Why Must They Write?

by Nathan Hamm on 1/17/2006 · 11 comments

RFE/RL asks asks why Central Asian leaders feel the need to be authors and poets.

Instead, today’s Central Asian leaders may owe their need to write to the leaders of the Soviet Union. Lenin, of course, produced many works, and so did Stalin and others.

Some Central Asian specialists speculate that the penchant of today’s leaders for producing books, poetry and songs is due to their desire to be seen as wise and cultured guides for their nations. These feelings may be stronger for today’s leaders than for previous emirs and khans because the Central Asian strongmen of centuries past could claim to be authorities in religious affairs — something today’s presidents, all former Soviet-Communist leaders, cannot do.

That strikes me as about right. But whatever it is, from over here in the Western world, it makes it that much harder to take these guys seriously.

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– author of 2991 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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Laurence January 17, 2006 at 1:39 pm

Nathan, What’s RFE/RL’s problem with leaders writing books? I don’t recall anyone but right-wing Republicans mocking Al Gore for “Earth in the Balance” or Hillary Clinton for “It Takes a Village.” Anyone remember “Profiles in Courage”?

IMHO, their books give us some clues to figure out where these Central Aisian leaders are coming from and where they want to go–at least in principle…

So, why does RFE/RL choose to sneer and make comparisons to Stalin instead of comparisons to leaders like Kennedy, Disraeli and Churchill?

Brian January 17, 2006 at 1:57 pm

And don’t forget “My Life” the awe-inspiring “A Charge to Keep”.

I think a distinction is that generally those books were written before or after their presidencies, not during their term… and that they are generally memoirs, not manifestos (of course Gore’s book could be called one). It’s subtle, but there is a distinction – I’d be pretty surpised if Clinton or Bush came out with The Ruhnama a few years into their term.

Nathan January 17, 2006 at 5:22 pm

Laurence, I think there are enormous distinctions to be made. And I think it’s disinegenuous to act as if a politician’s authorship of a book is qualitatively the same no matter the context.

The first and most important is that neither in my time as a private citizen nor employee of the federal government have I had to take tests on the political or spiritual philosophy of a sitting or recently sitting president.

Flowing from that is another distinction. When our presidents write books, it is quite clear to both them and the audience that they enter into the marketplace of ideas more or less as equals with everyone else. That’s not to say that they don’t get treated with kid gloves by some or that they don’t get more attention than others do, but their books are not approached as beyond criticism by the public. That is, of course, a cultural issue, but our presidents share that culture and do not submit their books for publication from the cultural standpoints RFE/RL suggest inform those of the Central Asian president-authors.

Disha January 17, 2006 at 8:07 pm

Nathan, “two simple words”(c) :

“Ashcroft sings Let The Eagle Soar”. A song that he wrote. And made the employees of the Justice Department sing it too.

The same guy who got himself anointed with cooking oil every time he got into a political office.

Matt W January 17, 2006 at 8:49 pm

Central Asian presidents don’t write books, as far as I know, they ghost write them. The reason given above is one reason, but I think there are a few others:

1) perhaps most important, it gives the official line; in Uzbekistan for instance, the newspapers are pretty useless for news as such, they are, however, read religiously by kadr-wise officials looking to climb up in their careers– presidential books and newspapers, especially in the more authoritarian CA states, give cues to officials as to what they can say without deviating from the official line, what phrases to insert into a toast, what meetings to go to personally and where to send their third zam. An official line approved by the president (whether on the characteristics of the nation, morality, economics, history), certainly, but not written by him.

2) Not sure if this is significant anywhere in CA, but in Russia at least, book poublishing was (and is?) a way for politicians to launder money / accept bribes as “royalties”. This is perhaps the one biggest tool Berezovskii used to get in with Yeltsin. Chubais also got a lot of money for publishing a book. Again, this may not be practice in Central Asia… does anyone know whether T-bashi gets royalties for RN, for instance?

