Semey (Semipalatinsk in Russian) is often overlooked nowadays when people visit North Kazakhstan, thanks in part to the rise of immodest Astana. That is too bad: where Astana points to the future of Kazakhstan, Semey is the embodiment of its past.
Kazakh identity is shaped in a big way by the intellectual life of Semey 150 years ago. When the Russian Tsar banished pesky liberal thinkers like Dostoyevski from Saint-Petersburg to this cold and dusty Siberian outpost, they started engaging with bright young locals.
Future heroes of Kazakhstan like Abay Kunanbaev, Chokan Valikhanov, the Alash Orda movement and Shakarim were all influenced by these new ideas from the West, and although nowadays only the figures are celebrated, not the ideas (see Abay museum), their impact is still undeniable.
However, Semey is anchored in the collective mind mostly for the nearby Polygon, the main nuclear testing site for the USSR, where 456 atomic bombs were exploded. Cancer rates are still high in Semey, and a visit to the Polygon and the museums and monuments of the anti-nuclear movement is a must.
It highlights not only a dark side of the USSR which we have come to expect, but also gives a different angle to the recent political history of Kazakhstan. In the 1980’s Semey once again became a bastion of liberal opposition. Like much else about Semey, it has been forgotten.
History of trade
It is forgotten that during Tsarist times, Semey was an incredibly rich city. The city seal is a camel, pointing out that this Siberian outpost was once a trading hub, connecting Russia proper to China and the newly gained territories in Central Asia.
Tatars and Jews were the main beneficiaries of the trade, and the city’s Tatar quarter today has the largest percentage of old brick trader’s mansions, as well as 100-year-old logbeam houses, disdainfully called barracks by the locals.
During Soviet times, Semipalatinsk had one of the biggest meatpacking factories in the world. Giant herds of sheep were driven from Mongolia over the Altai, and cans of Semipalatinsk meat were distributed to the Soviet army as far as East Germany.
The meat factory stands empty now, and the city has reverted to its trading past, selling Russian and Chinese goods to unsuspecting Kazakh consumers.
Semey is a great place for a stroll. There are mosaics, WW2 memorials and Lenins for Soviet lovers to discover, while Kazakh patriots can selfie with large statues of Abai and Shakarim. Architecturally, the Abay theater, the fire station, the old Chinese consulate, the synagogue, the new bridge and the former governor’s house (now regional museum) stand out.
It’s unusual for me to recommend visiting museums in Kazakhstan, but Semey has several worth visiting.
Semey’s Fine Arts museum has perhaps the best collection of fine art in the country. The Anatomical museum’s collection of malformed foetuses is scary, but a must if you are heading to the Polygon. The Dostoyevski museum is a deep dive into the life of this often-glorified, little-understood Russian icon. Big, but mostly for literature fans and those who speak good Russian.
The Abay museum is geared to Kazakhs honouring their sanctified literary icon, but expats who have spent some time in Kazakhstan and are keen to understand it better will also enjoy it. Finally, the Krayevecheskiy museum is a standard Kazakh regional history museum. If you have time left.
A visit to Semey is not complete without heading to the Polygon and its sinister capital, Kurchatov. You can do it in 1 day, or, if you want to see the Atomic Lake, 2 days with an overnight in Kurchatov. You will need a permit.
As mentioned above, don’t forget to visit the Anatomical museum before you go.
However, just beyond the Tatar quarter in Semey stands another monument not to be missed. Stronger than Death is a moving sculpture testifying to the resilience of Semey’s inhabitants.
The 1980’s saw the birth of a powerful anti-nuclear movement called Nevada-Semipalatinsk that swept Kazakhstan. Led by charismatic author Olzhas Suleimenov, it forced authorities to close the test site in 1991. Suleimenov became the head of the political opposition to president Nazerbayev.
In 1995, instead of challenging the presidency in elections, he accepted Nazarbayev’s offer of an ambassador post to Rome, thereby bringing to an end the era of democracy in Kazakhstan.
Next to the large Stronger than Death monument now stands an even larger stele , celebrating Nazarbayev’s achievements in fighting for a nuclear-free world.
It is worth taking the Tour to Semipalatinsk nuclear test site with excursion in Semey (2 days) if you are planning to visit Semey.