ASHGABAT – KYIV — For the first time Ukraine has become an honorary guest of the exhibit in Ashgabat. Of all 30 countries that took part in the exhibit, the Ukrainian national exposition, created by the State Committee for Radio and Television, was the largest. Over 500 books published within the framework of the state program “Ukrainian Book” were on display in the center of the Exhibit Palace, as were the books which won the national competition “Ukraine’s Best Book.” The photo album of the newspaper Den also took an honorary place in the exposition.
The Ashgabat book exhibit, as well as Turkmenistan on the whole, had a specific coloring. Both Turkmenistan and foreign expositions should be decorated with portraits of Turkmenistan’s president (Belarusians brought a photo from the embassy where Aleksandr Lukashenko is shaking hands with Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, Russians hung their president’s photo next to the portrait of Turkmenistan’s president, Ukraine followed their example).
There are few places in the world where the exhibit’s expenses are covered by the hosting side, including the costly air tickets, luggage and visa charges. Neither is it common when the dinner ceremony to mark the opening and closing of the exhibit starts and finishes with a prayer for the president’s health and the country’s prosperity. And surely you will find no place in the world where late in the evening the country’s head of parliament and vice prime minister would bustle around the expositions on the eve of the exhibit. Two nice-looking women, wearing floor-length dresses, decorated with national ornaments at the neckline, were the first to meet us in the exhibit palace when we came there from the airport. They said, “It is so good you have come. Were there any problems with your luggage?” It turned out that those smiling women were the chairperson of Turkmenistan’s Mejlis (parliament) Akja Nuberdiyeva and Deputy Prime Minister for Education and Information Maisa Yazmukhamedova.
The Turkmen know about Ukrainian books and the possibilities of the Ukrainian publishers not just from rumors. For example, until recently the office of the previous president, the so-called Turkmenbashi [Head of all Turkmen, a self-given title of the former president. – Ed.], has been decorated with a huge relief map of Turkmenistan, made by the Ukrainian state publishing company Kartohrafia. Moreover, nearly 80 percent of the printing experts in Turkmenistan are graduates of the Ukrainian Printing Academy. Back in Soviet Times Turkmenistan did not have any higher educational institution that specialized in printing, so its students were sent to master Ivan Fedorov’s craft in Lviv.
“At present time over 4,000 Turkmen boys and girls are studying at Ukrainian higher education institutions, with nearly 400 of them being students of the Ukrainian Printing Academy,” the head of the state publishing service of Turkmenistan Gizylgul Nurgeldiyeva said.
Incidentally, Nurgeldiyeva also graduated from the Ukrainian Printing Academy in the 1980s. For the most part, her fellows at the state publishing service also have diplomas from Ukrainian educational institutions.
Ukraine’s national exposition, as well as the stand of the Ukrainian Printing Academy, became a meeting place for those who studied in Ukraine and those whose destiny was somehow linked with Ukraine. They wanted to hear the Ukrainian language and hold Ukrainian books in their hands.
SOLO OF AN HONORARY GUEST
Ukraine, an honorary guest, fulfilled the expectations of the exhibit’s hosts. Its exposition turned out to be the richest one, full of variegated literature, which overcame barriers and found many admirers.
No less interesting was the program of Ukraine’s events. Turkmen writers also took part in numerous presentations of the Ukrainian publishing houses, like Lybid, Mystetstvo, Hrani-T, Naukova dumka etc. They wanted to learn about the new works and publications of their Ukrainian fellows, with whom they were once in a single union.
The Turkmen poet Kurbaniyaz Dashginov approached the Ukrainian stand with a collection of poems by Ivan Drach presented to him by the author in 1986 with an autograph: “May the kind and sunny center of poetry always accompany you. From the bottom of my heart. Ivan Drach.” The Ukrainian poet made this inscription for his Turkmen fellow during a rest in the house of litterateurs in Pitsunda. In his time Dashginov translated Pavlo Movchan’s poems into Turkmen. He dreamed to translate Drach’s poems as well. In Ukraine Dashginov’s poems have been included in the collection of Turkmen poets’ works Green Sand Dunes published in the mid-1980s by the Dnipro Publishing House. The Ukrainian publishers presented Dashginov with Drach’s collection of poetry, published last year by the Lybid Publishing House.
