Identification. The Turkmens are one of the major ethnic groups of Central Asia, where they had their own Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR), also referred to as Turkmenia or Turkmenistan. The majority of Turkmens of the former USSR live within the present-day republic of Turkmenistan, although some communities are found in neighboring Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. In addition, large numbers of Turkmens reside outside the former Soviet Union, in northeastern Iran, northwestern Afghanistan, northern Iraq, and eastern Turkey.
Location. Turkmenistan is the southernmost republic of the former Soviet Union. It is bounded on the west by the Caspian Sea, on the south by Iran and Afghanistan, on the northwest by Kazakhstan, and on the north and east by Uzbekistan. The Amu Darya forms much of the border with Uzbekistan. The dominant geographic feature of the republic is the largely uninhabited Kara Kum (lit., "Black Sand") Desert, which occupies almost 90 percent of Turkmenistan. Human habitation is concentrated on the fringes of the Kara Kum, especially along the southern border of the republic, in the foothills of the Kopet Dagh, and in the oases of the Murgab and Tejen rivers, as well as along the Amu Darya in the east, the Caspian shore in the west, and the western border of Khorezm in the north.
Turkmenistan tends to have hot, dry summers; mild winters; short, humid springs; and dry autumns. Temperatures range from an average high of 2° C in January to 30° C in July, with highs near 50° C recorded in the Kara Kum Desert. Precipitation averages only 20 to 30 centimeters annually. Both temperature and precipitation vary considerably within the republic.
Demography. The Turkmen population of the Soviet Union as of the 1989 census was 2,718,297, an increase of 34 percent over the 1979 population of 2,027,913, and 78 percent over the 1970 population of 1,525,284. The Turkmens are therefore one of the fastest-growing ethnic groups of Central Asia, largely owing to very high birthrates; they presently average over five children per family. The increase among the Turkmens contrasts with a declining Slavic population in Turkmenistan. In 1979 Slavs accounted for 13.9 percent of the republic's overall population, in 1989 only 10.5 percent. With well over 50 percent of the population residing outside of urban areas, the Turkmens are among the most rural inhabitants of the former Soviet Union.
Linguistic Affiliation. The Turkmens speak a language belonging to the Oghuz or Southwest Branch of the Turkic Language Group. Thus, they are closer linguistically to the Azerbaijanis and the Turks of Turkey than to the neighboring Turkic peoples of Central Asia, such as the Uzbeks and Kazakhs. Distinct tribal dialects exist among the Turkmens. Elements of an emerging Turkmen literary language can be found as early as the eighteenth century in the common Turkic (or Chagatay) literature of Central Asia. The modern literary Turkmen language is a relatively new creation, however, developed in the 1920s under Soviet supervision and based on the Yomut and Teke dialects. Initially the Soviets opted for modifying the traditional Arabic script of the Turkmens, but in the late 1920s a shift was made to the Latin alphabet and, after 1939, to the modified Cyrillic alphabet. Recently there have been calls to return to the Arabic script, which Turkmens living outside the former Soviet Union have continued to use.