Calendar craze

August 09, 2002

THE PRESIDENT of Turkmenistan, who several years ago adopted the name Turkmenbashi, or Father of All Turkmen, yesterday renamed January after himself. He renamed April after his mother, who died in an earthquake in 1948. He renamed September after his book, Rukhname, which is required reading for all Turkmen schoolchildren.

He also renamed the other months, and the days of the week. (Wednesday becomes Good Day. That's creative.) The National Council acclaimed the changes, by unanimous vote. It also felt obliged to reaffirm the lifelong tenure of the "beloved eternal president," although he won that tenure in a referendum three years ago and no one in particular has been calling it into question recently. Just put it down to the better-safe-than-sorry school of political philosophy.

Turkmenbashi (the man, not the month) was born Saparmurat Niyazov, and a very long time ago he rose to become the Communist Party secretary of the Soviet Republic of Turkmenistan, which meant he was the boss. Woe befell anyone who challenged Communist Party chieftains in those days, but at least Mondays were still Mondays.

When Turkmenistan was let loose by the collapse of the U.S.S.R. in 1991, Mr. Niyazov appears to have entered a parallel universe, and taken his country with him. All flights coming into the capital, Ashkhabad, are said to include a brief video extolling his virtues. The main avenue of Ashkhabad is lined with palatial hotels -- palatial on the outside, at any rate -- that appear to have everything to do with exalting his glories, and very little to do with actually housing guests, because there aren't any. Any foreigner wishing to marry a Turkmen, according to a decree of Turkmenbashi, must pay a gigantic fee to the state for the privilege.

Some might ask, what's he on, anyway? This is what he's on: Every coin in Turkmenistan. Every stamp. Every billboard. The side of every building. The lips of every teacher. And every cop.

A huge golden statue of Turkmenbashi rotates so that he always faces the sun.

Lest it appear, however, that the ways of Turkmenistan are somehow inevitable in the post-Soviet world, we're pleased to report this item from its big neighbor to the north: The Russian Patent Office has rejected a proposal by a retired man in Chelyabinsk to name a new variety of tomato "Vova Putin," after the schoolboy nickname of the Russian president. Excessively servile, it said.

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