Meanwhile, in downtown Ashgabat …

Update: In late December 2006, the subject of this story -- Turkmenistan President Saparmurat Niyazov -- died. Click here for details.

British comic actor Sasha Baron Cohen has, if nothing else, made most of the English-speaking world aware of the nation of Kazakhstan through his put-on film "Borat." But life sometimes trumps art, as in the case of Turkmenistan, like Kazakhstan a former Soviet satellite nation.

Should you plan to visit either of the Central Asian nations, check out Kazakhstan here and Turkmenistan here.

Or, pay attention to David Remnick's take on Turkmenistan as published in The New Yorker magazine. Here's how it begins. You can get the rest of the story on the magazine’s online archive.

“Of the 15 states of the former Soviet empire, Turkmenistan, just north of Iran, is the one that has turned out to be a cruel blend of Kim Jong Il’s North Korea and L. Frank Baum’s Oz. Not long after the Soviet collapse in 1991, a former Communist Party hack named Saparmurat Niyazov became President-for-life, dubbed himself Turkmenbashi — Leader of All the Turkmen — and commenced building the strangest, most tragicomic cult of personality on the Eurasian landmass.

“Doctors there now take an oath not to Hippocrates but to Turkmenbashi; the month of January is now called Turkmenbashi; and in the capital Ashgabat, there is, atop the Arch of Neutrality, a 250-foot gold statue of Turkmenbashi that, like George Hamilton, automatically rotates to face the sun.

“It is extremely difficult to get a visa. Journalists can visit only rarely. But imagine a society in which the ubiquitous, inescapable leader’s image (on the currency, on billboards, on television screens night and day) is that of a saturnine frump who resembles Ernest Borgnine somewhere between 'Marty' and 'McHale’s Navy'."

“Niyazov is a leader of whims. He has banned opera, ballet, beards, long hair, makeup (for television anchors), and gold-capped teeth. He demands that drivers pass a ‘morality test.’ At his command, the word for ‘April’ became Gurbansoltan eje, the name of his late mother. Evidently, he prizes fruit: there is now a national holiday commemorating local melons. And, as if the shade of Orwell were not sufficiently present in Turkmenistan, Niyazov has established, despite an abysmal human-rights record, a Ministry of Fairness.”

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