‘To have power you need guts:’ writer-in-exile Ak Welsapar on resistance in Turkmenistan

‘To have power you need guts:’ writer-in-exile Ak Welsapar on resistance in Turkmenistan

15 February 2022
Text: Robert Barroca

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Turkmenistan has become one of the most closed off, inaccessible countries in the world. The first book by a Turkmen writer to be translated in English, The Tale of Aypi, was only published in 2016. The writer in question is Ak Welsapar, who has spent the last 27 years living in exile in Sweden.

Set during the late Soviet occupation of Turkmenistan, the novel — originally published in Russian in 2014 — centres around the forcible relocation of a fishing village on the Caspian coast to make way for a sanitorium capitalising on the sea’s salty air. “I’ll stay here, and I won’t go anywhere even if they kill me,” the story’s protagonist, Araz Atayev, rails against his removal. “This is where my umbilical cord was cut; my true birthplace! … How could I let myself be forced out from here? My father, and my father’s father too, lie mixed with that sand, and his grandfather as well – all seven generations of my ancestors!” In response, a local official encourages Atayev to be a more international Soviet citizen.

Born in Turkmenistan in 1956, Welsapar was an outspoken journalist in the 1980s, exposing the Soviet republic’s abysmally high mortality and malnutrition rates, various environmental disasters, and bondage in the cotton industry. However, Welsapar’s courage to speak truth to power had serious consequences. Shortly after Turkmenistan gained independence from the USSR in 1991, the newly-installed authoritarian regime made the country even more isolated than it had been under Russian control. In 1992, Welsapar found himself under house arrest for 18 months. He was dismissed from the Writers’ Union and the Union of the Journalists of Turkmenistan. His books were withdrawn from libraries and bookshops and set alight. The persecution Welsapar went through found its way into many of his fictions. In his terse short story “One of the Seven is a Scoundrel,” collected in Death of the Snake Catcher, a military officer shouts to a group of harvesters: “If you cannot find an enemy of the people…then you become an enemy of the people!” And in a pivotal passage from The Tale of Aypi, a fisherman laments that, “We’re no longer living in the ancient times… now we’ve got the State, government and the laws — where can you escape from them?”

“I was praying to be the first and last person to flee Turkmenistan in that way, but since then, more than two million Turkmen have fled the country”

Falsely accused of spying for Western agencies, Welsapar knew he had to flee. “I was praying to be the first and last person to flee Turkmenistan in that way, but since then, more than two million Turkmen have fled the country,” he told The Calvert Journal. Welsapar moved to Moscow in 1993, and one year later he settled in Sweden, where he still lives with his family today. Drawing on his early experiences of exile, his most recent work available in English, the 2018 novel The Revenge of the Foxes, translated by Richard Govett for Glagoslav Publications, concerns the fate of a Turkmen in Moscow at the tail end of the Soviet era.

Authoring more than 20 books, it is surprising that Welsapar isn’t more internationally known. It feels incongruous that, in a world awash with dystopian narratives and fantasies, so little attention is paid to the nations where such circumstances mirror reality. Turkmenistan ranks at the bottom of Reports Without Borders’ 2021 World Press Freedom Index, next to North Korea and Eritrea. Its dictator, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, rules as a cultish father-figure, crushing dissent with an iron fist. The Ruhnama, a book written by Berdimuhamedow’s predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov, acts as a pseudo-Bible, and is the only book taught in Turkmenistan’s schools. That veneration of Ruhnama, alongside heavy-handed censorship has exacted a heavy toll on its people’s literacy. “Probably a third of the population can’t read or write,” Welsapar approximates. “It takes a huge toll on our society; the power and the importance of writing and literature has decreased. [Unlike during the Soviet era], now the word of the writer means a lot less than the word of a minister.” Yet, despite its declining influence, literature is still a mark of resistance in Turkmenistan.

Nearly 30 years after Welsapar’s expulsion, his work still holds danger for Turkmen readers. “My books must be read in secret,” he says. “If somebody was to be caught with a physical or electronic copy of my work, they would be interrogated by the police and local authorities.” Despite this, Welsapar has maintained a presence within the country. When a secret, anonymous survey was carried out by Turkmen university students, asking “which writers would you like to read more in Turkmenistan?”, Welsapar’s name topped the list. “That was very surprising,” he says, “considering that all of my work is banned in Turkmenistan.”

Nearly 30 years after Welsapar’s expulsion, his work still holds danger for Turkmen readers. “My books must be read in secret,” he says

It’s perhaps less surprising, given the considerable effort Welsapar has put into getting his work into the hands of Turkmen not only in the diaspora but inside the country’s tight borders. Together with his wife, Welsapar runs the publishing house Gün, which prints books censored by totalitarian regimes, including his own. Hundreds of these books have been smuggled into Turkmenistan by volunteers wanting to subvert the government’s censorship laws. Any other of his work in Turkmenistan are a product of samizdat.

“Censorship’s victory over a writer is only temporary,” Welsapar says. “In the end, a writer will always win if they remain true to their work. To have power you need guts, and that means you need to open your mouth eventually.” Still, censorship has left a mark on Welsapar’s writing.

Welsapar says he’s been using “Aesopian language” since his earliest writings in the 1980s. Often drawing on Turkmen folk tales, parables and allegories, his prose incorporates elements of magic realism. As such, Welsapar’s work hints at an escape into a metaphysical world, a magical world, where change is possible. An authorial warmth imbues his writing with the kind of hard-nosed optimism that is only arrived at after enduring great suffering.

“I’m a lot less optimistic about the future of Turkmenistan, but I am still hopeful,” he admits. “I can’t say that the country is about to enter a new, better, brighter era, but I believe it will eventually happen. Turkmenistan requires massive support from Western democratic countries to overcome this regime.”

The name of this article’s author has been changed for protection reasons.

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