After 13 years of rotating as though he were carrying the Sun across the sky, Turkmenbashy’s statue atop the Arch of Neutrality stopped rotating a few weeks ago.Its almost as if the authorities wanted to be sure the Sun would continue rising and setting without the help of the 12 meter golden effigy of the country’s first dead President.
In fashion typical of the Boring New World of the second President of Turkmenistan, the statue itself was quietly pulled down from atop the 75-meter gleaming tribute to him and to neutrality on Wednesday, August 25. The rest of it is coming down now.
There seem to have been no bold pronouncements of turning the page from Turkmenbashy’s Golden Age to Berdymukhamedov’s Great Revival; no bold soliloquies on the excesses of the past and the lessons for the future, no clear reasons given for removing the great silly eyesore; sybolic of a bygone age where Turkmen totalitarianism was arguably more brutal, arguably less successful, but undoubtably less predictable. While President Berdymukhamedov has allowed his predecessors’ personality cult to be disassembled, his own cult is replacing it with plodding derivative inevitability. Maintaining interest is a challenge. Sequels so rarely live up to the original.
I recall 2008, sitting in the shadow of the flying dingus and taking bets on when he would come down, as we counted on one hand the number of portraits in Ashgabat still needed to be ‘updated’. A year ago, there was no counting left to do. I think we all agreed the Arch of Neutrality would be gone within a half a decade. When I was last in Ashgabat, I wouldn’t have been surprised to know it would be my last time seeing it.
I’d grown used to it by then. My wife and I could see it from our window. Thousands of Ashgabaters could. That was the point, of course.
I’ll remember picking up guests at the airport, and asking taxi drivers to take new road to downtown, so newcomers could see the Turkmenbashy statue line up with Turkmenbashy avenue in Stonehenge-like symmetry. We would drive under her tripod legs, bestriding an almost empty intersection, except for a nearly barren library, a nearly barren shopping ball, and several nearly barren administrative buildings.
I’ll remember the ticket booth wrapped in white marble and gold-tinted windows, with a hand-written price too trivial to remember. Sometimes the cashier wasn’t around. Once I paid the elevator operator. Another time I just left the money on her desk inside the window.
The diagonal elevator clunks its way up the first 30 meters, the rust visible on the cables and counterweights uniquely exposed to the elements by their design, thirsting for grease. Another elevator lines a second leg of the tripod. It sits idle, probably as it has since the day after the thing opened. An emergency egress stairway, complete with safety bars to prevent one from descending too quickly.
In the lower lobby was a portrait of the president-playboy, looking childishly innocent with his chin in his hand. A few postcards are for sale, though its not clear who is selling. A coffee bar with some faux victorian furniture seems to have been abandoned years ago. A plaque informs me who performed the dedication. Just guess.
An interior elevator brings you to the viewing platform, dozens of meters below the statue. The doorway to the stairs to the very top are secured by a Soviet-era office chair. Massive cooling fans line the edges of the platform, concealed by the retaining walls, out of view from the ground.
Tourists and out-of-towners alike gawked at the view from the edges. Here was one of the few places from which Turkmenbashy’s grand plan for the city’s redevelopment was clear. A half dozen boulevards, all emanating on the Arch, with marching ranks of white buildings marching through the quiet hills, empty plains, and inhabited suburbs. Looking south, the inhabitants of those suburbs must have been able to see the bulldozers coming, to plow under their lives in the name of a newly decreed modernity. Looking north, one could still squint, and imagine things as they might have been in 1989. Turkmenbashy Palace (now ‘Presidential Palace’), is in plain view, but instinctively I would avoid direct eye contact, as one might avoid acknowledging a beggar or a domestic dispute played out in public. In any direction, the view was, undoubtedly, the most revealing in the country.
At night, the thing lit up like a discotheque space rocket. The florescent-colored lights alternatively climbed its shaft as though they were counting down, or slowly changed in hue as though it were breathing. My wife and I imagine it as the beacon of an elaborate alien-worshiping cult, begging for instructions from the eternal darkness. It could be seen from aircraft on approach, signaling to the arriving passenger that you couldn’t possibly have gotten on the wrong flight from Istanbul.
Alas, its end was unfittingly ignominious - prefaced in a tender announcement for its ‘removal and rebuilding in a new location’ on the back page of the 4-page national daily. In a day, the statue gone, the gold paint or plating or leafing probably already melted off and pilfered by the new bosses.
Turkmenbashy liked to remind his people that it was they who demanded such tributes to their infallible leader. “What am I to do? Its what the people want.”
“The People”, in some sense, were his people – the endless line of yes men, whose job was merely to steal much, pass along most, and eventually wind up in prison. To win favor, some might speak up in an expanded cabinet meeting or session of parliament, suggesting that this month, or that city, or some variety of medicinal cactus, to our great respected dear world-famous leader. The ‘wrong’ suggestion might be dismissed out of hand. The ‘right’ suggestion might lead to a half smile, followed by an obedient fawning carousal of applause. The Arch of Neutrality probably started life as a 75 meter kiss of megalomaniacal ass. One that probably made a minister of a mere mortal. Or a dentist.
Yes, the Arch was a symbol of all that was wrong with Turkmenistan. The grotesque excesses, the useless wastes, the leader-worship, the seemingly boundless capacity for obedience. I would not be sad to see those flaws go along with their symbol.
But we all know better. As a friend often repeated to me, this guy is starting where the master left off. While this time around there may be nothing new to see, there can always be more of it.
October 2011 will mark the 20th anniversary of Turkmenistan’s independence, and high time for a newer, taller, 11-times more expensive and 11-times more neutral Arch of Neutrality, to bring the space cult of nihilism to orgiastic new heights of profligate stupidity.