August 13, 2020

One of the things loser Bolsheviks did to console themselves as they hid out in exile was to perpetuate the myth that Stalin was a dull mediocrity. Trotsky was particularly scathing about Stalin’s record as a theorist. Whatever gets you through the night, I suppose — until there are no more nights, because you’ve got an ice pick in your brain.

Still, despite the fact that Stalin was a) obviously clever and b) highly successful as far as evil despots go, the idea that he was some kind of grey nonentity persisted for decades. And I think that we still have a habit of belittling tyrants and authoritarians. It makes us feel better whenever they run circles around us at some geopolitical game or other, which is quite often these days.

Take Putin, for instance. When he was first elected, a lot of coverage focused on this bland, faceless nonentity, an ex-KGB officer of middling rank leading a decrepit ex-superpower. They kept that up for a while, then switched to mocking him for posing shirtless. Next thing you know, he’s annexed the Crimea. Similarly, Gaddafi was barely coherent, yet he was pretty good at charming Blair and Mandelson — and might still be up waving his golden gun about if we hadn’t gone and dropped a pile of bombs on Libya.

Being a dictator is a difficult job, then, and those who succeed at it should not be underestimated. There is more going on behind those dead eyes than we think, even when they seem unhinged, weird or boring. Yet there is perhaps one exception, a dictator so profoundly mediocre that it would be difficult to underestimate him: Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, the leader of the ex-Soviet republic of Turkmenistan. Recently turned 63, he is a man without qualities, and even, it seems, a bit dim. However, 13 years into his reign he remains firmly in power. So how has he achieved this feat, and what can we learn from it?

Berdymukhamedov came to power in 2007, after his corpulent, megalomaniacal predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov, dropped dead of a heart attack. Niyazov, a.k.a Turkmenbashi (“father of all Turkmen”) had become famous due to his extravagant personality cult. He literally renamed the month of January after himself, and renamed bread after his mother, while also authoring a truly atrocious “holy book” that he called The Ruhnama, or “book of the soul”.

That level of totalitarian excess is quite rare, and so it seemed that the Turkmen were due a break. Surely it was time for a normal dictator, less given to erecting gold statues of himself that rotated to face the sun?

At first Berdymukhamedov was very dull. A former dentist who had risen to the position of deputy prime minister, he was made interim president when Niyazov went to his eternal reward. This was in defiance of the constitution — the job should have gone to the speaker of parliament — so perhaps some powerful forces thought he would prove to be malleable. And Berdymukhamedov was cautious at first, making only vague statements about change, while adding that the country would walk rather than run.

Definitely a bit dull, then, and perhaps in more ways than one. Months later, I interviewed some Turkmen emigres in Moscow, and one of them said this to me:

“The new president? I know someone who studied at the medical school where he was the principal. They said he was an idiot. And that the teachers said it openly, about him, and to his face — you’re an idiot, an idiot. What can we hope for from him?”

At the time I thought this was an exaggeration; emigres can be pretty bitter about the countries they have left behind, especially when they are repressive dictatorships. But as the years rolled by, and Berdymukhamedov grew more comfortable in his new job and started to adapt the structures his predecessor had left in place to his own use, well, I started to wonder.

Berdymukhamedov’s cult was strikingly derivative and pedestrian. Niyazov was “Father of All Turkmen”; Berdymukhamedov was “protector”. Niyazov was leading Turkmenistan into the “golden age”; Berdymukhamedov was spearheading the “renaissance”. Clearly, he did not have too many ideas. And nowhere was that more obvious than in the books that he put his name to.

While Niyazov’s cult was grotesque and obscene, it was, at least, ambitious. Similarly, The Ruhnama was terrible, but its author at least knew what ought to be in such a book — history, myth, moral teachings, God, the people and his own personal story. Berdymukhamedov’s books were a lot less complicated. One of the emigres had predicted to me that since he was a medical professional his book would follow that theme — and sure enough, a series on the Turkmen herbal remedies appeared under his name. With that out of the way, he cast around for other themes, but he didn’t cast far. Turkmen were famous horse riders, so there was a book about horses. Then he produced a book about his dad. Running low on national motifs, he eventually put his name to a tome about drinking tea. The books were strikingly literal, strikingly pointless, oblivious to their own bathos. They were unselfconscious and kinda dumb. Here was a dictator with no depth at all.

Don’t just take my word for it. In 2010, Wikileaks published diplomatic cables from a US diplomat who, after referring to the Turkmen president as a “practiced liar” and “micromanager” made this memorable observation: “Berdymukhamedov does not like people who are smarter than he is. Since he’s not a very bright guy, our source offered, he is suspicious of a lot of people.”

