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Nation Building and Personality Cults (Review)

Reviewed item: 

Fabio De Leonardis. 2018.
Nation-Building and Personality Cult in Turkmenistan: The Türkmenbașy Phenomenon
Abingdon and New York: Routledge
ISBN 9781138576834

Fabio De Leonardis had a great idea for a monograph: he proposed a study of the personality cult fostered by President Saparmurat Niyazov in the Central Asian country Turkmenistan from the time that country gained independence to Niyazov’s death in 2006. What set this idea apart from most other studies of the Niyazov cult was De Leonardis’ idea to compare and contrast it with Muammar Qaddafi’s personality cult in Libya. While Turkmen scholars might take offense at their first president’s being compared to Libya’s pariah leader, Turkmenistan is most frequently lumped in with North Korea and so De Leonardis’ approach is refreshing.

If the author had carried through with his idea and produced such a comparison, Routledge would have a unique monograph on its hands. Instead, this short (109 pages) book offers one chapter of light theory, one on Qaddafi in Libya, and two on Niyazov in Turkmenistan. There is a fleeting one paragraph-long conclusion to the book that leaves the reader craving further discussion of how these two leaders were alike and what readers might glean from such a study.

De Leonardis’ first chapter discusses personality cults versus cult of personality, which usually references Stalin, Max Weber’s ‘charisma’ as a leadership quality, and the many rites of rulers. He cites highly appropriate English-language scholarship on these topics, but misses several important English language sources.

While the chapter on Qaddafi (repeatedly spelled Qadhdafi) may be illuminating for non-experts, it is intellectually derivative, as are the chapters on Niyazov. That is, they rely on secondary sources and make no original advancements. This is puzzling since the author spent time as a visiting scholar at the Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies at Stanford University, where he would have had access to a wide variety of scholarship even from Turkmenistan. De Leonardis does warn readers of this approach in his Introduction where he writes that ‘No new data will be provided’ and instead promises to ‘analyze the data from a different perspective’ (p. 6). But, he offers no new perspectives. In the end, there are two scholars to which this work is heavily indebted: Adeeb Khalid and Ahmet Kuru; De Leonardis gives each scholar his due and cites them liberally. The book builds upon Khalid’s many works about Central Asia and takes up his constructivist approach in that it does not take an essentialist view of identity. From Kuru, it borrows the idea of comparing Turkmenistan’s leadership to Qaddafi’s in Libya, both being identified as ‘rentier states’ (p. 3). De Leonardis tells us that ‘Qadhdhafi’s [sic] Libya thus turns out to be a perfect foil to study Niyazov’s Turkmenistan from a comparative perspective’ (p. 4).

So how do these two countries compare? What does this author tell us about leadership or indeed about these two leaders? Both countries suffered a colonial experience and lacked a unitary statehood; the leaders of each country were staunchly nationalistic, challenging the colonial past; each country was home to a society with strong tribal identities; and each of these two leaders wrote a book (Libya’s green, Turkmenistan’s pink) that became a nonnegotiable part of everyday life for their citizens. These publications – Qaddafi’s Green Book and Niyazov’s Ruhnama (Book of the soul) – actually appeared in multiple volumes and dominated the ideology of their respective countries during each leader’s rule. As the sources for slogans that appeared on billboards, in material for textbooks, and in news headlines, these publications and their ubiquitous place in culture and politics were perhaps the most obvious thing these two countries shared. Even more important, however, is the idea that De Leonardis underscores about Qaddafi and fails to note about Niyazov regarding modernity and their leadership. He writes, that Qaddafi ‘acted therefore as a charismatic leader who interpreted the “general will” of his people and led it through the difficult transition from “tradition” to “modernity”’ (p. 28). This idea deserved to be repeated in the chapters about Turkmenistan, and ideally repeated again in a more substantial conclusion to the book.

This book will be appropriate for undergraduates who want to know about Turkmenistan. Graduate students or those more advanced will want to go to the sources that De Leonardis relies on.

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