broken walls and narratives

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Archive for the tag “nationalism”

Anxious Adventuring: Nationalist Tour Guide

Anxious Adventuring_ guide

Anxious Adventuring: Nationalist Tour Guide

H. Bradford

10/8/18

While visiting Macedonia I decided to go on a day tour to Lake Ohrid.  It would have been far cheaper to take a public bus, but I had some worries that perhaps the bus would be overbooked or that I would miss the bus back to Skopje.  To make things less stressful, I booked a day tour to Lake Ohrid.  Of course, Macedonia does not have an expansive tourist industry, so most day tours are private tours.  Private tours are expensive, but they make it easier to learn about different historical sights than I would have learned on my own.  Another downside, besides price, is that it can be socially awkward.  After all, it means that the guide is your only company ALL day long.  That is a lot of social pressure on both parties.  Many things could go wrong.  What if the guide is weird?  What if the guide makes me feel unsafe?  What if we simply don’t get along?  I don’t often do private tours because of the price and the social component.  But, it seemed easier than making a mistake using the bus system in an unfamiliar country for a several hour bus ride that at least online was said to be often sold out… so I booked a guide.

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Beautiful Lake Ohrid…


I waited anxiously at my hostel for the guide to arrive.  When he arrived, I felt disappointed that it was a man, since it always feels safer to be alone with women.  I wasn’t entirely alone though, since he had a driver with him.  It made me feel tense, as these two men were to be my company for the day.  Oh well.  The guide was nice enough…and handed me some brochures about various Macedonian tourist attractions.  He gave me an overview of how the day would go and we set off towards our first stop, the mouth of the Vardar river.  Along the way, he shared his knowledge of Macedonia, which he was very passionate and knowledgeable about.  Based upon his particular slant on the information he shared, it became clear that he was….very nationalist. Image may contain: Heather Bradford, standing, mountain, sky, outdoor and nature

First stop…Vardar River (one of many photos of me that day…)


The guide, who I will call “A.” strongly believed that Macedonia was indeed the homeland of Alexander the Great and that the people of Macedonia, while Slavs, had actually mixed with the ancient Macedonian population.  He substantiated this belief with stories of how some villages continue to conduct group weddings.  He believed that group weddings  were a custom modeled after Alexander the Great’s mass wedding held in Susa wherein marriages were arranged between Alexander and his officers and Persian noblewomen.  This was an interesting theory, though there are many reasons to hold collective weddings (for instance, to save time and to share costs).  He was a strong advocate for a boycott of the referendum, as he felt that if it passed, Greece would have control over street names, statues, books, school curriculum, stadiums, or even outlaw the use of the name Alexander as a given name.  I didn’t quite understand why the referendum would be boycotted rather than simply “vote NO.”  Since the failure of the referendum, I now understand that voter turnout needed to be at least 50% for it to be valid.  To A., the very idea that the matter would be voted upon was insulting.  He felt deeply that not only were Macedonians the inheritors of Alexander the Great’s legacy, Greece had no business telling Macedonia what to do.  This was not framed as an anti-Nato or anti-EU sentiment.  A. also made no indication that he had a pro-Russian political orientation.  His position was, however, a vehemently anti-Greek position.  He spoke about the oppression of Slavic people in Greek Macedonia and believed that the majority of this population still spoke Macedonian (it is unknown how many speakers there are, but in 1951 it was 40,000).  I nodded along to his assertions, but didn’t know what to say when he went on a tirade about how Alexander the Great was not bisexual or gay and this was a myth propagated by Hollywood.  Nationalism, while it has reasonable aspects (yes, Macedonia should have the autonomy to determine its own name and interpretation of history) can also be deeply intolerant, angry, masculine, and homophobic… at least that is the brand of nationalism that I experienced with A.