This lack of sophistication gives Berdymukhamedov’s propaganda an impressively transparent quality. Classic cults of personality, like those of Stalin or Mao, usually serve to efface the characteristics of the leader, who is always a universal genius and superlative leader. Even Niyazov, who built his own traumatic childhood into the cult, remained a remote, aloof figure.

Berdymukhamedov, however, is a simple sort. He enjoys his hobbies and they are reflected in the cult. He likes horses and racing cars and shooting guns and fishing and is often filmed engaged in one of these pastimes. But most of all, it seems, he likes playing music and singing. He isn’t the first musical dictator — Kim Jong-il wrote opera librettos, while Stalin was a decent tenor who liked to sing Georgian folk songs, though only for the inner circle. But Berdymukhamedov is surely the first dictator DJ, the first dictator to bust a rhyme in public, and also the first dictator to serenade his people on New Year’s Eve.

His musical oeuvre is quite broad. In 2015 Berdymukhamedov entered the Guinness Book of Records when over 4,000 of his adoring subjects (no pressure) joined him in singing a Eurodisco number he had written himself. Berdymukhamedov enjoyed the experience and he has since performed in public many times, though without so large an ensemble to share the spotlight.

On International Women’s Day, he serenaded the ladies (and some gents) with a cover version of Karakum, a Soviet rock song about the Turkmen desert. More recently, he laid some beats on the populace during Turkmenistan’s televised 2019 New Year’s Eve celebration. He has also been filmed demonstrating to soldiers how to play guitar, though often the camera mysteriously cuts away from his face whenever it comes to difficult bit.

My favorite performances, however, are his duets with his beloved grandson Kerimguly. The themes are powerful and moving: in one song, the intergenerational duo hymn the praises of his favourite horse, while in another Kerimguly sings in English while his grandpa delivers a rap dedicated to the glory of the nation. Indeed, Kerimguly appears to be getting a mini-cult of his own. Opposition sites report that he appears on TV more often than his father, Berdymukhamedov’s only son; a state news website reports that he recently won the “Golden Age” artistic award and received a gold chain and some cash.

So clumsy and naïve is Berdymukhamedov’s cult that it serves as a particularly potent reminder of Anthony Daniels’ famous observation that the purpose of propaganda is “not to persuade, much less to inform, but to humiliate”. But while Turkmen citizens, condemned to live in a repressive police state run by a dullard, have little choice but to play along with Berdymukhamedov’s fantasy image of himself, the truly impressive thing is the way in which the president sometimes succeeds in getting foreign diplomats and organisations to abase themselves before him.

For instance, the regime’s response to the coronavirus pandemic is extremely stupid, even by Berdymukhamedov’s standards. The authorities deny that Turkmenistan has any Covid-19 cases but say that there might be a problem with “dust” — and so insist that everybody wear masks and gloves and practice social distancing. Apparently there’s quite a lot of dust about. And also “pneumonia”.

The mendacity, goading in its transparency, is almost impressive. But it isn’t, not really; rather it’s ridiculous, worthy of contempt. Yet Eurasianet reports that the British ambassador, after tweeting a selfie of himself wearing a face mask and urging others to do the same subsequently denied in a Twitter exchange that he was implying that Turkmenistan had the virus. Instead he urged people to “pay attention to the findings of WHO and Turkmen government experts, who are the experts here”. That’ll be the same WHO that recently sent a delegation to the country, praised the government for its high level of preparedness, didn’t say whether Covid-19 was on the loose, but then advised the Turkmen authorities to act “as if” the virus was circulating and adopt the standard protective measures.

Thus Berdymukhamedov, despite being a “not very bright guy” gets away with it.

Sometimes, when I read about evil regimes and go looking for small consolations, I remind myself that it is not, in the end, all that enjoyable to be a dictator. Yes, you have a lot of power, but the trade-off is isolation, paranoia, a loss of humanity and a life spent looking over your shoulder. As far as punishments go, it never fits the crime, but it’s something. Yet when I look at Berdymukhamedov, I just don’t see a whole lot of angst there. Maybe he’s worried about the economy; maybe, deep down, he’s a bit nervous about Covid-19. But he long ago started to believe in his own luck and looks as though he’s enjoying himself a lot of the time.

The only comparison I can think of for dictatorial ebullience is the footage of Kim Jong-il from years ago, when he managed to get Bill Clinton to come to North Korea and eat a shit sandwich in exchange for the release of some American journalists. Kim was really enjoying himself that day; but that was a very complicated pleasure to arrange. All Berdymukhamedov has to do to feel good about himself is call up Kerimguly and sing a few songs for the cameras and he’s happy as Larry. Not quite stupid enough to mess up the repression machine he inherited from Niyazov and his Soviet predecessors, Berdymukhamedov carries on dictating with a song in his heart, and — as often as not — on his lips too.