The very idea of a dictatorship is objectionable to most people. We recognize this as an affront to our basic humanity. Most of us would argue that humans have a right to freedom and to decide how we want to live our lives. So when a government starts dictating the minutiae of people’s lives, things can spiral out of control pretty quickly. And from the outside looking in, this can seem very funny sometimes when these details are so strange and quirky. But imagine being a person who lives in a country like this and what kind of nightmare it would be to deal with having to bend to the whims of one person whose word becomes law. Few countries have it as bad as Turkmenistan.
10. Colored Cars Were Banned in the Capital City
Serdar Berdimuhamedow is the current President of Turkmenistan, elected in 2022 and following the 15-year rule of his father. He has done nothing to improve the rights or freedoms of his people and, by all accounts, Turkmenistan is still ruled with an iron fist. But what that means is bizarre at best.
Back in 2018 it was reported that Serdar’s father, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, ordered that colored cars be banned in the capital city of Turkmenistan. This followed the 2015 ban on importing them into the country. The president at that time believed that white was a lucky color and only wanted to see white cars. The police began to impound black cars, and eventually moved on to other colors, for some reports saying that they were forcibly painting cars white and then billing the owners.
Auto shops took advantage of the new rule and doubled their price for painting cars for those who wanted to have the job done. The average income in the country is extremely low, meaning paying so much for a paint job is no small feat.
9. A Previous Dictator Made a Rotating Gold Statue of Himself
Prior to the current president, the man’s father Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow ran the country for 15 years. Before him, dictator Saparmurat Niyazov ran the country from 1985 to 2006 and he was no inspiring leader, either.
Niyazov gave himself the name Turkmenbashi, or the Father of All Turks. He had a gold statue of himself built that was erected on a giant podium and would rotate so that it was always facing the sun. Word is he spent $12 million on it.
The statue was known as the Neutrality Monument and was erected to celebrate the country’s neutral stance, as one does with a giant, $12 million gold statue of themselves.
His successor took the 40 foot statue (which sat on a 75 foot arch) down in 2010 and moved it to a less important part of the city to keep it out of the way. One article described it as having outstretched arms and, when the light hit it, it appeared to float like Dracula over the city.
Despite working to undo much of the more unusual things his predecessor had done, President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow ended up erecting his own golden statue of himself on horseback.
8. Their Leader Renamed Months of the Year and Days of the Week
Sticking with Niyazov, there came a time during his reign when he decided that the months of the year and days of the week were not cutting it for him with their traditional names so he ordered the names changed. He opted to use the names of his family, people he admired, and just random words he chose on a whim instead.
January became Turkmenbashi, the nickname he had given himself. April became Gurbansoltan, which was Niyazov’s mother’s name. He also abolished their word for bread and named that after his mother as well. At any given moment if someone said “Gurbansoltan” they could have been talking about a woman, the month of April, or a sandwich.
May was renamed for a poet, and September was named for a book the President wrote. He changed Wednesday to Favorable Day and Tuesday was Youth Day. Not a single name was allowed to stay the same.
After Niyazov’s death, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow saw fit to return to the traditional calendar after citizens had to endure the old one for several years.
7. Turkmenistan Banned Covid
During the height of the coronavirus pandemic, the Turkmenistan government opted to take a different approach to dealing with the disease. They banned use of the word coronavirus and forbid anyone from wearing a mask in public. The country, as a whole, stopped acknowledging the disease existed at all.
At the same time, residents of the country were encouraged to wear masks to avoid dust. The government’s official position was that there was no coronavirus in the country at all, so no one needed to worry about it, however people did need to practice social distancing and wear those masks because of dust.
6. Ballet and Opera Had Been Outlawed
Back to Niyazov again, who couldn’t stop banning the most bizarre things for no reason. It seemed that he had a serious problem with music, and band things such as lip syncing, ballet, and opera. Even the circus was ousted. The reason for the ban seemed to be nothing more than a feeling that these arts were celebrating outside cultures rather than their own. One official quote stated that things like opera were “incompatible with Turkmen mentality.”
Opera was banned in the year 2000 and it wasn’t until 2019 that an opera was staged again in the country.
5. They Declared War on Stray Animals
This one spanned two different presidents. It was president Niyazov who first banned dogs and other pets from the capital city. The reason for this was because he feared stinking animals would overcome the sweet smell of the flowers he’d named after himself.