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For my part, I mostly played dumb and asked questions, since that is often the safest way to act out the role of a non-threatening female around angry men.  In any event, I did not want to risk upsetting the person responsible for my safety and transportation.  The day had many awkward moments, as A. had a very pushy personality.  For instance, he insisted that he needed to take my photo at every stop we made.  At churches, rivers, lakes, statues, etc.  I politely told him many times that I was content to have just a few photos of myself, but he pushed to take my photo at every stop, harassing me with compliments about how I looked.  This was uncomfortable, but I lacked any power in the situation to escape this barrage of photos.  I did my best to make polite excuses not to take more photos of myself (usually I have the opposite problem that as a solo traveler I have to ask a stranger for a photo or use the self-timer on my camera).  This was to no avail and a familiar experience.  Consent and boundaries are only dimly understood among most people and part of living and traveling in this world is experiencing situations where these are violated, ignored, or pushed.  Likewise, A. was very devoutly Orthodox.  When we visited two monasteries, he insisted that I drink the water.  I didn’t want to drink the water, since I didn’t trust that it was not going to make me sick (untreated water contains unfamiliar bacteria that he might be used to, but I could get sick from).  He pushed me to drink the water, which he asserted was the purest water in the world.  I took a small sip to appease him and later found myself pretending to drink the water by cupping it in my hand, putting it to my mouth, but letting it slip through my fingers.  When asked about my religious beliefs, I felt it was best to lie- as he was extremely devout in his Orthodoxy.  I told him I was Protestant.  I don’t think I have ever lied about my atheism.  At one point, he told me to light the candles at the monastery.  I am not Orthodox, so I felt uncomfortable, but he was so adamant about it, I lit the candle.  Then, he quizzed me about what it meant.  I had no idea.  He said that the candles are lit because of the sins in the world.  I said something awkward about darkness and suffering, then moved on to ponder the miraculous dripping bone marrow of John the Baptist.

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Things became less socially intense when we arrived at Lake Ohrid.  I opted to spent some time alone there and enjoyed blissful social isolation as I strolled around the lake looking for birds and taking in the scenery.  At Lake Ohrid, the guide and I parted ways.  I appreciate that he was very candid about his political beliefs and I felt that it had been a unique opportunity to speak with someone with strong nationalist views.  On the other hand, I was relieved to no longer feel pressured for photographs or to sample water or any other thing that had made me feel uncomfortable during the day.  I survived!  The ride back to Skopje was less stressful.  I had an enjoyable conversation with the more politically moderate driver who was pro-EU and pro-NATO.  He was pessimistic about Macedonia’s future and largely indifferent to Greek’s demands, since Macedonia was too weak to resist it and Alexander the Great was not worth celebrating anyway.  The driver felt that Macedonia was a unimportant, doomed nation (so he lacked A.’s zealous confidence in Macedonia’s purpose and history).  It was interesting to hear this perspective, even if it came across as a dreary pro-Western defeatism.  Despite the polar opposite views on Macedonia’s history, both men agreed upon the horrible prospect of “Greater Albania.”  When I spoke to a very progressive guide the following day, she also feared Greater Albania.  So, oddly, that was the tie that bound the political spectrum- fear of Albanian territorial, economic, and population expansion.  I am not sure what to make of that…

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My guides often pointed out whenever they saw an Albanian flag…


I think it is both rude and privileged to put down my guide, as he was extremely hard working and passionate about his job.  In a group setting, I probably would have felt far less uncomfortable and anxious.  He was uncomfortably pushy in some regards and it was emotionally exhausting to try to balance politeness (for safety and a smooth day) and resistance (not wanting to drink unknown water, for instance).   I have had experiences like this before while traveling and living, which I have navigated differently depending upon my own perceived power in the situation (which is often little).  In any event, as trying as the day felt at some points, it was an opportunity to see and hear nationalism first hand.  Despite my support of Macedonian self-determination, on a personal level, nationalism feels smothering, assertive, and intolerant.

I am fairly certain that this AP photo by Thanassis Stavrakis of a Macedonian nationalist is a picture of my tour guide….

