Reason's December special issue marks the 30th anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union. This story is part of our exploration of the global legacy of that evil empire, and our effort to be certain that the dire consequences of communism are not forgotten.
Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov is many things: equestrian, pop star, collector of Guinness World Records, marksman, lifter, poet, race car driver, and brutal authoritarian.
The last role is the most important. But it is also the one about which there is arguably the least information, as Berdimuhamedov's Turkmenistan is one of the most secretive and repressive dictatorships on the planet.
Berdimuhamedov isn't so shy himself. The Turkmen president balances out his harsh governance with flamboyant public displays. In one popular video clip, he "plays" a white guitar clad in a pastel green sweater—though the fog creeping up from below, obscuring his hands, casts doubt on his musical chops. The crowd doesn't seem to mind. In a different video, Berdimuhamedov shoots at targets while his ministers look on with adoration. In another, he triumphantly lifts a thin golden rod above his head, which looks as if it weighs about as much as a fishing pole. He does donuts in his car, writes poetry, and races on golden Akhal-Teke horses, of which he owns nearly 10 percent of the world's population.
Berdimuhamedov has used spectacles like these to curate a bizarre cult of personality around himself. Core to his image is a quest to nab as many Guinness World Records as possible. Since he ascended to Turkmenistan's top office in 2007, the country has clinched quite a few superlatives, including "largest single line bike parade," "largest roof in the shape of a star," and "largest gerbil species."
It's so much lighthearted fun that you might almost forget the country has earned another distinction not recognized by Guinness: the most oppressive of the former Soviet countries, scoring a 2 out of 100 on Freedom House's index. In Turkmenistan, there are essentially no recognized human rights and the economy has no meaningful private sector, with dysfunctional state-run monopolies dominating a country plagued by insufficient access to food, water, and natural gas.
What life is like inside the country is somewhat of a mystery. For those living there, the outside world is even murkier: Internet access is prohibited, foreign travel is restricted, and there is not even a semblance of a free press.
Turkmens are to believe one thing: Berdimuhamedov is their Arkadag ("protector"). That might become a tougher sell if the country's economy continues to implode. Yet Berdimuhamedov's public persona is a reminder of how such cults are cultivated in the first place: If you can't give your country the basics, you have to give them a show.