“The Turkmen-Ukrainian friendship has a long tradition,” the head of the Book Chamber of Turkmenistan Agageldy Allanazarov explained, “Once all Turkmen studied Taras Shevchenko’s poems in Turkmen at school. While in exile, Shevchenko resided for some time with Turkmen. In one of his letters he told how he fell asleep in the steppe and when he woke up in the morning he saw ‘traces of Turkmen children.’ If he only knew that the descendants of those Turkmen children, whose traces he saw, would read his poems in Turkmen.”
Incidentally, there is a monument to Shevchenko in Turkmenistan’s capital. It was unveiled in 1926. It was destroyed in 1948 by an earthquake and was restored in 1972. In September 2009, with the assistance of the Ukrainian embassy and the Ashgabat Municipality, the monument was reconstructed and moved to a more convenient place. On one of The Days of their stay in Turkmenistan the Ukrainian publishers and the employees of the Ukrainian embassy visited the monument to the Kobzar and laid flowers to its pedestal.
In Ashgabat Ukrainians held a presentation of a collection of poems by the classic of the Turkmen literature Magtymguly Pyragy, published in Ukrainian by the Prosvita Publishing Center. The translation was done by the Shevchenko Prize winner Pavlo Movchan. The head of the Ukrainian delegation, head of the department of publishing and press at the State Committee of Television and Radio Valentyna Babiliulko presented this publication to the Turkmen government, she also handed over an artistic photo, featuring the Magtymguly Monument in Kyiv.
“The presence of Ukrainian publishers and Ukrainian books has shown once again that Ukraine is a great state in terms of culture. This is how the country is perceived in Turkmenistan,” the Ambassador of Ukraine to Turkmenistan Valentyn Shevaliov summarized the results of Ukraine’s participation in the Ashgabat book exhibit.
ON PECULIARITIES OF TURKMEN PUBLISHING
However, right now Turkmenistan can hardly be called a book capital of the East. And the expression of the incumbent President of the country Berdymukhammedov that a Turkmen can sell a camel for a book should be perceived as a beautiful metaphor, which unfortunately has nothing in common with reality. For several years in succession only one book has been published and spread in every Turkmen house — Ruhnama (The Book of the Soul) by Saparmurat Niyazov [the late president, known as Turkmenbashi. – Ed.], which contains everything, including the oath of a true Turkmen, the list of attributes of the Turkmen’s spiritual world, and a description of the nation’s history. It is rumored that this book has been published in all countries dreaming of Turkmen gas. A monument to this book has been built in Ashgabat.
Now the bookshelves of Turkmen publishing houses have other books too. They are published under the authorship of the incumbent president of the country. Those include A Book about Healthy Food, Medicinal Herbs of Turkmenistan (the president is a dentist by profession), and also Akhaltekin Horse is Our Pride and Joy (about a Turkmen breed of horses). Gift versions of these books have covers made of natural leather and are adorned with Swarowski crystals.
The state publishing houses issue big press runs of books dedicated to their president’s biography. The main department of archives at the country’s Cabinet of Ministers even contains the president’s archives. Sixteen scholars of this state institution collect data about him in the archives and publish them in separate volumes.
Compared to these luxurious publications, children’s books appear quite thin. There is practically no modern Turkmenistan literature. Certain efforts are made to improve the situation: the president is restoring libraries, which were closed by his predecessor. According to the Turkmen mass media, their number has risen from 89 to 230. But their replenishment remains a problem: back in 2001 the country moved from the Cyrillic alphabet to a Latin one. Books of classical and popular literature have not been republished in the Latin alphabet, so a vast number of literary works, popular science and journalist works published before 2001 remain in the archives and the new generation of Turkmen have no access to them.
But these phenomena seem to be temporary. The country, to which the business elite of the world is lining up, which invests billions in its education and culture (the mere construction of a Carpet Museum set the budget back 4.5 million dollars), the country whose population does not pay for electricity and gas, can afford to publish books. And the fact that the new government has undertaken a policy of educating the nation gives hope that another book capital will appear on the publishing map.