Deconstructing Duluth’s Demographic Crisis

Deconstructing Duluth’s Demographic Crisis

H. Bradford

4/11/18

On February 24th, the Duluth News Tribune ran an article about Duluth’s impending demographic crisis.  I wanted to write a socialist feminist response to this, but never got around to it.  Not that I am the authority on socialist feminism, but I am a feminist and a socialist…and I do think about these things…so, why not break it down?  Now, whenever I hear the word “demographic crisis” I want to run for the hills, or burn something, or both.  Not really, but I think it is one of those sexist, ageist, racist, pro-capitalist concepts that begs to be dismembered.   Here is why…

Ageism:

Early into the Duluth News Tribune article, when describing the shifting population of the Duluth region, the aging population is described as problematic.


“If population levels were even across age groups, this wouldn’t be much of a problem. But, as you may have heard, the largest generation in the country’s history is marching into retirement, leaving many jobs vacant just as unemployment levels are bottoming out and productivity growth is stalling (Johnson, 2018).”


It is true that our population is aging, but, one must consider why this is a problem.  According to the article, it is a problem because there will not be enough workers to replace those who retire.  On the surface, this seems like a problem, as society needs workers to produce things.  However, this frames the post-retirement age population as the cause of a social problem.  Framing the older population as a “problem” is ageist.  It also ignores their labor, as labor does not end when wage labor ceases.  Their contributions to society do not cease when they reach the age of 65 (or higher ages for the many people who do not have retirement savings, pensions, or the ability to survive on social security alone).  Older adults do unpaid work such as volunteering, caring for grand children, gardening, baking, canning, sharing their knowledge, checking up on one another, and a plethora of other important economic activities that are dismissed because they are unpaid.  Just as the invisible, unpaid labor of women is ignored as a natural or unimportant, this invisible labor and its contribution to society is also ignored.


This connects to the socialist feminist concept of social reproduction.  Basically, in capitalist society, the labor force must reproduce itself.  This can literally mean that the work force must replace itself through biological reproduction, but also means that each worker must sustain themselves through sleep, eating food, washing clothes, maintaining their health, relieving stress, and all the many things that are required to survive and work another day.   Typically, women have played an important role in providing the invisible, unpaid labor that keeps the work force …working.  Caring for children, giving birth, caring for the elderly, washing clothes, cleaning a home, doing dishes, making meals, grocery shopping, etc. are all important unpaid activities that ensure that capitalism will continue.  Of course, older adults who leave the work force also provide some of these services as they are “free” to (my own grandparents made many meals for me, baby sat me, bought me school clothes, taught me information, etc.).  Thus, is it really a problem that people grow old?  Aging is a natural process.  It may happen that we have an aging population, but why is this a problem?  Some people might respond that it is a problem because this group requires more care and there are not enough young people to care for them.  The article itself argues that it is a problem that there is not enough workers to fill jobs and that productivity will decline.


I am not an expert on matters of aging, but I imagine that the “problem of aging” could be mitigated by providing quality, free health care to people of all ages, along with clean environments, living wages, robust pensions, housing, etc.  The aging population might very well “age better” if a high quality of life was ensured for people of all ages.  What does it mean to “age well” anyway?  I think to most people means the ability to care for one’s self, enjoy a high quality of life, and live independently for as long as possible.  If this is what this means, the locus of “aging well” is framed as an individual responsibility and the very human need for care is viewed as burdensome.   This concept is very individualistic and puts the rest of society off the hook for taking responsibility of providing and caring for the variable needs of older adults.  It is also ageist, as aging well is basically the ability to live as similarly to a young person for as long as possible.  Maybe it is okay to be wrinkly, sedentary, crabby, or anti-social.  Society is awful.  Living through decades of economic ups and downs, cuts to social programs, pointless wars, and the general nonsense of everything deemed meaningful by society might sour a person against living with youthful optimism and vibrancy.   After years of being alive, “aging well” might seem like a racket to sell beauty products, skin treatments, fitness memberships, etc.

