Turkmens scrap exam on late leader's holy book

AP News
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Posted: Apr 26, 2011 7:20 AM
Turkmens scrap exam on late leader's holy book

Education authorities in the Central Asian nation of Turkmenistan have abolished the requirement for school-leavers to take an exam on the rambling spiritual guide written by the country's late president.

Students will sit exams in computer science instead of having to memorize passages from the two-volume Rukhnama, or Book of the Soul, in the latest indication that the overwhelming personality cult devoted to former authoritarian leader Saparmurat Niyazov is steadily being dismantled.

It was not yet clear if Rukhnama exams might also be scrapped for those seeking to gain a university place in the energy-rich former Soviet nation.

Turkmenistan's educational standards withered under the arbitrary and authoritarian rule of Niyazov, who died in 2006. He issued a decree in 2004 invalidating all university degrees obtained abroad and made study of the Rukhnama obligatory for students at all levels.

Niyazov ruled Turkmenistan with an iron fist from the 1980s, when the nation still formed part of the Soviet Union.

First issued in 2001, Rukhnama was quickly made the cornerstone of a pervasive state-sponsored ideology based on Niyazov's world view and was described in official publications as the source of universal knowledge.

Critics have less generously described it as an often incoherent anthology of insipid poetry, random philosophical observations and falsified history.

"One passage says the Turkmens were the first to harvest bread, even though there was no such thing as the Turkmen people when that happened," said Farid Tukhbatullin, who heads the Vienna-based Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights.

Tukhbatullin said the erratic nature of the book often forced students to simply learn its contents by heart, at the expense of studying more useful subjects.

"There was simply no logic. At one point there is a bit about how (Niyazov's) father died in the war in Germany and then suddenly it drifts off into an account of ancient myths," he said.

The Rukhnama has been translated into dozens of languages, almost always by foreign companies hoping to tap into the country's burgeoning energy wealth.

Turkmenistan has some of the largest reserves of natural gas in the world and has been actively courted by Western nations, China and Russia.

State workers were formerly obliged to gather for readings from the Rukhnama on Saturdays in specially dedicated rooms incorporated into government buildings. The month of September was renamed Rukhnama. It was changed back in 2008.

Although, the book is still taught for an hour a week in schools, its role its Turkmen society has noticeably waned since Niyazov's successor, Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov, came to power. The annual Rukhnama Day in September was once celebrated with great fanfare, but is now only nominally observed.

Berdymukhamedov has gradually implemented educational reforms in a bid to mitigate Niyazov's excesses. His government has increased basic education to 10 years from nine, and higher education has been extended from two years to five.

Last month, Berdymukhamedov ordered the government to start recognizing foreign educational qualifications, a change in policy that will allow graduates of international universities to get state jobs.

Tukhbatullin said much still needs to be done to overhaul the devastated educational sector and root out the legacy of the Rukhnama.

"School textbooks need to be totally rewritten, maybe with the help of international experts, but at least this is better than nothing," he said.

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Peter Leonard contributed to this report from Almaty, Kazakhstan.