Traditionally, early elementary education focused on three academic tentpoles, known (somewhat ironically) as the “three Rs” — reading, writing, and arithmetic. While the “three Rs” term dates back to the early to mid 1800s and have been the topic of much debate in academic circles, the subjects involved are still the core academic areas focused on in Kindergarten and beyond.
In Turkmenistan, though, there’s a fourth R — the Ruhnama.
In late 1991, as the Soviet Union fell and disintegrated into independent nations, Turkmenistan’s leader Saparmurat Niyazov, remained in power to manage the transistion. A hard-line Soviet, Niyazov won re-election (unopposed) in 1992 and proposed a ten year plan for the new country; in 1994, his term was extended through 2002 by referrendum — with 99.9% of voters supporting the ballot measure (which more likely signifies the iron fist with which Niyazov ruled, rather than his true popularity). By the close of 1999, the Turkenistan parliament extended Niyazov’s tenure even further, declaring him “President for Life,” i.e., the nation’s dictator.
Being a dictator, Niyazov’s vanity shone through, as the leader built a cult of personality throughout the nation. Most notably, in 1998, at the cost of roughly $12 million, he built a 250 foot tall arch topped by a 40 foot gold statute of himself (seen here) which rotated 360 degrees — so that the statue always faced toward the sun. And in 2002, he renamed the months of the year to reflect key terms in his magnum opus, a treatise called the Ruhnama.
The Ruhnama — or the “Book of the Soul” — was designed to be the cultural touchstone around which Turkmenistan’s society is based. It was authored by Niyazov (with a ghostwriter, most likely, as Niyazov was rumored to be effectively illiterate) and slowly permeated the everyday lives of the populace. Bookstores, government agencies, and even mosques were required to display the book prominently — the mosques were required to make the Ruhnama no less prominant than the Quran, upon penalty of demolition of the mosque or imprisonment of the imam. An exam focused on its “teachings” — the book is said to be a mix of revisionist history and other dubious items — became part of the test one took to obtain a driver’s license. The book was so important to Niyazov’s rule that he built a shrine to the book, pictured above.
And the Ruhnama became part and parcel of primary education as well — in 2004, the government began phasing out courses in algebra, physics, and other subjects and replaced them with memorization of the Ruhnama’s text. But do not think Niyazov was being selfish here: in 2006, he told his people that God had appeared to him and told him that anyone who read the Ruhnama at least three times was guaranteed a spot in heaven. (A good thing he didn’t wait – Niyazov died later that year.)
Those interested can read the Ruhnama (translated to English) here. Caveat lector: we make no such guarantees as to the eternal rewards due to you after your third reading of it.
Bonus fact: Niyazov’s eccentricities knew no bounds. During his rule, he banned car radios, video games, beards, ballet, the opera, facial hair, long hair (for both men and women), and did not allow news anchors to wear makeup. But all of those are tame compared to one ban: even though he wanted everyone to read the Ruhnama (thrice, at least), he shuttered all the libraries outside of the capital city, believing that the people were illterate and unable to make use of them anyway.
From the Archives: Eternal Flame Pit: There’s been a fire raging in Turkmenistan for a few decades now. Yes, decades.
Related: “Moscow, December 25, 1991: The Last Day of the Soviet Union” by Conor O’Clery. Five stars on five reviews, available on Kindle.