If you’ve heard of the country of Turkmenistan, you’re ahead of the curve by about 90%. That isn’t to say that Turkmenistan isn’t a great country and that its people aren’t wonderful, just that the central Asian nation isn’t really known for much other than being the fourth-largest producer of natural gas in the world.

The former Soviet republic is actually quite large in size at nearly 190,000 square miles, but it’s sparsely populated with only just over six million people. Located just to the north of Iran, it was once in the middle of the famed Silk Road in the ancient and medieval periods of world history, but in modern times, it is best known for being one of many republics in the USSR.

More recently it became known for the man who ruled it with an iron fist from 1990 to 2006, Saparmurat Niyazov.

Saparmurat Niyazov was a relic and holdover from the Soviet era, who was the “Chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the Turkmen SSR” when it was still part of the Soviet Union, and then independent Turkmenistan’s first president.

Niyazov’s rule was straight out of the handbook of “communist dictatorships 101” in many ways, but he added several unique Turkmenistani touches. He cultivated an image that drew on a combination of influences—Soviet-era dictators, Islamic strongmen, and ancient Turkish traditions—which he related in his 1994 autobiographical book Ruhnama.

But the craziest things he did were his arbitrary decisions to make some seemingly mundane and innocent things illegal.

For starters, lip-syncing was banned at concerts, dogs were forbidden to enter the capital city, and he changed the word “bread” in the Turkman language to his mother’s name.

And that was just the start of the crazy things Saparmurat Niyazov did while he ruled Turkmenistan. To be honest, none Niyazov’s crazy policies really had the long-ranging negative effects that most of the other dictators’ crazy decisions in this book have had. However, there were just so many of them and they were so interesting and humorous that there was no way we couldn’t include him in this book!

Life Was Tough

Not much is known about Saparmurat Niyazov’s early life up until the early 1960s. He was born in 1940 in the Soviet republic of Turkmenistan and was raised in an orphanage. Life was tough for kids in Soviet orphanages, especially in the lean years immediately after World War II. Scarcity was a way of life and death was a constant occurrence.

As Niyazov entered his teens, he saw that the only way to live a good life then was to be a member of the Communist Party. Niyazov was never the communist ideologue that many of the dictators we’ve profiled were; in fact, he was never much of an intellectual at all.

By all accounts, he joined the Communist Party to have a better life, but by the time the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, he was the big man in Turkmenistan.

And Niyazov wanted to remain the big man.

He arranged it so that he would become independent Turkmenistan’s first president in 1991. Niyazov was re-elected in a rigged “election” in 1994. All pretenses of the country being a democracy were dropped when the parliament declared him “President for Life” in 1999.

Then things really got crazy.

Who Needs Libraries?

As crazy as Niyazov may have been in many ways, he was smart enough to know that that the newly independent Turkmenistan would need a post-Soviet identity. So he wrote Ruhnama, which was part autobiography, part pseudo-history, and part political diatribe. It rambled and rambled and probably put more people to sleep than it inspired, but reading the book was one of the requirements for getting a driver’s license in Turkmenistan.

Niyazov was known best for his crazy and often contradictory prohibitions of various activities.

Niyazov said he wanted to promote health and good values, so he banned smoking and tobacco use, but he also banned beads, which angered many men in the overwhelmingly Islamic country. His ban on dogs in the capital city was applauded by many fundamentalist Muslims, but few agreed when he closed all the libraries in the country.

At one point he even closed all the hospitals outside the capital city of Ashgabat with the idea that everyone should come to the capital for treatment. He also changed the oath in Turkmenistan to be an oath to the president.

But it doesn’t end there!

Niyazov also banned internet cafes, the opera, ballet, circuses, women wearing makeup on television, and gold teeth. He claimed that all of these were bad influences and not proper activities for Turkmans to do.

Saparmurat Niyazov’s ride on the crazy train may not have had the devastating effects on his country that some of the other cases we’ve profiled in this book did. Despite this, he was the victim of an assassination attempt on November 25, 2002. A shooter opened fire on his car in the capital that day, but no one was ever arrested. Many think it was related to some of Niyazov’s shady business deals, but it could have just as easily been related to one of his crazy policies.

Maybe it was an angry healthcare worker who lost his job when Niyazov put 15,000 people out of work.

Or it could’ve been a disgruntled librarian who lost her job.

And maybe, just maybe, it was an angry lip syncer who wasn’t able to freely engage in their favorite pastime.

Unfortunately, it looks like the identity of Saparmurat Niyazov’s attempted assassin will never be known because after he died on December 21, 2006, the country quickly moved on without him.

The hospitals and libraries were reopened, and most importantly, the ban on lip-syncing was lifted!

Did You Know?

  • Ruhnama is widely available online in PDF format or if you want a hardcopy for your library, you can pay $10 on Amazon.
  • After the attempt on his life, Niyazov had more than 2,000 people arrested on a variety of charges. Most were released after short detentions.
  • It is believed that Niyazov had assets worth more than $3 billion in cash and various investments around the world. Not bad for a former communist!
  • Niyazov married his wife Muza when he was a student in Leningrad (St. Petersburg) in the late 1960s. They had two children together and remained married until his death.
  • Although Turkmenistan may have moved on past Niyazov, the government still follows many of his repressive policies. The many gold statues that Niyazov had erected of himself throughout the country, especially in Ashgabat, are still there to greet all Turkmans and visitors to the country.