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(This image leads me to believe that aging well has something to do with being white and wealthy.  Capitalism doesn’t have resources to spare on caring for the elderly, so make certain you stay healthy with fresh air and bike rides in the country.)


If indeed there is a shortage of workers, there are certainly plenty of people in the world and United States itself.  These people might be more inclined to move to this frigid region and provide elder care if this was not low paid, under appreciated service work but unionized with benefits (including retirement plans!), better wages, and better working conditions.   A true shortage of workers might require open borders to allow new workers to enter the country, but this would require a move away from our current racist, xenophobic, nationalist, and exploitative immigration policy.  The “aging population problem” is not a problem with age, but an ageless problem of capitalism to meet the basic needs of humanity.


Of course, the notion of declining productivity must also be challenged.  Why is it a problem when productivity declines?  Why must productivity always increase?  What does this mean for the environment?  When have we produced enough?!  Productivity is a problem in capitalism because of the tendency for profits to decline.  Because competition lends itself to increased investment in fixed capital and there are human thresholds of how much variable capital can be exploited from workers, profits decline over time.  Markets also become saturated as there is only so much people can buy (again because wages only allow so much consumption).  When too much is produced and too little is consumed, capitalism falls into a crisis, which Marx called the crisis of overproduction.  Therefore, productivity is not necessary good.  It is not good for the workers (who must work longer or harder).  It is not good for the environment (as it creates waste and overuse of resources).  And it is not even good for capitalism, since it lends itself to instability.  I think it is important to think against blind productivity and instead think about rational, careful production in the interest of human needs.

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(Capitalism probably produces enough…  though I suppose the gulls don’t mind.)


Sexism:

Another reason why I dislike the concept of “demographic crisis” is that it is sexist.   Although the article only mentions it briefly, increasing birth rates is often suggested as a way in averting the crisis.  Even if it is not mentioned in detail in the article, it is implicit in the premise of the argument.  If the population is aging and this is a problem, that means that not enough new people are being born.  Thus, not only are older adults the problem, the bigger problem is that women are not gestating enough babies.  The bodies of women have long been treated as public property, inasmuch as their reproductive power is harnessed for state interests.  The fight for reproductive rights is a fight to liberate women from their role as the producer’s of the next generation of soldiers and workers.  The birth rate in the United States (according to 2018 CIA World Factbook Information) is 12.5 births per 1000 people.  Our birth rate is slightly higher than the UK, Sweden, France, and Australia which all have 12.x births per 1000.  The rate is higher than Finland, Canada, Switzerland, Netherlands, and Denmark, which have 10.x births per 1000 people.  Our birthrate is certainly greater than South Korea, Japan, and Germany, which range from 8.x to 9.x births per 1000 people.  Despite our higher birth rate, there is enormous pressure upon women to reproduce- to the point that the organized movement against abortion has made birth nearly compulsory in many parts of the country due to restricted access to abortion.  In many of these countries with lower birth rates, the issue of abortion is far less controversial.  Here, anti-choice activists bemoan the loss of millions of fetuses, which they argue contributes to our demographic crisis (fewer workers, fewer students, etc.)   At the core of demographic crisis is a demand to control reproduction- because if population is viewed as a resource, women’s bodies are responsible for producing this resource.


 In the context of capitalism (and unfortunately many economic systems), population is treated as a resource.  Workers need to reproduce so that there are more workers.  This leads to a precarious balance.  Capitalists do not provide for the reproduction of labor (this has often fallen upon women and families) as this requires an investment in workers.  At the same time, workers have to have a basic level of sustenance to continue working and to allow for a new generation.  For instance, if a woman works too hard or consumes too few calories, she may stop menstruating.  Therefore, workers generally have a basic threshold of exploitation which if reached these workers will no longer be able to survive and reproduce.   In the United States in particular, our status as a world power has an economic component and a military component.  The military domination of the world is an extension of the economic component, as military might ensures access to markets, thwarts competitors, offers access to capital (for instance natural resources and labor), etc.  For the United States to remain an economic and military power, babies must be born.  Babies are needed so that there will always be a supply of soldiers and workers.  Reproduction is a national interest.  I think this contributes to the controversy around abortion and the drive to limit it.
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(A piece of art that I created called Capitalism is Built on the Bodies of Women)

