On Monday, people in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan gathered to celebrate a new 69-foot monument of the country’s president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, ensconced in 24-carat gold leaf and sitting on top of a massive cliff of white marble. The new statue looks a little like the Bronze Horseman, a monument in St. Petersburg that honors Peter the Great.
Or the world's largest car hood ornament, as one Twitter observer wryly noted.
But while the towering monument may come across as a gaudy show of ego to the untrained eye, make no mistake, grasshopper. It's also the ultimate status symbol for the world's strongman leaders.
Yes, some may have armies of black sedans waving little country flags driven by uniformed chauffeurs. Muammar Gaddafi had his female virgin bodyguards. And of course, any isolated leader worth his state-run media outlet will have either lofty or bizarre titles that help convey his role to his countrymen. (Berdymukhamedov is apparently known as Arkadag—“Protector” or "Patron"—as well as the “People’s Horse Breeder.” So there's that.)
But you haven't really achieved true cult-of-personality status unless you have a statue the height of six stories in your capital city.
No one will notice, after all, if your black car with tinted windows is a bit sleeker, or your title a bit more pompous than the rest. A statue, though, that's another thing entirely. If your populace remembers you fondly, that shining monument could be there for centuries. Gold and marble have some serious staying power.
And if you end up being defeated, well then, you at least make news on your way down. Who can forget the iconic, if controversial, images of that famous Saddam Hussein statue being toppled back in 2003? Or the Vladimir Lenin statues brought down by anti-Russian protesters in the Ukraine recently? Hey, even if your sun-facing, gold-leaf likeness remains intact and gets banished to the outskirts of town—as happened with Berdymukhamedov's predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov—you at least get remembered for the iconic symbolism of a passage of power.
And that, after all, is what matters for certain kinds of leaders. When ego and legacy and self-importance are key hallmarks of their personality, what matters is being remembered in a big way: whether it's for what was achieved, or for what wasn't.