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word stan found in Turkmenistan and other nearby countries comes from the
Persian meaning "country" or "place of." So the name Turkmenistan
means "place of the Turkmen," who are the Turkic people that make up the
majority of people living in Turkmenistan.
Life in Turkmenistan may seem odd to an outsider. The country, like many of its
neighbors, has been trying to re-discover its culture and way of life since independence
from the Soviet Union in 1991. This process has taken much larger and quicker strides
in Turkmenistan than it has in any of the other Central Asian countries, primarily
due to the people's mentality and their former president, Saparmurat Niyazov.
The earliest growth in Turkmenistan came with the ancients, including Alexander
the Great and later the Silk Road trade route, which passed through the country.
These outside influences helped introduce the people to new foods and people as
some cities grew in importance and the region as a whole gained greater and greater
wealth. Of these many outside influences though, the most lasting was the introduction
of Islam by the Arabs in about the 700s.
Despite the outside influences, water routes later dominated trade and the Silk
Road, hence the region of Turkmenistan, fell into the realm of the forgotten. The
people lived a quiet life as they were primarily settled farmers and city-dwellers
who lived off of the land and the animals that they raised.
In the late 1800s the Russians took most of the land and in the early 1900s the
Soviets took over. This takeover changed the people once again as religion was outlawed,
urbanization was essentially demanded, and industrial growth expanded dramatically.
The Soviets also limited free speech and access to information, leading to a lifestyle
not unlike that demanded by the Soviet government.
Since the fall of communism in 1991 the people of Turkmenistan have been re-thinking
their way of life and that began with their former president, Saparmurat Niyazov,
who named himself "Turkmenbashi," which means "Leader of the Turkmen."
As a country struggling to find their identity due to years of suppression and foreign
rule, Niyazov led the way in this fight, creating laws to define the way of life
or making not so subtle suggestions that the people felt compelled to follow.
Niyazov used his control over the press and the people's mentality of never
speaking out against the government in order to define their culture and he did
so until his death. He dictated how men and women should dress, how they should
act, and even what they should like. He made himself and Islam central to the culture,
but also preached openness, neutrality, and happiness as essential to being a Turkmen.
Despite Niyazov's death, the people still have a tendency to follow leadership
without question. The cultural norms Niyazov introduced are still followed for the
most part and today the culture is not unlike that which Niyazov defined.
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