Rustam January 17, 2006 at 9:07 pm

I do agree with You Nathan, Brian and Matt W. Would like to add that Nathan You are wrong in saying that in Uzbekistan Karimovs books don’t get criticism and that it is cultural issue. Ask any sensible student, who is forced to read his stupid books, students of UWED, TSUE or Law Institute, they will tell You that they are spending their time for this useless reading instead of International Public Law, Corporate Finance… and that they hate it, that they find it stupid and talking about the same things over and over again, economic reform – his five principles which himself does not follow and actual situation proved the value of his principles and reforms in general, foreign relations – that we act in our best interests, CIS is important, Security – Afghanistan and related islamic fundamentalism is threat, more so when the enemy is from “inside”, Culture – Amir Temur and ALL scientists who 700 years ago happen to live in this land.
Regarding the money laundering I believe there is no need for it, why do You need it when You personally control gold and cotton, nobody asks You Sir what are You doing.

Nathan January 17, 2006 at 9:09 pm

I meant public criticism.

Nathan January 17, 2006 at 9:36 pm

Oh, and just for the record, next person who seriously argues that something like My Life is qualitatively the same as Rukhnama is going to get it with both barrels from me if they don’t make an airtight case.

Alexander Morrison January 17, 2006 at 9:43 pm

The other question is why on earth the Curzon Press in London agreed to publish English translations of the dross produced by Karimov and by Shaimiev in Tatarstan back in the mid-90s. At the time I imagine they thought they were helping to chronicle the emergence of new national identities in the former USSR. Both books are of course almost entirely Soviet in their language, outlook and ethos, peddling the same national myths about ethnogenesis that became obligatory in the 1950s, along with paeans of praise to the fertility and productivity of their little fiefdoms (Shaimiev’s book even has a photograph of him running his hands through a field of corn on the cover of the English edition- surely that gives some sort of clue….). As far as the inheritance from the works of Marx and Lenin is concerned – I’m sure that’s true. One of the few books containing original research on 19th century Turkestan to have emerged since 1991 is Abdurahmanova & Rustamova’s “Колониальная Система Власти в Туркестане (Ташкент: «Университет») 1999, which has some interesting stuff in it, but opens with a quotation from ‘Uzbekistan on the Threshold of the 21st Century’ and carries on quoting Karimov at regular intervals until you get to the bibliography, where his name, in defiance of alphabetic convention, is shoved to the beginning. Sounds familiar? If this is what happens to what is supposed to be a serious piece of scholarly research whose relation to contemporary politics is fairly distant, you can imagine how much worse it must be for University and Secondary School students in Uzbekistan, and elsewhere in the region (Turkmenistan takes the palm for this of course – there members of the Akademii Nauk have to carry a copy of the Ruhname with them when working in the Library, and schoolchildren spend at least two hours a day studying Turkmenbashi’s masterpiece). To suggest that this bears comparison with the execrable productions of U.S. Presidents and politicians (or indeed, that of our beloved leader’s wife, Cherie Blair, whose book, ‘Inside the Goldfish Bowl’, hit the remainder shops within a month of publication) is risible. The closest parallel would indeed seem to be the behaviour of the American Attorney-General John Ashcroft, and of him all I can say is that, from a British perspective he seems very odd indeed, and not a little sinister.

Laurence January 18, 2006 at 8:26 am

Nathan, You are right, schoolchildren were not required to take an exam on Hillary Clinton’s “It Takes a Village.”

Otherwise, I’d suggest that the 1996 publication of the book played a similar ideological role to the works of Central Asian authors, signalling the political direction of the second-term Clinton administration to its staff, supporters, and interested members of the public. I believe there were bulk purchases of the book by political organizations, as well. And, yes, Hillary Clinton used a ghost-writer…

Luckily, we have a 2-party rather than 1-party system at the national level. But if American politicians could force us to read their books, I think they would–for example, remember the debate over Lynne Cheney’s National History Standards and Diane Ravitch’s arguments for a national curriculum…Luckily, they were stopped.

Brian January 18, 2006 at 10:07 am

I’m rocking out to John Ashcroft’s single right now. He’s a madman.

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