As I alluded to in the previous paragraph, capitalism has a contradiction.  On one hand, in seeks to increase profit by extracting more surplus value from workers.  Because profits decline over time, workers are pressured to work harder and longer.  This increased exploitation limits the ability to reproduce labor (to reproduce biologically, but also to maintain a certain level of health as workers).   In the United States, not a lot of profit is redistributed towards caring for our existing population (i.e. ensuring the reproduction of labor).   We do not offer paid parental leave.  We do not have free day cares.  There is a shortage of housing.  Health care is expensive.  The list goes on.  The conditions of capitalism are so extreme that 5.8 infants die out of 1000 born.  In Japan, two infants die per 1000 births.  In Iceland, Norway, Finland, and Sweden, there are slightly more than 2 infant deaths per 1000.  In the European Union as a whole, there are about 4 deaths per 1000 according to the CIA world Fact Book.  Once again, rather than a demographic crisis, our crisis is an inability to care for our population.  Certainly, anyone worried about our economic or military strength might begin by tackling the causes of infant mortality.  But, this would mean diverting profits towards human needs.  Re-thinking profits and capitalism itself would undermine the logic of militarism and nationalism.


Supposing that the United States provided free access to abortion, birth control, all health care, and social conditions favorable to reproduction (paid leave, free day care, adequate housing, etc.)  Even if these conditions were met, women have no obligation to reproduce the next generation.  They should not be scapegoated for demographic crisis.  In the end, it is up to society to creatively adapt to changing populations- not women.


Racism and Classism:

The article concluded that a key to averting Duluth’s demographic crisis is promoting immigration to the city.   Regarding this point, Mayor Larson said,  “Duluth needs to be a community that is welcoming and open to new experiences, new faces, new ethnicities, new races to solve workforce shortages (Johnson, 2018).”  I think that it is generally a positive, feel good conclusion, since well, who doesn’t want Duluth to be a more welcoming city?  The mayor suggests working with education and health care partners to attract more diversity to the city.  Hmm…alright.  What does really this mean?


In a subtle way, the statement hints at what kind of diversity is acceptable in Duluth.  I interpret working with education and health care partners to mean attracting diversity by attracting professionals of color.  The center of this argument is not “let’s build more low income housing so we can attract all of the African Americans in Chicago or Minneapolis who are on housing waiting lists and house those who already exist in our community!”  Duluth DOES have some racial diversity BUT, this diversity is segregated into poor neighborhoods, homeless shelters, and jail.  Yet, because they are poor and people of color, this population is not seen as a solution to the “demographic crisis” because they are an OTHER at best and problem at worse.  They are those people.  Those people who are blamed for crime or making things not like they used to be for white people.  This is another problem with the notion of “demographic crisis”- since demographic crisis always refers to the shortage of a desirable population.  We have a low income population that would probably be happy to invite friends and relatives and grow if Duluth was a more welcoming, less racist, expanded housing, housing and employers ceased discrimination against criminal backgrounds, day care was expanded, public transportation was more reliable, schools were not segregated and plainly racist, etc.


Truly making Duluth a city for everyone, as the Mayor suggested, would mean changing what Duluth is right now.  Right now, Duluth is focused on being a city for business.  In particular, it is a city for businesses that serve tourists.  Centering the city on the tourist industry makes Duluth a city not for everyone, but for middle class, mostly white people, who have the leisure and money to stay at a hotel or the outdoor gear to enjoy our nature.   Duluth can’t be a city for business and for everyone.  We CAN be a city that is for everyone that happens to attract tourists, but the reverse is not possible.  The reverse is what has made Earned Safe and Sick time so controversial, as segments of the business community that are most opposed to it are those sectors that serve tourists (restaurants and hotels).  The reverse has also been what has stalled the Homeless Bill of Rights- because homeless people are a “problem population” not one that should be accounted for in “demographic crisis” and certainly not one that deserves to be treated with basic dignity.  After all, they might just spook the customers!  If we want to be a city for everyone, then we should start by being a city for workers, for the homeless, for people of color, and all of the oppressed in our community.


