Embattled Turkmen Writer Remains Optimistic about the Central Asian Nations Cultural Future
The totalitarian system erected in Turkmenistan by its mercurial leader Saparmurat Niyazov has not been able to crush the creative impulses of the artistic community, the country's most prominent writer, Rahim Esenov, said during an appearance at the Open Society Institute.
In recent years Niyazov has banned ballet and opera and imposed strict control over all forms of mass media, including literature. The top-selling book in the country is the Ruhnama, a guideline for living according to Turkmen values supposedly penned by Niyazov himself. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Turkmen artists and writers espousing independent viewpoints have faced persecution. But the 78-year-old Esenov insisted that the hardships are not prompting many writers to abandon literature.
"I write for the desk drawer," he said. "In Stalin's time, many wrote for the desk drawer. When Stalin died, there was a tremendous blossoming. I believe the same thing will happen in Turkmenistan."
"I believe in the future of literature in Turkmenistan because talent is not dead, talent lives," he continued. "There are many writers now who have even the smallest drop of human dignity and who are thinking about the future and the changes it is going to bring."
During his April 18 talk, sponsored by OSI's Turkmenistan Project, Esenov recounted the story of his own two-year ordeal of government harassment. He had to gain special permission to leave the country and travel to the United States to receive a literary award from the PEN American Center.
Esenov was arrested in February 2004 in connection with an allegedly illegal attempt to smuggle 800 copies of his novel, The Crowned Wanderer, into Turkmenistan. The novel is set in the 16th Century and features a real historical figure, Bayram Khan, a Turkmen poet-philosopher who espoused social and religious tolerance. The work was completed in the mid 1990s, but was banned from publication in Turkmenistan. It was finally published in Russia in 2003.
As soon as the novel appeared in print, Esenov said he began noticing "external surveillance" outside his home. "I was being followed everywhere I went, but I did my best to ignore it," Esenov added. "I was aware that my telephone was being tapped and that my mail was being read."
State security agents interrogated Esenov on several occasions. They were not only interested in his literary activities, they also questioned him about his work as a freelance reporter for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. "Investigators asked me,
EurasiaNet editorial assistant Havilah Hoffman and Alec Appelbaum, a New York-based freelance writer, contributed to this report.