Today, January 12, is a special day for many Turkmen. It is the day we remember a battle that embarrasses our government.
By January 1881, the Russian army had almost completed its conquest of Central Asia. Inside Gökdepe fortress – just to the northwest of today’s capital, Ashgabat – tens of thousands of Turkmen from the Ahal-Teke tribe had taken shelter as Russian General Mikhail Skobelev laid siege. On January 12 his army detonated a mine, destroying a large section of the wall, and began to slaughter the inhabitants. As many as 20,000 Ahal-Teke died. Within months, St. Petersburg declared Trans-Caspia (a territory roughly aligning with modern Turkmenistan) an oblast of the Russian empire.
The Turkmen were at the time a largely nomadic society, where history was passed down orally. For the generations since, Ahal families have shared stories and songs of Gökdepe to help us remember the tragedy, and who we are. I grew up hearing my father and grandfather tell stories of the battle, of the loss and defeat, in prose and verse, and listening to what we call “Gökdepe mukamy” – a traditional melody said to have been composed by one of the Gökdepe defenders for a two-stringed dutar.
But stories of loss at the hands of Russian troops are not what the Russian and later Soviet Empire wanted to hear. It wasn’t until the late Soviet years, during the heady days of openness unleashed by Mikhail Gorbachev, that liberal civic activists could lobby for a commemoration. A mosque was built near the site of the massacre and January 12 became Memory Day (Hatyra güni), a chance to remember the Gökdepe victims.
In 2013, the government of Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov – a man most at ease celebrating himself – began to water down the holiday. By then, officials had stopped mentioning Russia in conjunction with the battle. The following year, on October 6, 2014, the Hero of the People ("Halk Hakydasy”) monument complex was unveiled in the capital, erected to jointly commemorate victims of three tragedies – the devastating Ashgabat earthquake of October 6, 1948, World War II, and the massacre at Gökdepe.
Soon officials barely mentioned Gökdepe at all, and when they did, they buried the name without context.
Many Turkmen believe this silence is designed to please Russia, and to conceal the shame of defeat. Local journalists say the government each year instructs them not to mention the loss at Gökdepe, and specifically to avoid mentions of Russian colonialism, so as not to irritate Moscow.
Hudayberdi Hally, a Turkmen writer and former co-leader of the Agzybirlik movement that pushed for the holiday in 1990, believes that Memory Day began to lose significance with Vladimir Putin's rise and his efforts to restore Russian glory.
“Eventually, the official commemoration of the day was banned. Russian policy has taken Memory Day, deemed too connected to colonial policy, away from the hands of the Turkmen people. Now, no Turkmen press or news media outlet can say that the 'Russian army occupied Turkmenistan’,” Hally told me this month. “The government is afraid to mention the word ‘Russian’.”
It is said that every Turkmen resident of Ahal region either lost ancestors at Gökdepe or is related to a survivor. Some residents in Ahal continue to privately mark January 12 and commemorate the victims by reciting verse or listening to mukam. Over the years, January 12 became a day to recognize all ancestors, to visit graves and recite commemoration prayers. On this day, my acquaintances in Ashgabat offer alms, invite relatives and neighbors to share meals, and pray for the souls of their ancestors.
Virtual private remembering
Any sort of public ceremony outside the government’s oversight is dangerous under the Berdymukhamedov dynasty. Today, many people take their remembering online, viewing and discussing posts by Turkmen in exile. This in itself is a potentially dangerous act for people inside Turkmenistan, as accessing popular social media platforms like YouTube, Facebook and Instagram requires a virtual private network (VPN), a technology that is banned.
YouTube is where Turkmen exiles discuss politics. And here tributes are posted each year.
The "Milli Miras" YouTube account ran a six-minute video this month that describes the heroes of Gökdepe: "On this day of remembrance, let's celebrate our brave men and brave women who defended the Gökdepe fortress." The video presents historical images of the battle alongside a melody written for the popular 1970 film tragedy "Keçpelek," which was later adopted at World War II memorials and today is played continuously at the Hero of the People monument.
On January 12, Milli Miras posted a video of a woman reciting a poem that relays an imaginary story about the scene at Gökdepe after the wall was breached; animated graphics evoke the dust. The verse begins:
“Gökdepe galasy... Ah bilen gussa, Gala-gala däl-de, tor-tozan, tüsse.”
“Gökdepe Fortress... Sigh and sadness. Not the fortress, but the dust, the smoke.”
Another YouTube account with over 8,000 subscribers, "Hak Hukuga Daýanç" (“Relying on Ri ghts”), on January 11 posted a 33-minute roundtable with exiles from the activist community talking about Gökdepe. Turkmen labor migrants and activists in Turkey created this channel as "a unique source of public life that is not covered by the official media" to discuss human rights and attract young people.
In this particular episode, one of the guests, exiled opposition politician Nurmuhammet Hanamov, a former Turkmen ambassador to Turkey, said, "I am happy the youth is interested in our history. A nation that forgets or does not know its history loses its homeland and its people."
The moderators behind the Facebook group “We are from Turkmenistan,” which has almost 18,000 subscribers, tend to avoid anything so remotely political. Last year a member extorted users to keep the battle in their thoughts: “Today is Memory Day. Let's commemorate the fallen heroes of Gökdepe. May their souls be blessed. May they rest in heaven!”
Each year any number of posts on this page ask for prayers for the victims, often incorporating lines from a poem by Leningrad siege survivor Olga Bergholz that are now found on many a Soviet war monument: “No one is forgotten; nothing is forgotten!”
In 2021, a member posted a painting of a Turkmen woman defending Gökdepe and wrote, "Turkmenistan marks the National Day of Remembrance, established in honor of the defenders of the Gökdepe fortress and all Turkmen who died in the battles for freedom and independence of the Motherland. No one is forgotten; nothing is forgotten! Bow low to the heroes!"
Instagram is probably the most popular social network among VPN users in Turkmenistan, especially young people.
The @Yslam_Nury page, which carries religious musings and Koranic teachings for its 16,700 followers, posted a clip about the battle last year with the sad melody from "Keçpelek.” Accompanying the music are the names of leaders and local people who died in the battle, with a text addressing them: "Great heroes, martyrs! We are proud of you as winners! You taught us not to surrender to the enemy and to fight. We haven't forgotten you. We will not let you be forgotten."
In these posts, none of which should be controversial, Turkmen oral history has moved online. While that will help preserve our traditions – and help germinate new forms of expression for future generations – this is not an organic process. Most of these examples are the work of an exiled diaspora whose creativity and originality terrifies the current regime in Turkmenistan. Because under the Berdymukhamedovs, even a distant past is threatening and cannot be discussed.