In just over a decade as independent states, the various former Soviet republics have gone their separate ways so fast and so far that it's hard to believe they were once parts of the same empire.
Under Communist rule, all the constituent republics, from the Baltics to Central Asia, worked according to economic plans drafted for them in Moscow. They were governed by the same Communist nomenklatura, brainwashed with the same ideological tools, had the same school curriculum and the same schoolbooks and watched the same daily TV news at 9 p.m. -- with the secretary general of the Soviet Communist Party as the central newsmaker.
Today the three Baltic states are about to join NATO. Russia is relatively democratic. And the Central Asian state of Turkmenistan, a former Soviet republic, is a totalitarian autocracy of Orwellian -- or Stalinist -- dimensions.
Turkmen President Saparmurad Niyazov, who has assumed the title of Turkmenbashi ("The Father of All Turkmen"), apparently regards himself as complete master not only of his people but also of the universe. He has renamed streets, city districts, a town, a canal and countless schools and hospitals in honor of himself. He has also given new names to three months and to six days of the week. He has closed down the Turkmen opera and ballet theater, deeming these arts to be alien to Turkmen culture. His list of achievements even includes the reinvention of human age: Youth in Turkmenistan now extends through 37, and at 61 one enters "spiritual greatness" (Niyazov is 62), which lasts for 12 years. Old age begins at 85. The Father of All Turkmen has granted his nation a "spiritual code of conduct," which he compares to the Bible and Koran. Living by this code is a moral duty of all Turkmen. Learning it is mandatory in Turkmen schools.
When a ruler assumes divine powers and undertakes to shape his own reality by giving new names to the basic elements of life, it's not long before he sets out to reshape his people as well -- an ambition that invariably results in ferocious repression. Unfortunate nations -- such as the Soviet Union and North Korea -- have learned this from experience. The lucky ones that have never been subjected to such megalomaniac experiments find it hard to see what is so obvious to us: The leader who has taken to writing epics or inventing his own philosophy of time and space is a mortal danger to his people.
In today's Russia it's not uncommon to hear people say, "It's like the year '37" -- the time when Joseph Stalin's terror killed millions of Soviet citizens. But it's only a metaphor. Vladimir Putin's Kremlin may be obsessed with taking control of political life in Russia, but fortunately it's far from succeeding. There is no fear of the state in post-Communist Russia.
In Turkmenistan, however, "the year '37" is more than metaphor. It has elements of chilling reality. Niyazov has built a brutal and isolationist totalitarian regime in his country. Any trace of political opposition has been eradicated. Torture, lawless arrests and disappearances of people are common. A free press does not exist (the Russian print media were recently barred from Turkmenistan). Internet access is strictly limited.
In late November 2002 it was reported that there had been an attempt on Niyazov's life. It proved to be a bizarre, and apparently staged, assassination scheme in which several men with automatic weapons tried to take aim at Niyazov's motorcade. Niyazov was unhurt. The evildoers were arrested.
Of course, assassinations have been repeatedly used by a variety of rulers as a pretext for campaigns of terror. One of the most well known is the murder of Leningrad Communist leader Sergei Kirov in 1934. After that killing, Stalin launched a massive extermination of much of the Communist elite, as well as of great numbers of rank-and-file Soviet people. The terror was effectively enhanced by show trials.
The aftermath of the purported attempt on Niyazov's life looks a bit like "Turkmen '37." The Father of All Turkmen promptly named the perpetrators of the hideous crime. The plotters, the nation was informed, included several high-ranking officials who had dared criticize Niyazov's regime.
Some had sensed the danger and defected, among them former foreign minister Boris Shikhmuradov. But according to some accounts, Shikhmuradov came back when he learned that his family had been arrested. A short time later he was seen making a confession on Turkmen television, looking blank-faced and speaking in an eerily even voice -- possibly the result of torture or drugs or both.
Television has lent the affair an immediacy not available to those who conducted Stalin's show trials. Shortly after Shikhmuradov's confessions, scenes of public wrath were also televised. One after one, Turkmen people have appeared on the screen demanding that the traitors be killed. They plead that the criminals be given to them so they can kill them with their own hands.
The trials were conducted quickly. Within two months of the alleged assassination attempt, 46 people had been convicted as plotters, with more to come. Shikhmuradov and several others were sentenced to life. About a month later, Niyazov placed strict limits on travel abroad.
Little concern has been raised in the world over the Turkmen show trials. In Russian intellectual circles, people shudder at the news coming from Turkmenistan, yet some admit to a perverse satisfaction: By comparison with Turkmenbashi's regime, Russia looks like an ideal democracy.
The Russian government is far too pragmatic these days to antagonize Turkmenistan's dictator and thereby threaten its ties with a country rich in natural gas. But Russia is not alone in showing indifference to the plight of Turkmen people. Since Sept. 11, 2001, interest in human rights has subsided dramatically. Except for human rights organizations, the world has expressed hardly any concern over Niyazov's regime. With Saddam Hussein picked by the United States as the epitome of evil, other villainous leaders can kill and torture their citizens undisturbed.
The writer, deputy editor of the Russian newsmagazine Ezhenedel'ny Zhurnal, writes a monthly column for The Post.