Good news for circus-lovers in Turkmenistan -- the ban has finally been lifted.
Circuses were banned years ago by the country's former ruler, Saparmurat Niyazov. MSNBC called Niyazov an "eccentric autocrat" but that is understating it just a bit. Niyazov took to the Stalinist personality cult with a vengeance, but pushed it so far it became a parody of itself, sort of like late-period Elvis. He put statues of himself everywhere, including one that rotated to always face the sun, and one (right) of himself as a golden baby emerging from the Earth, perched on the horns of a bull. (According to this New York Times piece, many of these statues are along one particular strip in the capital, Ashgabat, causing one foreign diplomat to refer to the place as "Stalin-Vegas."
He referred to himself as "Turkmenbashi," which means "Father of All Turkmens"; ordered that the days of the week and months of the year be renamed in honor of himself and his family members; and banned, in addition to circuses, movies, libraries, opera, ballet, beards, gold teeth, and lip-synching (showing that despotism has its good points). At least some of this stuff has been dismantled since Niyazov mercifully died in 2007. The new guy, Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, has given the country back most of its entertainment, even if he is still keeping most of the letters in its alphabet for his name. (Ballet is still out, though.)
The first post-Turkmenbashi circus was held on Friday. About 1,500 children were treated to displays of traditional Turkmen riding stunts and events featuring camels, elephants, pythons and crocodiles. A multi-national clown force was also deployed. This included clowns from Iran, although there was no indication that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made an appearance to do some of his hilarious standup.
According to the AFP story, circuses in various parts of the former Soviet Union have been criticized for continuing to use performing animals that are sometimes mistreated and kept in poor conditions. "In October," that report said, "one person was killed and another wounded when an ice-skating bear attacked his Russian handlers at a circus in Kyrgyzstan." Two morals to that story: (1) be kind to animals, and (2) if training an ice-skating bear, be sure you can skate faster than it can.