Conclusion:

Duluth is just one city.  It would be pie in the sky to try to think we can build socialism in a single city.  Many of my suggestions require a massive struggle on a national scale to accomplish.  I do believe that we have local activists with the talent and audience to contribute to such a national struggle.  I am not one of them, but am a small and marginal voice in that struggle.   Beyond the national, there are some things that can be done on a local level.  We can focus local priorities on meeting human needs and support things such as Earned Safe and Sick Time and the Homeless Bill of Rights.  We can challenge the policies of our schools and police to make the city less racist and classist.  We can also think against business interests and promote diverting profits towards social good.  Beyond these material things, I wrote this because I wanted to challenge the ideological logic of “demographic crisis.”  Like many crisis and panics, it is a social construct.  Inherent in this constructed crisis is ageism, racism, sexism, nationalism, and classism.  There are no population problems.   There are only failures of societies to address the needs of populations.  It is only through struggle that we will win the means to address these needs.


Johnson, B. (2018, February 25). ‘Stability’ not enough for Duluth jobs; aging population isn’t being replaced on pace. Retrieved April 11, 2018, from https://www.duluthnewstribune.com/business/workplace/4408874-stability-not-enough-duluth-jobs-aging-population-isnt-being-replaced

https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/rankorder/2091rank.html

How Does Turkmenistan ACTUALLY compare to North Korea?

How Does Turkmenistan ACTUALLY compare to North Korea?

H. Bradford

9/5/17

This summer, I paid a short visit to Turkmenistan.  In fact, one of the big reasons that I wanted to travel on Oasis’ overland trip was the opportunity to visit Turkmenistan and view the Aral sea in Uzbekistan.  In preparation for the trip, I tried to do some reading.  Many travel websites compared Turkmenistan to North Korea.  Documentaries or short videos on Turkmenistan were mostly from the mid-2000s and centered around the bizarre dictatorship of Niyazov, a.k.a Turkmenbashi.  As the trip approached, I became nervous.  I would be joining the trip in Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan.  Travel websites warned of individuals who had been denied visas or how notoriously difficult it was to obtain a visa.  What if I was not allowed entry?  What if my visa upon arrival was denied?  I would spend my first day or two alone.  What if I accidentally broke a law?  The information provided in travel websites, books, and videos warned of laws such as a city wide curfew, travel restrictions, restrictions on  photographs, bans on circuses or women wearing makeup on television, bans on gold teeth and beards, etc.  If indeed, the country was like North Korea, how safe would I be during the time period I spent alone?