Though Berdymukhamedov overturned many of his predecessor’s bizarre laws and rules, he did not overturn the rule about dogs. Apparently Berdymukhamedov hated dogs just as much as the other guy did. In an effort to control the stray population, city employees laced the streets with poisoned food. If house pets got caught up in the culling, it didn’t seem like anyone cared.
Now it should be made clear that when we say that workers were putting out poisoned food for cats and dogs, this was not humane in any way. According to at least one source they were lacing sausages with insecticide or just filling them with sharp objects that the animals would swallow so that they would cut up their insides and kill them.
The president hated animals so much, he once fired the head of his security detail because a cat ran across the road in front of his car. Another time he saw a man walking a dog, and gave the man a choice between having his dog shot or spending 15 days in jail. The man ended up taking the jail time.
4. The President Tried to Build a Lake in the Desert
Let’s say you’re the dictator of a mostly desert nation and you want to improve the way the nation looks, at least in the eyes of you and the world around you. What could you do to make it more hospitable? President Niyazov figured that the best thing he could do was turn that desert into a lush, watery, green oasis. So he decided to make a lake out in the desert.
Golden Age Lake was to be a man made lake in the Karakum desert. The cost of the project was set at $4.5 billion US and then grew to $6 billion. Keep in mind, this is not a rich nation. Their entire GDP is about $45 billion.
The plan for building the lake involved diverting water along canals to a depression in the middle of the desert. After Niyazov died, the next President continued the project, believing it to be achievable. By 2020, all that remained of the lake was puddles.
At the time, experts were quick to point out exactly what was going to happen. The water would just evaporate, and worse, since it was being redirected from farmland, it was probably already contaminated with pesticides and fertilizer.
3. The President Banned Gold Teeth
Even though, as we saw, President Niyazov was obviously a fan of gold, he was not a fan of gold teeth. At one point he banned gold teeth for all citizens of Turkmenistan. If you needed a fake tooth, he was all in support of one that looked like a real tooth, some kind of porcelain veneer perhaps, but not gold.
Gold teeth were something of a fashion statement in the country for years. People would get them even if they didn’t need them, just because it was a trendy and fashionable thing to do. When it came to those who actually needed fake teeth because their real teeth were damaged or fell out, he suggested an alternative course of action. Or at least one that they could take to prevent future dental problems. He once stated that he had watched dogs chewing on bones and believed that was why dogs had such good dental hygiene. He suggested humans should chew on bones to help preserve their teeth as well.
2. People Have to Recite an Oath to the President
It’s normal for many countries to have public Gatherings where you might sing the national anthem. In the United States, you might recite the pledge of allegiance. In Turkmenistan you had an oath to President Turkmenbashi. It goes as follows:
For the slightest evil against you, let my hand be lost!
For the slightest slander about you, let my tongue shrivel!
At the moment of my betrayal of my motherland,
Of the president, of her sacred banner, let my breath stop!
All official events in Turkmenistan had to start with this oath during the President’s rule. Reporters had to say this on the news before they started their reports for the day. Kids had to say in the school, the government started their work with it as well.
When Niyazov died, the oath didn’t exactly vanish. Berdymukhamedov changed it just slightly. The original version named Turkmenbashi specifically while Berdymukhamedov’s version just uses the word “president” in the final line.
1. To Prove He Was Still Alive, The President Raced Around a Flaming Gas Hole
Most of us probably never have to deal with the issue of proving we’re still alive. That said, if you’re a public figure you may be more likely to have to deal with these kinds of rumors. In 2019, President Berdymukhamedov had not been in the public eye for a few weeks and so rumors began to swirl that something happened to the man.
Rather than simply going on TV and addressing the nation with something to confirm his status as being alive, he opted to kick things up a notch by putting on a show for people.
If you know much about Turkmenistan, you may be aware that one of the most well-known features, you might call it a tourist attraction, is a giant flaming hole that they call Hell’s Gate. This 230 ft wide hole has been burning gas since the early 1970s. It was born when a drilling rig cut through into a giant natural gas deposit and fell into the hole. As toxic gasses began to leak out, the Soviet drilling team that unearthed it tried to stave off an ecological disaster by simply lighting the gas on fire. It’s not clear whether they knew it would still be burning decades later, but that’s what’s happening.
This was where the president decided to prove he was still alive. He hopped in a rally car and began racing circles around the gateway to hell.