The Open Society Institute's Turkmenistan Project hosted a briefing, "Speaking Out for Freedom to Write," with Turkmen writer Rakhim Esenov. Erika Dailey, Turkmenistan Project director, introduced the event. Laura Wolfson served as Esenov's interpreter.
Esenov received the 2006 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award, which honors international literary figures who have been persecuted or imprisoned for exercising or defending the right to freedom of expression. Two years ago, Esenov was arrested after being accused of smuggling 800 copies of his banned books into Turkmenistan from Russia. Since then the government had prohibited him from leaving the country despite U.S. pressure.
Esenov is a 78-year-old novelist, historian, and Radio Free Europe correspondent. His trilogy Ventsenosny Skitalets (The Crowned Wanderer) is set in the 16th-century Mogul Empire and centers on Bayram Khan, a poet, philosopher, and army general who is said to have saved Turkmenistan from fragmentation. The book was banned by President Saparmurad Niyazov, who publicly denounced it as “historically inaccurate” in 1997, apparently for correctly portraying Khan as a Shia rather than a Sunni Muslim, an offense that carries a four-year prison sentence under the Turkmen Criminal Code.
Esenov was charged with “inciting social, national, and religious hatred using the mass media” and imprisoned despite his frail health. He was later released after submitting a written guarantee to remain in Turkmenistan. However the charges against him were not dropped, and the results of an investigation are still pending.
The totalitarian system erected in Turkmenistan by its mercurial leader Saparmurat Niyazov has not been able to crush the creative impulses of the artistic community, the country’s most prominent writer, Rahim Esenov, said during an appearance at the Open Society Institute.
In recent years Niyazov has banned ballet and opera and imposed strict control over all forms of mass media, including literature. The top-selling book in the country is the Ruhnama, a guideline for living according to Turkmen values supposedly penned by Niyazov himself. Turkmen artists and writers espousing independent viewpoints have faced persecution. But the 78-year-old Esenov insisted that the hardships are not prompting many writers to abandon literature.
“I write for the desk drawer,” he said. “In Stalin’s time, many wrote for the desk drawer. When Stalin died, there was a tremendous blossoming. I believe the same thing will happen in Turkmenistan.”
“I believe in the future of literature in Turkmenistan because talent is not dead, talent lives,” he continued. “There are many writers now who have even the smallest drop of human dignity and who are thinking about the future and the changes it is going to bring.”
During his April 18 talk, sponsored by OSI’s Turkmenistan Project, Esenov recounted the story of his own two-year ordeal of government harassment. He had to gain special permission to leave the country and travel to the United States to receive a literary award from the PEN American Center.
Esenov was arrested in February 2004 in connection with an allegedly illegal attempt to smuggle 800 copies of his novel, The Crowned Wanderer, into Turkmenistan. The novel is set in the 16th Century and features a real historical figure, Bayram Khan, a Turkmen poet-philosopher who espoused social and religious tolerance. The work was completed in the mid 1990s, but was banned from publication in Turkmenistan. It was finally published in Russia in 2003.
As soon as the novel appeared in print, Esenov said he began noticing “external surveillance” outside his home. “I was being followed everywhere I went, but I did my best to ignore it,” Esenov added. “I was aware that my telephone was being tapped and that my mail was being read.”
State security agents interrogated Esenov on several occasions. They were not only interested in his literary activities, they also questioned him about his work as a freelance reporter for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. “Investigators asked me, ‘who owns Radio Liberty?’ and I said it belongs to the US Department of State,” Esenov said. “They said, ‘no, no it belongs to the CIA. We could charge with treason and we could charge you on spying on behalf of the United States.’”
After suffering a heart attack, officials ordered his transfer from a relatively well equipped hospital in Ashgabat to another, more spartan facility. His subsequent arrest provoked an international diplomatic outcry, which succeeded in securing his release from official custody in early March 2004. Turkmen officials, however, never dropped the charges against him. “They accused me of stirring up animosity. You know I write about the 16th century! I write about tribes that were fighting against each other in the 16th century. And they take all of that and they project it onto the present day,” Esenov said.
Instead of punishing Esenov, authorities put his son-in-law on trial, ultimately sentencing him to five years’ probation for supposed involvement in the book smuggling scheme. “The reason that I was not put on trial was that they [authorities] knew that I had the international community behind me, supporting me,” Esenov said.
Esenov also suggested that the government was undermining its own aims by harassing writers. Such harassment only served to heighten international concern about the Turkmen government’s human rights practices. He went on to say that his PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write award was probably as much a response to Niyazov’s harsh rule as it was an acknowledgment of his literary talent. During his struggle to gain permission to go to New York to accept the award, Esenov said he told officials, “you have given me publicity and that is why I am receiving the PEN award. If you don’t let me leave the country to collect this prize, it will be the Nobel Prize next time.”
Ultimately, Esenov was allowed to leave Turkmenistan. But that didn’t mean he was completely free to speak his mind. At the Open Society Institute appearance he refrained from directly criticizing Niyazov. “I’d be very happy to answer your question,” he said at one point, “but please remember that I am going back there [to Turkmenistan] in just a few days.”
EurasiaNet editorial assistant Havilah Hoffman and Alec Appelbaum, a New York-based freelance writer, contributed to this summary.