Travels in Turkmenistan

Veteran travel writer Paul Theroux has just published an extensive travel piece / political polemic about Turkmenistan in the new New Yorker. Theroux, who has never been confused as a cultural relativist, reserves a special disdain and morbid fascination with the late dictator of Turkmenistan, Saparmurat Niyazov, and finds a way to describe the flamboyant autocrat’s insanity every other paragraph. See excerpt below – click here to download an 11-page PDF of the full article. Other RA articles on Turkmenistan can be read here, here, and here.



The cruelty of Turkmenbashi’s policies was obvious when you contemplated the tableau of toy huts, a visible plea for housing. Homeless people abounded in this fabulously wealthy country. (Natural-gas exports alone accounted for an estimated three billion dollars in revenue in 2006. This month, Berdimuhammedov signed a lucrative deal to run a new pipeline to Russa.) Bashi fancied himself a city planner; he’d ordered that hundreds of houses be bulldozed, compounds flattened, and the neighborhoods of Ashgabat dispersed, so that he could build oversized white marble apartment blocks that now stood empty because they were, in their deluxe absurdity, unaffordable. He rarely compensated the owners of the houses he tore down; nor did he rehouse them. They now lived precariously, in temporary huts on the outskirts of the town. …. Because I was being watched by the ministry of Foreign Affairs, I had to be careful. But having Turkmenbashi as an enemy was also helpful, because when Western diplomats tried to explain my predicament to me they were often revealing about his quirks. “He hates people meddling,” one diplomat told me. “He hates N.G.O.’s” – non-governmental humanitarian organizations. Turkmenbashi had banned local human-rights groups and religious groups and environmental groups – all the more readily if they received assistance from foreign partners. He’d place tight restrictions on the Peace Corps, and he refused to ask for help form the international Monetary Fund or from the World Bank, no doubt fearing that if he opened Turkmenistan’s finances to international scrutiny he would be sharing information about his personal finances as well. “That’s his big secret,” another diplomat told me. “He’s a billionaire many times over.”