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There are some important differences between Turkmenistan and North Korea.  While Turkmenistan has been called the North Korea of Central Asia or North Korea with oil, a major difference between the countries is how they relate to the United States.   As I have mentioned in a previous blog post, during the Korean war, the United States bombed North Korea into oblivion.  More bombs were dropped on Korea than all of the Pacific during WWII and unexploded bombs are still found in the country.   Thousands of schools, hospitals, and factories were bombed by the U.S.- and when there were but a few buildings standing in the whole country, the United States bombed dams- flooding the country’s agricultural land and threatening the populace with starvation. Civilians were specifically targeted by the U.S., which destroyed 20% of the population in the war.  This created a deep fear and bitterness towards the United States which is used to sustain the repressive Kim dynasty.  Turkmenistan does not have that same destructive and antagonistic history with the United States.  After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Niyazov proclaimed that the country was neutral.  In fact, there is an enormous monument to neutrality in Ashgabat.  Despite this official neutrality, Turkemistan provided tax and duty free gas/oil to NATO countries engaged in the war in Afghanistan and has allowed NATO to use its airspace and land aircraft at Ashgabat airport.  Furthermore, U.S. corporations such as John Deere, Caterpillar, and Boeing conduct business in Turkmenistan.  Niyazov’s successor, Berdymukhamedov, even sent a personal congratulation to President Obama upon his election.  So, while Turkemistan is viewed as a country that lacks basic rights to organizing, freedom of press, freedom of speech, and a criminal justice system with torture and abuse, a key difference is that this authoritarian regime is a strategic ally of the United States whereas North Korea is viewed as an enemy.   Consequently, the United States is less inclined to call out human rights abuses in Turkmenistan or call for regime change.  In fact, very few Americans know the first thing about Turkmenistan.  Why not?  Well, fear mongering and villainizing Turkmenistan simply isn’t a matter of importance to American foreign policy in the same way North Korea is.   While the United States was an enemy of the Soviet Union and certainly some suspicion may persist, I think it is very unlikely that an American would be kept in Turkmenistan or imprisoned there for political reasons.  The Peace Corps operated in Turkmenistan until 2012 and there is a U.S. embassy in Ashgabat (along with embassies for at least 20 other countries).   In short, despite its reputation as a very authoritarian country, Turkmenistan has fairly “normal” relations with the West.

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Neutrality Monument in Ashgabat


Upon arrival in Ashgabat, I applied for my tourist visa by presenting a letter of invitation.  In contrast, my visa for North Korea was arranged ahead of time in Beijing and  was contingent upon travel with North Korean guides and an organized tour.  My arrival in Pyongyang was heralded by a power outage at the airport- itself a modest building.  Ashgabat’s airport is a much larger white building in the shape of a giant bird.  Tourists in Turkmenistan are free to explore the capital on their own, but a guide is needed for travel outside of the capital.  We were joined by a local guide who stayed with us during our visit through the country.  In Pyongyang, I turned in my cellphone at the airport.  This was not the case in Turkmenistan, where it was common to see satellite dishes and the main indicator of a lack of freedom of information/communication was that I could not access social media.  Because it was expected that tourists are always accompanied by guides and our accommodations were at the Yanggakdo Hotel (on an island), there were no opportunities for independent exploration in North Korea.  In Turkmenistan, I spent two days exploring Ashgabat all by myself.   While traveling around the Ashgabat, no one avoided me but no one went out of their way to talk to me either.  It was common to see police, but they also seemed fairly indifferent to me.  At least on the surface, it seemed that the level of control of tourists or the populace was not the same between the countries.  As of September 2017, U.S. citizens are no longer allowed to travel to North Korea.  This ban does not come from North Korea, but rather our own state department, so a major difference between the two countries at this point in time is that Americans can’t enter North Korea!

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An amusement park in Ashgabat


Both Pyongyang and Ashgabat are showcase capitals.   Ashgabat was hit by a massive earthquake in 1948, which leveled the city and killed 110,000 people.  During the Korean war, only two buildings stood in Pyongyang.   Suffice to say, both capitals are newly constructed since the 1950s.   Nevertheless, Ashgabat has undergone an extensive and expensive renovation since the 2000s, which has transformed the city into a white marble wonderland of fountains and gold.   In this sense, Ashgabat is certainly more luxuriant…as natural gas revenues have been used to remodel the capital.  Even the apartment buildings are marble.  Pyongyang is certainly clean and resplendent with monuments that celebrate the Kim family and Juche, but it is not characterized by the same parks, neon lights, clusters of monuments, and marble.   While Ashgabat is lit up at night, Pyongyang seemed fairly dark.  I think a major difference is that North Korea devotes more resources to the military and developing weapons (20% of the GDP goes to the military).  Because North Korea is embargoed and Turkmenistan is free to sell its natural gas, Niyazev had more money to play with in reshaping the capital (Turkmenistan spends about 3.5% of its GDP on military).  At the same time, North Korea is more developed than Turkmenistan.  Outside of Ashgabat, 80% of the country is desert.  The Karakorum Canal provides irrigation to agriculture (albeit wastefully), but the country, at least from what I could see- is very rural and agrarian where this is possible.  This underdevelopment is attributed to the fact that Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic mainly supplied the USSR with natural gas.  Its economy was not and continues to not be very diverse (though the fact that 80% of the country is desert puts a major geographical limit on development… USSR history and transition to capitalism not withstanding).  The legacy of Soviet gas exploration makes for interesting tourist attractions.  There are three large collapsed craters left behind by Soviet gas drilling.  One is filled with water, the other flaming mud, and finally, there is the Darvaza gas pit, giant flaming crater in the desert- which has been burning since 1971!   North Korea is a country that is industrial enough to…well, have a nuclear program.

