Reviews

This work is the compilation of two master’s essays, the one in development studies and the other one in geography. It tells the history of the city of Ashgabat, shaped by Soviet town planning, reconstructed after the earthquake of 1948, remodelled still after 1991, and raises diverse issues of urban management, in particular the case of the management of water. The book presents two major interests: On the first hand it is the fruit of a geographical reflection on town planning conceived as a tool for propaganda (on think of the cathedral of Saint Pierre of Yamoussoukro, a replica of that of Rome, in bigger size, promoted as a symbol of President Houphouët-Boigny’s Christian identity, as well as of the transfer of the capital to its village transformed into a city for civil servants, though such means and methods can be compared too with the “walls of peace” conceived as means for lessening tensions from Belfast to Baghdad). On the other hand the authors offer a rich and original scientific analysis on Niyazov’s Turkmenistan, permitting the readers to enter directly the daily reality of the capital’s inhabitants subjected to the dictator’s fancies and to the invading cult of his personality.

This urban monograph is divided into 3 parts reconstructing the various periods during which the city has been transformed into a “Stalinist Disneyland (p. 86).” The first part recounts the impacts of Russian dominance upon the Turkmen capital. In the light of hardly accessible sources from Turkmenistan, the authors have been putting in perspective the evolutions of the city since its very foundation (tackling the issue of the choice of a site) through the prism of the socialist principles of city-planning. This chapter notably shows how Ashgabat has gradually changed its status “from a Turkmen military camp to a Soviet city (p. 30).” The analysis of the planned city is based on an original study in urban geography that introduces the specific application of the Soviet city-planning principles to a Central Asian city. We notably discover how the Soviet power has been using reconstruction after the earthquake of 1948 as a means to set up an “ideological pride (45).” The second part, “The City of a Single Man,” plunges us into the immoderation of Turkmenbashy as a city-planner (73 ff.). In the light of the more and more dictatorial exercise of power by Saparmurat Niyazov, the authors show how the latter has been making use of the capital as a means for propaganda, as much towards Turkmen populations as for the outside, Ashgabat being made in the image of the dictator. The authors bring the reader to observe the transformation of the city’s plan, and the progressive desertion of the centre, which has been emptied of its populations for making room to gigantic buildings in the glory of the president. There, the establishment of a multitude of geo-symbols (93, 102-3) has been contributing to the construction of a mythology around the leader’s family story, around the latter’s role in the history of the country, around its place in the construction of a Turkmen identity. As for the populations, they have been repulsed towards the city’s suburbs in dramatic conditions of insalubrity and impoverishment, whereas the city centre was becoming more and more the place of a disproportionate splendour. The third part ends up with considerations on “a capital with an enclosed functioning (137).” The analysis of the use of water is particularly enlightening: whereas gigantic fountains work at every hour and every day in a desert milieu, the rest of the city is not furnished with water (171 ff.). The city’s population growth is another major challenge, whilst the only new constructions sites are those of the city centre reserved for the president and his cronies, a geo-symbol of a power offered for contemplation to the rare foreign guests authorised to enter the country (149). Naturally, the visits of industrialists, politicians and diplomats are limited to this centre entirely planned for making a questionable modernity correspond with a Turkmen identity anchored in those founding myths selected by Niyazov. This part provides perfect illustration of the city’s exacerbated centre / suburb duality, the result of an unequal town planning. One is invited to travel between a “non-lived” centre and genuinely peopled peripheries sinking into all urban risks: There demographic pressure increases as well as lack of housing, impoverishment, difficulties of access to drinking water (119-20).

After fifteen years of the deepest transformation, Ashgabat offers a double identity: on one side, the showcase that monopoles public space, and on the other a neglected area, the inhabitants of which try to survive leaning on the Soviet legacy (107). Most of the people of Ashgabat can only notice the degradation of their housing conditions, and their perception of the city’s showcase is mostly limited to fake admiration. At the same time, one can observe the emergence of a pride of sorts, especially on behalf of those who live in the regions and use to discover the capital delight. Such a phenomenon has been encouraged and strengthened by the promotion of urban tourism organised for this specific audience. In the Independence Park, where a new monument was still recently inaugurated every year on October 27th, buses are chartered to visit this “inescapable” locus of the Turkmen nation (99). This legacy transmitted to the new Turkmen president has not been taken as a target since Niiazov’s death, which suggests that his successor G. Berdymuhamedov wishes in turn to appropriate the capital. The building sites continue to grow at a sustained pace: a new contract has been gained this summer by Bouygues-Turkmen (84). Amounting to 85 million US dollars (62 million Euros), it plans the realisation of 20.000 square-metre residence building, of a 9.000 square-metre “Officers House” and of a 23 hectare sports complex. It still remains to be seen when the statues of Turkmenbashy will be unbolted . . . When all is said and done, this captivating monograph asserts itself as a work of geography allowing to understand the concepts of “unbearable city” and of “vulnerable city” through the prism of town planning thought as political tool for diffusion of a message and implantation of political geo-symbols.

Mazyar Taheri, Paris
CER: II-2.4-84