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Leonid Bershidsky

Quiet Tyrannies Like Turkmenistan Aren’t a Laughing Matter

John Oliver’s jokes aside, the country’s silly Guinness records are evidence that it isn’t seen as toxic, though it should be.

Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov and close friend.

Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov and close friend.

Photographer: Igor Sasin/AFP/Getty Images

The latest episode of British comedian John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” show, watched more than 3.6 million times on YouTube in addition to its usual audience of several million on HBO, drew Western watchers’ attention to one of the world’s most secretive countries, Turkmenistan – the only nation that ranks below North Korea on the Reporters Without Borders 2019 press freedom list.

Oliver found it especially worthy of ridicule that Turkmenistan’s leader, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, keeps registering one fatuous Guinness World Record after another. Oliver even tried to set a record of his own – for the world’s biggest marble cake featuring an image of a man (Berdimuhamedov) falling off a horse – but the Guinness World Record organization turned him down “on the basis that it was merely an opportunity to mock one of our record-holders.” (The cake was made, anyway.)