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Darvaza Gas Crater


Both countries share a strong sense of nationalism, which plays an important part of the personality cults established by their respective dictators.  Niyazov invented the Ruhnama,  a book that outlined the history of the Turkmen people, but also was a spiritual, literary, and moral guide.  It was required reading for all students and government workers and the book was to be read with the Koran by imams.  Since Niyazov’s death, the book is no longer required reading- but it was meant to help develop Turkmen identity.  Berdymukhamedev has sought to connect Turkmen identity to horses- and Ashgabat features a Ministry of Horses as well as horse head shaped stadium built for the Asian games.  He also built a nearly 70 foot statue of himself on a horse and wrote a book about horses.   Turkmenistan does not have a long history as a nation state with a national identity.  Prior to the Bolshevik revolution, Turkmenistan didn’t really exist.  It was a region of nomadic people who spoke various related Turkic languages, lacked common political institutions, and often in conflict with one another.  This is not to disparage the people of Turkmenistan, as all nationalities are social constructs in one way or another.  It is simply to say that they had not organized themselves into a united people with a common identity and sense of political nationhood.  Despite the seemingly new and artificial construction of Turkmen nationalism, this seems to be the foundation of Niyazov and Berdymukhamedev’s regimes.

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The stadium built for the Asia Games.


Korean nationalism has been around much longer.  The Korean language is one of the oldest living languages, which has had its own unique script since the 15th century.  Japanese colonization of the Korean peninsula sparked a modern nationalist, independence movement.  Various kingdoms existed on the Korean peninsula over history, but Korean culture and norms were united by a singular political administration since the Joseon Kingdom of the 1300s- late 1800s.   In North Korea, the juche ideology was used to support self-reliance, self-defense, the leadership of the Kims, and independence.  This is complimented by songun- or the ideology of military first.  Pursuit of military build-up at the expense of social programs or social welfare is undertaken to protect the DPRK from the United States.  So, while it seems irrational and cruel, it does serve the function of deterring direct U.S. military intervention- which has happened in many other countries.

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The USS Pueblo is a tourist attraction in Pyongyang.  It is a captured American spy boat which is a proud trophy in the nearly seventy year conflict between our countries.


There are certainly similarities between Turkmenistan and North Korea.  Both countries are disparaged for human rights abuses and lack of freedoms.   Both are viewed as among the most repressive countries in the world.  But, I think that travel websites overstate the similarities.  There is one major difference- this main difference is how these countries relate to the West (or the United States in particular).  This makes a world of difference in terms of travel, but also in terms of how these countries orient their economies, state ideologies, and social priorities.  It also means that Turkmenistan is largely ignored by the United States, whereas North Korea is on the news daily.  Of course, this could be blamed on North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs- but how much do we know about our own missile testing or nuclear history?  How much do we know about who and what we bombed today?  Because Turkmenistan does not actively defy the United States or our allies, it is forgotten and unknown.  And, because Turkmenistan’s government is not legitimized by a six and a half decade long conflict- it does look differently and act differently.  Thus, as a traveler to both countries, I tend to disagree with the comparison.

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Pyongyang

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Ashgabat

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