I spent the summer of 2012 in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, working at the office of a local NGO. The country is bordered by Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and Iran, and, in keeping with the local color, is run by a ruthless dictatorship.
In the peak summer months of July and August it is, above all, hot. The sun fries mosquitoes out of the air, and the 110-degree haze keeps the horizon shimmering. When walking on the sidewalk, your thoughts become as hazy as the mirages before you, as if your cerebrospinal fluid has itself evaporated and been replaced by a rippling void.
So, in order to avoid that particular hell, an easy (and cheap by Western standards) way of getting around is by gypsy cab — hitchhiking. I hitchhiked each day from home to work and back, adding up to a total of around three dollars each day for personal transport, air-conditioned to the lukewarm best of Soviet standards, and with each trip came a different driver. They tended to be dressed in the post-Soviet style — tracksuits, denim, and maybe a mullet. Most of these drivers were unemployed and had taken to picking up hitchhikers for cash. “Gotta eat, gotta feed the family,” said one large, bald man in a voice as loud as his tracksuit.
The Turkmen government does not offer them much help. It focuses more on its own image than its people, and as a result, the reigning dictatorship is as repressive as it is zany. The previous leader, Saparmurat Niyazov, or “Turkmenbashi,” (leader of Turkmen) as he liked to be called, famously replaced the names of the days of the week and months of the year with his own name and those of his family members. He forged a national identity out of bubblegum Stalinism with festivals like “melon day” and “wheat day,” while whisking thousands away to interminable prison terms. A particularly dark whim of his led to the closing of all hospitals outside of the capital, because, as he proclaimed, “if people are ill, they can come to Ashgabat!”
Although the people are destitute — the most affluent of the unemployed scrape by on cab fares, while the poorest of the poor get caught in the opium trade with neighboring Afghanistan — the government is incredibly wealthy. And, very much like a rich, obnoxious sixteen year old, the government flaunts their fortune in the faces of everybody around them. The presidential palace, for example, takes up around a fifth of downtown and is larded with gold leaf and precious stones. Ashgabat itself has been largely rebuilt since the Soviet time along the same lines. The Spartan barracks of the proletariat have been demolished and replaced with towers of white marble and bright neon facades. Each government building is shaped after the function it controls, for example the journalism ministry is in the shape of a giant book, and the dentistry ministry looks like a giant tooth. The regime’s excess is literally vaporizing the country’s future — in spite of dwindling water supplies in Central Asia, fountains run constantly in the blistering heat, evaporating one of the country’s most essential resources into the white sun of the desert.
But such waste is a la mode in Ashgabat. In spite of the corruption, heat and bombast (or perhaps because of it), one hero reigns supreme among Ashgabat’s cab drivers — Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Schwarzenegger does not really come up in conversation so much as he attacks from within. Like a verbal Trojan horse, he consumes each topic from a single, unexpected mention. I mentioned that I was American to one cabbie, and received the following reply: “Arnold is a real muzhik.” Muzhik used to refer to worker serfs, and now it refers to the realest of men. I didn’t immediately understand whom he had in mind, so I asked who Arnold was.
“Your Governor. The Terminator.”
The Turkmen whom I met generally considered themselves to be on first name terms with the “Governator.” If the discussion turned towards culture, Arnold’s role in the Terminator movies would slip in. I once commented on the harshness of the desert, only to be told that Conan the Barbarian encountered worse and that Arnold’s California dominion must be similar in heat.
Just as politics gave Schwarzenegger new life in America, the Turkmen perceive Schwarzenegger as, above all, a political animal. In a country ruled by idols for the past 90 years, from Lenin to Stalin to Turkmenbashi, Schwarzenegger-worship is not that ridiculous. The same driver who called him a “real muzhik” applauded him on bribing his way into office. I pointed out that something like this was unlikely to have happened, but the man would have none of it. The issue wasn’t so much that he didn’t believe me, but that power without corruption was inconceivable to him. And for a man made famous by bodybuilding and robot-killing, why would something like an election get in your way?
No single Turkmen I encountered believed me when I told them that Schwarzenegger had left office. Through the crimson-tinted lens of American pop culture, a Schwarzenegger without power is like a Picasso without paint and a Ferrari without fuel. Turkmen leaders do not ask for cooperation or support, but rather, they ask for belief in them as epic men. Arnold does not ask for anything, rather, he speaks and receives. None of this is ideal, but, unlike the Turkmen ruling class, there is no neediness in Arnold’s authoritarianism.
These attempts at authoritarianism lead to a political consciousness that is far distant from what we see stateside. It is not that Turkmen innately want a strong leader — rather, their traditions of power and incidents in history have left them with generations of autocrats constantly undermined by corruption. The government is seen as sluggish and oppressive, with no pretense to serving the average Joe Mukhammedov.
Arnold is the opposite, however. Alternatively a robot ready to kill but programmed to serve, immune to bribery, or a Horatio Alger jacked up on bratwurst and steroids, the “Governator” projects an image of strength that succeeds where the Turkmen government is the weakest: Arnold’s American democratic nature rids him of the faults that have plagued the still-prevailing Turkmen power traditions.
In the 1920s, the Soviets threw out Islam, mocking the old beliefs and replacing them with the new faith in Communism. In the 1990s, Turkmenbashi threw out the Soviet idols and replaced them with himself. Arnold, who plays by the rules of, say, a third-world dictator, capturing the slimy good-will of an American politician, comes off more like a benevolent dictator than any kind of deity. The governed might not always consent to who holds office, and the people of California might have voted Schwarzenegger out of his, but in the cars of Ashgabat he remains immortal.
He’ll be back.
Josh Kovensky is currently a fourth-year undergraduate at the University of Chicago.