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Turkmenistan, The People of Turkmenistan

fatal time, Amu Darya, Turkmen language, Tekke, Great Purge

Turkmenistan is the least populated of the five former Soviet republics in Central Asia. In 2002 the country had an estimated population of about 4,688,963, giving it an average population density of 10 persons per sq km (25 per sq mi). Settlement is concentrated along rivers, canals, and other oases; the Garagum desert and the mountains are sparsely populated. Some 45 percent of Turkmenistanís population lives in urban areas. Ashgabat, the capital, is located on the Garagum Canal in south central Turkmenistan. Other large cities are Charjew, located on the Amu Darya in the east, and Dashowuz, located in the north.

With Turkmens constituting 77 percent of the population, Turkmenistan is the most ethnically homogeneous of the Central Asian republics. Russians constitute 7 percent of the population, and since 1993 they have held dual Turkmen-Russian citizenship. Uzbeks constitute about 9 percent of the population. Other ethnic groups include Kazakhs, Tatars, Ukrainians, Azerbaijanis, and Armenians. In contrast to most of the other former Soviet republics, Turkmenistan has not experienced a massive emigration of minorities since independence. This is primarily because there is no fervent nationalism among the Turkmen majority. Instead, Turkmens have retained centuries-old tribal allegiances that are stronger than their sense of nationhood, and tribal-based hostilities are far more pronounced than interethnic tensions. To date no tribal unrest has developed against the government, which has carefully avoided obvious favoritism toward any one tribe and generally worked to suppress tribal identification. The three largest Turkmen tribes are the Tekke in the central part of the country, the Ersary in the southeast, and the Yomud in the west.

The official language of Turkmenistan is Turkmen, a language belonging to the Southern Turkic (or Oghuz) branch of Turkic languages. Under decree by the Soviet government, the traditional Arabic script of the Turkmen language was replaced in 1929 by a modified Latin (Roman) script. The Latin script was in turn replaced in 1940 by a modified Cyrillic script (the script of the Russian language). Turkmen was made the official language of the Turkmen SSR in 1990. In the early 1990s the government of an independent Turkmenistan announced that the country would make a gradual return to the Latin script. Russian is also spoken in Turkmenistan, mainly by the Russian minority; only about 25 percent of the Turkmen population are fluent in Russian. Under Turkmenistanís 1992 constitution, Russian lost its official status as the language of interethnic communication (a status it had held since 1990).

The predominant religion in Turkmenistan is Islam, which was introduced in the area by Arab invaders in the 7th and 8th centuries. Turkmens and other Central Asian peoples are traditionally Sunni Muslims of the Hanafi school. The officially atheistic Communist regime of the Soviet period sought to suppress religion in general, but Islam especially, because of its potential for creating coherent resistance to Soviet rule. Since Turkmenistan gained independence in 1991, many Turkmens and other Central Asians have revived their Islamic heritage. Today, Sunni Muslims account for about 85 percent of Turkmenistanís population. Sufism, or Islamic mysticism, is also prevalent in the republic. Some of the countryís ethnic minoritiesónotably Russians, Ukrainians, and Armeniansóare Eastern Orthodox Christians. The Azerbaijani minority stands alone as Turkmenistanís only Shia Muslim community.

Turkmenistan has a literacy rate of 99.7 percent, a holdover from the Soviet period when the government implemented a system of universal and tuition-free education. Under the Soviets, education was the primary mode of Communist indoctrination. Reforms implemented since the late 1980s, and especially since independence, have provided for changes in curricula and teaching materials. Education is compulsory in Turkmenistan until the age of 14. Most students also complete secondary school, which lasts until the age of 17. Turkmen State University (founded in 1950), located in Ashgabat, is the countryís largest university. Turkmenistan also has a number of specialized institutes that train students for careers in agriculture, economics, medicine, and fine arts.

The Turkmens have an oral literary tradition that dates from ancient times. The oral epics are sung to this day by revered poets and composers called bakhshi. Written Turkmen literature dates most notably from the 18th century, when poet Makhdumquli Azadi-oghli Pyraghy produced poems held in high esteem by the Turkmens. His poetry pioneered a somber motif known as akhir zamana (fatal time), which expresses the misery caused by intertribal wars and attacks by foreign armies. At about the time of the Russian Revolution of 1917 a reformist-nationalist literary movement emerged among the Turkmens. Among the intellectuals who led this movement were Abdulhakim Qulmuhammad-oghli and Berdi Kerbabay-oghli. Qulmuhammad-oghli organized a literary society of Turkmen writers. Many of these intellectuals became prominent figures in the local Communist party after Turkmenistan became part of the Soviet Union in the 1920s. During the Great Purge of the 1930s, however, the Soviet regime summarily imprisoned and executed the Turkmen intelligentsia, including Qulmuhammad-oghli, ostensibly because they expressed nationalist ideas. Kerbabay-oghli survived the purges and went on to achieve recognition for his writings, which include the novel Nebit-Dag (published in 1957). The regime did not tolerate literary dissent throughout most of the Soviet period. Turkmen poet Annasultan Kekilova, for example, was locked away in a mental asylum in 1971 for daring to criticize local party officials in her poetry.

Folk arts are an important part Turkmenistanís cultural heritage. Turkmens are especially renowned for their expertise in traditional rug-weaving techniques. Museums in the republic include the Turkmen State Museum of Fine Arts and the National Museum of History and Ethnography of Turkmenistan, both located in Ashgabat.

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