When Saparmurat Niyazov, the self-proclaimed Turkmenbashi, “Father of all Turkmen,” and president for life of Turkmanistan, died last December 21, Dr. Gregory Levin e-mailed me a Russian saying: “If you wait long enough, your enemy’s corpse will pass under your window.”
For the previous fifteen years, Turkmenbashi had ruled the former Soviet republic of 5 million mostly nomadic people with an iron hand. A strategic country since 9/11, Turkmenistan borders Iran, Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan.
Levin is a botanist. During the Soviet period, he created in Turkmenistan the world’s largest pomegranate collection. He started working at an agricultural station in the foothills of the Kopet Dag Mountains, west of Ashgabat, the capital, in 1960. But when the USSR collapsed, Russian scientists like Levin got stuck in the newly independent states without passports or salaries. He hung on until 2002, investigating, collecting, and protecting 1,117 varieties of pomegranates from thirty-seven countries and four continents. Then Turkmenbashi exiled him from his life’s work.
A Russian Jew, Levin did not fit in with the dictator’s all-Turkmen vision. Levin and his wife emigrated to Israel. After their departure, orders came from Turkmenbashi, a self-styled “environmentalist,” to bulldoze acres of the agricultural station, to uproot rare trees to plant vegetables, and to allow grazing in the last wild pomegranate...