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Let Them Eat Grass

President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has come out with a second volume of his seminal work Medicinal Plants of Turkmenistan, turkmenistan.ru reports. With this new book, Berdymukhamedov, a trained dentist, doctor of medicine and former health minister, seems to combine a message of paternal concern for public health with promotion of native traditions to evoke a sense of national pride.

The first volume, issued last year, boasted of the achievements of Turkmen medicine over the past 14 years since independence and provided a historical sketch of medicinal plants in Turkmenistan as well as information about their biologically-active components.

The appearance of the glossy two-volume set with pictures and recipes for how to prepare medicines out of plants, leaves, grasses and roots -- published in Turkmen, Russian, and English -- raises the question of whether the Turkmen leader is indulging in yet another self-promotion that verges on the sort of cult of personality for which his predecessor, dictator Saparmurat Niyazov, was infamous. Berdymukhamedov has published books on health, the famous Akhal race horses, and a biography of his grandfather, an injured World War II hero.

Niyazov was infamous for inventing and inculcating Ruhnama, a blend of Soviet-style propaganda, ethno-centric historical myths and folk wisdom. The state forcibly inserted Ruhnama into every government and public institution and ceremony, making it a required subject in schools -- and still does -- although its role since the death of Niyazov has been significantly reduced. Because the Turkmen government tried to blend Ruhnama into religious ritual as well, angering Muslim believers by hanging its sayings on mosque walls, people came to hate it.

The plant book might be an example of "smart personality cult," however, in that it taps into deep-rooted traditions of using natural remedies to cure illnesses in a country where state-managed health care has -- and remains-- abysmal.

Over the years, talking to people from Central Asia, I have found that they are big believers in herbal remedies made from such plants as the sea buckthorn, whose crushed orange berries can make salves for burns or supposedly reduce high blood pressure and ease gastrointestinal ailments if crushed or infused as a drink -- as only something that looks like brightly-hued Elmer's Glue-All and tastes like paint thinner can be expected to do.

A young American Peace Corps worker recounts how his Turkmen host family helped cure his cold:

There is a medicinal plant in Turkmenistan, Yuz Älek, a dry stemmy thing with round seed pods, that people use when sick. They light a small tray of it, then bring the smoldering pile through the house. The smoke is supposed to help. I think it is good for a basic cold, but not much good against the flu. Smells nice, though. But since we are all sick, my host mom basically hot-boxed the house with it.

President Berdymukhamedov already seems to have one very avid book fan. Before a conference on disarmament in Central Asia in Ashgabat on June 23, Andrei Denisov, the Russian first deputy minister of foreign affairs, was portrayed as gushing enthusiastically about President Berdymukhamedov's new book, by the State News Agency of Turkmenistan (TDH) :

While discussing Turkmen-Russian relations, Deinsov warmly congratulated the president of Turkmenistan, an academician of the Academy of Science, a doctor of medicine, Professor Berdymukhamedov, with the publication of his second fundamental scientific work, noting the theoretical and practical value of the publication for future development not only of Turkmen, but of world medical science.

Speaking of gas pains, the explanation for the extensive praise seemed evident two days later in Moscow, when Gazprom CEO Aleksei Miller discussed the oft-troubled Russian-Turkmen energy relations at a press conference that drew this headline June 25 from rbc.com:"Gazprom Hopes Contract Terms for Turkmen Gas Won't Be Reviewed."

Thus praise of the plant book seems to be serving the kind of role that Ruhnama did in its day, when Daimler translated it into German to help smooth the way for contracts in Turkmenstan.

Let Them Eat Grass

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