President Saparmurat Niazov has added public libraries to the long list of things banned in Turkmenistan – a bitter blow to many in the Central Asian republic who say their last window on the world has been slammed shut.
Turkmen have grown used to living without opera, ballet, cinemas and even circuses – all forbidden by Niazov – but they say his decision to close all libraries cuts especially deep.
Olga told IWPR she regularly took her 12-year-old son to the central library in Ashgabat, where he seemed inspired to read.
“The library has a completely different spirit, a different atmosphere which gives rise to a thirst for knowledge,” she said.
“Now I’m afraid our children won’t be interested in anything except futile street activities, so they will lack a basic familiarity with the works of the great writers and poets of world literature. Because of the closure of the libraries, they have been deprived of this opportunity."
A 60-year-old pensioner from Ashgabat said the library provided a welcome chance to socialise with friends and discuss the books they’d read.
“Now we’ve been deprived of that too,” she said. “I used to come to our district library and get out various books several times a week. You could also read a selection of magazines here, which I couldn’t afford to buy on my meagre pension.”
Various NGOs including Human Rights Watch and the International Helsinki Federation have protested the late February decision by Niazov – known as Turkmenbashi, or father of all Turkmen – to shut down the libraries.
His explanation at a meeting of cabinet ministers was simple, “No one goes to libraries and reads books anyway.” Also problematic appears to be the fact that most literature in Turkmenistan’s libraries is printed in Cyrillic. Since 1996, schools have been teaching in a Latin-based alphabet.
Only the national library appears to have escaped the purge, so, according to Niazov, it can house new Turkmen literature as well as historical texts.
The president said any more libraries are unnecessary as most books that Turkmen need – many written by Niazov himself – should already be in homes, workplaces and schools.
Those include the Niazov-penned Rukhnama – a spiritual treatise that is the basis of the country’s education system - poems written by the president as well biographies of him and his parents. A recent addition to the school curriculum is the “Source of Wisdom”, a book for secondary school students with excerpts in alphabetical order from Niazov’s three greatest poetic works.
“To read all these books it is not necessary to go to the library as all these books should be close at hand for everyone,” Niazov said.
The order to close the libraries came during the cotton harvest under the pretext the buildings were being renovated or inventories done. However, libraries have long been out of favour with the president and this was just an excuse, analysts believe.
In the late 1990s, he ordered classics of Turkmen literature written by authors including Berdy Kerbabaev, Rakhim Esenov, Beki Seitakov, Tirkish Jumageldyev, Khydyr Deryaev and Nurmurad Sarykhanov pulled from the shelves and burned.
A literature professor at an Ashgabat university said these writers fell out of favour with the president because “they describe the material and spiritual contribution of Soviet republics to the culture of the Turkmen people, their spiritual enrichment and the formation of the Turkmen land”.
Crucially, these works contradict Turkmenbashi’s own writings, particularly his most important work, the Rukhnama, which denies any influence by civilisation, science or culture on the development of the Turkmen people. It also says the Turkmen invented the wheel and writing.
Observers worry about the effect this information vacuum is having on Turkmen and warn of mass ignorance of the people, especially among the younger generation who are deprived of the opportunity to learn about the modern world.
Though universities still have libraries, the supplies of books have not been updated for ten years while many works on history, literature and biology have been removed and destroyed.
Bookshops elegantly display the president’s works, but no other literature is sold.
Bringing books into the country privately has become almost impossible as the government has set high customs duties on the import of printed material.
Certain magazines including Cosmopolitan are available from private shops and stalls but since June 2002 subscriptions to foreign periodicals have been prohibited.
Access to the web is expensive and limited and as a result most young people have never heard of the internet.
One Turkmen observer said, “The plans announced at the dawn of independence to remove communist ideology from national education have ended with government programmes becoming even more ideological.
“But now the ideology is different, with scientifically unfounded historical, social and political theses declared by the authorities of the country which go directly against historical facts.”
IWPR April 22, 2005