library and school in Turkmenistan, made it mandatory reading at every level of elementary and collegiate education, and had questions related to his book added to the drivers' license test and the civil service exam. Considering it one part history book, one part religious text (in 2006 Niyazov declared on state television that anyone who read the book cover-to-cover three times would automatically get into heaven), on par with the Bible or Led Zeppelin IV, Niyazov told all the mosques in Turkmenistan to shelve it in a place of honor next to the Qur'an. When some mosques protested, understandably saying that this was probably a little sacrilegious, Niyazov had those mosques demolished.

Niyazov would later have a copy of Ruhnama jettisoned out the airlock of a Russian shuttle so that he could inform his people that he had conquered outer space.

Oh, and he built a 50-foot statue of his book in the middle of the capital of Turkmenistan just because he could:

At 8pm every night, this thing opens up and a video recording plays a passage from the book. As an author, I dig this. If I could have something like this constructed out of BADASS, I'd probably live inside it like James and the Giant Peach.

Despite all of this insanity, perhaps Niyazov's most widely-appreciated act of despotic awesomeness was when he declared he was going to build an "Ice Palace" in the middle of the scorching sands of the Kara Kum desert. Envisioned as a permanent structure constructed entirely out of solid ice, the Ice Palace was supposed to fit 1,000 people, and, awesomely enough, was going to involve an ice skating rink inside so that the people who lived in the desert could learn to skate if they wanted. How the hell he intended to pull this off and keep this damn thing standing in 100+ degree temperatures is beyond me, but you kind of have to love this dude's desire to give the finger to geography and climate and global warming and sanity by ordering something like this. It was supposed to be part of a bigger "Disney-style" complex that would include roller coasters and the world's largest aquarium, but I haven't been able to dig up any pictures of the completed project so it's unlikely that this ever happened.

I mean, think about it. This is an ice palace:

And this is Turkmenistan:

Now, it's important to mention that despite his tyrannical iron-fisted grip on Turkmenistan and the fact that he was brutally oppressive and kept his people in poverty while living in a billion-dollar mansion, Saparmurat Turkmenbashy was also weirdly kind of beloved by his people. Sure, part of this is because if you talked smack about him you got your ass thrown in prison, but it's also partly because he took Turkmenistan from a poor Soviet Republic to a self-sufficient economy that internally produced 85% of its goods and materials and made billions in trade thanks to the fact that it is situated on one of the world's largest deposits of natural gas. True, he put most of that money into his insane projects, but he also provided free clean water, gasoline, electricity, natural gas, and table salt for his people, built up agriculture where there was none, declared the second Sunday in August "Melon Day", and kept his people out of the bloody, expensive international conflicts that tore apart the region around him.

But tyrants, even the most benevolent dictators, are not always universally-loved by everyone, and Niyazov was no exception.

Two main stories circulate about people who maybe somehow for some reason weren't in love with this guy. The first time was in 2002, when three gunmen opened fire on Niyazov's presidential limo in an assassination attempt that may very well actually have been staged by Niyazov himself (this is debatable). The Presidente-por-Vida of Turkmenistan responded by arresting his only political rival the following day, throwing the dude in prison, and then making that guy run against him in only the second presidential election Turkmenistan would ever have. Running against a guy currently imprisoned for treason isn't as hard as you might think, especially when you control every aspect of the government with an authoritarian death-grip, and Niyazov won the election with 99.9% of the vote (he could never quite get that last 0.01%). He then told the traitor that he'd release him from prison on one condition – that the guy write two books:  One about how he plotted the assassination attempt, and the other about how great Niyazov is.

The guy did it.

The second minor civil disturbance during Niyazov's reign took place in the Summer of 2004, when some jackasses went around in the middle of the night and put up a bunch of fliers saying that maybe Saparmurat Niyazov Turkmenbashy the Great wasn't all that great after all. Niyazov gave his police force one week to find the traitors. When they failed, he fired his Cabinet, the Chief of Police, and the Director of the Police Academy on live national television.

Saparmurat Niyazov, supreme ruler of Turkmenistan, died in 2006 of a heart attack at age 66, after single-handedly ruling a country of 5 million people for over 20 years. He was buried in the biggest mosque in the world – the $100 million Kipchak Mosque, a building of his own construction that he decorated with gold-leaf inscriptions of passages from his book – and left his empire to his dentist. His wife and kids might have been a little bitter about not taking over the reigns of government, but don't worry about them – they're living pretty nicely off the two billion dollars Niyazov siphoned off the top of his governmental operating budget and stashed in Swiss and German banks.

"If one upsets his wife or daughter, he is not a Turkmen since they are very pleasant by nature,
and their souls are pleasant too."

- Saparmurat Niyazov, Ruhnama


Tripod Site Extolling His Virtues (I love this)

BBC Obituary

Turkmen Leader Orders Ice Palace


The Economist

Washington Post



Halpern, Micah D. Thugs. Thomas Nelson, 2007.

Knowlton, MaryLee. Turkmenistan. Marshall Cavendish, 2006.

Wallechinsky, David. Tyrants. HarperCollins, 2006.


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