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The Curious Case of Saparmurat Niyazov

The golden statue of late President Saparmurat Niyazov has disappeared from the center of Ashgabat. From 26 July 2017

The cult of personality devoted to Turkmenistan’s late and mercurial President Saparmurat Niyazov began to be chipped away gradually in the years after his death in late 2006. All the same, the sight of his image in gold-leafed glory could still be spotted here and there.


One of the most eye-catching examples — Niyazov in a dynamic seated stance, book in hand — has now been removed. The golden effigy stood, or sat to be exact, in front of the Interior Ministry building on one of the main streets of the capital, Ashgabat.


The area around the Interior Ministry has been fenced off for several months for general reconstruction works, but when the hoardings came down, the statue had disappeared.


This is not Niyazov’s first disappearing act.


The most famous statue of Turkmenbashi — or father of all Turkmens, as he was routinely called in state media — was perched atop the Neutrality Arch on a platform that rotated so that he always faced the sun. The 12-meter (39-feet) high statue was removed from its spot in 2010 and later re-erected out of the way on the edge of the city. And the statue no longer turned, but instead had its gaze fixed on the city.


References to Niyazov were eventually dropped from the national anthem. The image of his profile stopped appearing on the nation’s TV screens. His portrait no longer graces the newspaper. Most tellingly, his Rukhnama — a two-volume melange of holy text and folk history once made mandatory reading for everybody —  has largely been forgotten. The growing number of works by the current president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, which include scientific and literary writings, are steadily assuming the role the Rukhnama once did.


Alas, for any statue collectors out there, authorities have disclosed no information about where the statue has ended up.


For the literary-minded, another more grievous act of monument removal has taken place. State media reported last month that a statue of Turkmenistan’s national poet, Magtymguly Pyragy, who lived in the 18th century, is to be relocated from its old spot opposite where the seated Niyazov was to somewhere in the foothills of Kopet-Dag, south of the capital.


The decision was apparently taken by Berdymukhamedov as he flew over Ashgabat by helicopter in mid-June. As the president explained, Magtymguly’s contribution to world literature is so great that only the side of a mountain is suited to accommodate his likeness.


As state media reported at the time, the president gave instructions to “create the necessary conditions for the organization of artistic readings, literary evenings and mass cultural events on the site of the new location for the monument.”


Elderly admirers convinced that the middle of the city was a generally more convenient spot for convening such events have quietly mourned the statue’s removal, but are generally keeping their disappointment to themselves.


Berdymukhamedov, who includes chief architect of Ashgabat among his many titles, has form in disregarding the considerations of the elderly. Three years ago, he removed the Eternal Flame dedicated to heroes of the Great Fatherland War, as WWII is known across much of the former Soviet Union, from a central park to the foothills of Kopet-Dag, making the site an awkward trek for the physically infirm.

This article originally appeared on
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