Journey to the center of the Turkmen universe
Editor’s note: To commemorate the coming new year, neweurasia is looking heavenward to gaze into Central Asia’s past, present, and future. Averroes takes a furlough into Turkmenistan to examine the legacy of Turkmenbashi’s dreams of putting Turkmen into space. What he finds may surprise you.
After creating the magnificent universe, and its innumerable systems and the blue planet in them, Allah, in his mercy, created man upon the Earth… [But] mankind, by exploring the universe, lost his belief in the universe and the heavens! The human being feels he is alone. This is because people, by becoming too deeply involved with material things, have lost their connections with the spiritual and heavenly realms. — Niyazov, Ruhnama
I won’t apologize for quoting Niyazov and you’ll see why in a little while. Way back in the Nineties, Turkmenistan’s first and most notorious president declared his ambition of putting Turkmen into space. What’s become of the dream? Well, believe it or not, Turkmenistan has actually accomplished the goal — sort of.
Say hello to Oleg Dmitriyevich Kononenko, the first Turkmen astronaut, pictured to the right. He’s from Türkmenabat (also known as Chardzhou and Āmul) and has logged extensive hours on the International Space Station. So, he may not have rode a Turkmen rocket to get up there, but he does count.
Almost all of Turkmenistan’s interstellar accomplishments so far have been of symbolic value only. For example, in 2002 they signed the Joint Protocol on Cooperation in the Field of Space Related Activities, and in 2003 the Ukraine floated the idea of agency-to-agency cooperation with Turkmenistan during a meeting in Ashgabad.
Most of all — and perhaps most notoriously — Turkmenistan launched the Ruhnama, Niyazov’s controversial spiritual manual, into Earth’s orbit. The container also included a Turkmen flag and the presidential standard. At the time, the official newspaper Neitralny declared,
The book that conquered the hearts of millions on Earth is now conquering space. The sacred text of Rukhnama was chosen because it contains all the wisdom of the Turkmen people, thanks to its creator, Turkmenbashi [Niyazov]. [This] confirms that Turkmenistan has joined the club of space powers.
The big exception has been the Berdimuhammedov government’s expansion of the internet, a project that has entailed launching a communications satellite. Annasoltan and Schwartz have written a lot about the potential of this project to change the face of Turkmen society.
Obviously, democratization wasn’t exactly what Niyazov had in mind, but the transfiguration of Turkmenistan’s inner space by outer space is nevertheless something he hoped for — and so should we. And why not? Should we distance ourselves from the accomplishments of a megalomaniac?
Bad men do good things all the time. I say: thank God for Stalin, because he stopped Hitler and saved humanity, and thank God for Khrushchev, because he challenged the United States and impelled humanity to the moon. One day, Niyazov may very well be seen in the same light.
Yet, we also must keep in mind that the exploration of outer space is always ultimately to better understand and evolve our inner space. It is precisely this inner space which has been badly warped by a century of ideology in Turkmenistan, first from the Soviets, then by the Turkmen government itself. Consider this remark by Daniel Kalder, an explorer of the former Soviet Union:
[Niyazov writes on page 69], ‘If the spirit of the Turkmen is the universe… then Rukhnama must be the centre of this universe.’ And as I read on, I discovered that the Rukhnama really was the centre of the universe.
Turkmenbashi was effectively trying to write his country, previously a scrap of desert colonized by successive empires, into existence. [...] He was seeking to create a magnificent national identity, inextricably bound up with his own good self, of course.
Earlier this week Schwartz described the state ideology of the Soviet Union as having two sides, one light, one dark:
[A] tension that existed between the Soviets’ ambition to change human nature — symbolized by their difficult struggle to reach toward the stars — and the human catastrophes that resulted from their endeavor. [...] The aspiration, the reaching for the possibility of greatness. In the end, as we all know, the Soviets’ dreams slipped from their grasp…
But Schwartz is wrong. You see, the problem with the Soviet Union was that it was ultimately pulled down by the gravity of hubris. They sought to change human nature at too great a human cost. The Turkmen universe is populated by sheep, just as the Soviet universe was; until it becomes a nation of shepherds instead, it will never truly reach the stars.
Author’s note: There’s an investment blog dedicated to the subject of Turkmen space exploration. It’s obviously not the most independent news source, but it exists and you should poke around its archives. It also should be noted that the title of this post is ripped off from Kalder. ;-) By the way, you should read the whole of Kalder’s post, because he has a very interesting conclusion about the Ruhnama.