Semey is closely associated with the poet and philosopher Abai Kunanbaev, revered today as the most important Kazakh literary figure, who was born in the hills of Chingistau south of the city. It is therefore fitting that right in the centre of town stands the large complex of the Abai Museum that is a must for every visitor to Semey. The complex consists of several buildings. It was organised in 1995 to mark the 150th anniversary of the poet's birth. The main entrance is in the stylish Tsarist-era building, with half-columns around the windows, on Lenin Street. Behind this is a green-domed concrete building. Further along stands a wooden mosque, with an octagonal minaret in its centre, and the wooden building of the madrasa of Ahmet Riza, at which Abai studied from 1855-59. The madrasa was moved to its current site as part of the anniversary works. A seated statue of Abai, with empty sockets for eyes, gazes unseeingly towards the madrasa building.
The generously furnished building houses a lovingly-and didactically-clever collection of exhibits that provide information about the sources of Abai's creative force, his life and work, his experience, as well as the work of his students, and the way his heritage has lived on through the course of time. Abai's manuscripts, the household tools mentioned earlier and other testimonies to his life and times are impressive, but of particular interest are the many artistic works depicting the topics and tales in Abai's literature.
Wonderful goblins by Shamyl Koshanov and expressive graphics by Yevgeny Sidorkin offer foreign visitors a true reflection of Abai's broad creative imagination. These works can rightfully be included in the most important works of art in Kazakhstan today.
On entering the museum you climb the stairs towards a statue of Abai, in a serene white colour, against a tapestry backdrop. The exhibition halls begin to the left. The first displays a wall map of the places associated with Abai, and his family tree. A tapestry by Shami Kozhakhanov, one of several created in 1995 as part of the anniversary celebrations, depicts Abai as a horse, being pursued by a wolf, representing reactionary forces pitted against him, while swans in flight represent his creative works. The next room contains photographs of 19th-century Semipalatinsk, as well as a copy of a pencil portrait of Abai drawn in 1887 by Lobanovsky, a Russian friend of the poet. Also on display are the writing desk, bookcase and mirror from Aniyar Moldabaev's house in Semipalatinsk, used by Abai when he stayed there.
Moving into the concrete building constructed in 1995 as an extension to the museum, you next reach an art gallery. This includes paintings and drawings of the poet, and of some of the places linked with him and his works, such as the Mausoleum of Zere and Ulzhan, Abai's grandmother and mother. The museum holds 11 paintings by the noted Kazakh artist Abylkhan Kasteyev. One of these depicts Abai as a learned- looking boy, squatting in front of an open exercise book. Another shows an adult Abai writing poetry. Next comes a room full of late 19th-century furniture.
Heading into the heart of the new block, a room to the right highlights the life of the nomadic Kazakhs, with a yurt, lavishly floored with felt rugs and containing a four-poster bed with nicely decorated base, set in a steppe diorama against a painted backdrop of a Kazakh family and their horses. There are also items of clothing and jewellery on display. Opposite is an interesting room which sets out to illustrate the three sources of inspiration for Abai's work. The first is Kazakh culture and oral literary tradition, represented by a tapestry behind a bust of the poet, on which are depicted balbals, dombra and kobyz. A frieze illustrates the second source, Eastern literature, with portraits of central Asian and other Eastern literary figures, such as Al Farabi and Navoi. The third source of inspiration, Russian and Western literature, is illustrated by another frieze depicting writers such as Pushkin, Dostoevsky and Lermontov, as well as western European literary greats such as Byron.
The hall of yurts provides a very realistic idea of the Kazakh nomad's way of life. The fully furnished yurt is a masterpiece of craft which makes the visitor share the feeling as described by Abai in his poem "Spring": the utmost joy that fills the hearts of shepherds and their families when, after a long winter, they can finally put up their yurts in the broad, green steppe again.
A circular room under the dome once housed an audio-visual display, which no longer functions. Rooms on either side of this offer little of interest beyond friezes and comfy sofas. Up the stairs are a couple of rooms showcasing Abai's works. One highlights his poetry and his best-known maxims: most set out in Kazakh only, though a few Russian-language versions are included. The other room focuses on Abai's translations of the works of other poets, including Pushkin, Lermontov and (through Lermontov's Russian-language versions) Goethe and Byron. There is also a display on Abai's songs. Back downstairs is a room of items associated with the celebrations of the 150th anniversary of the poets birth, including carpets bearing his portrait, vases and a huge 'memory book'.
The displays then continue downstairs back in the Tsarist-era building. A long room has a display of the works of Shakarim Kudaiberdiev, Abai's nephew, who followed in the footsteps of his uncle as a poet and philosopher, but who fell victim to the Stalinist regime in 1931. There are briefer displays highlighting the literary works of other relatives and pupils of Abai. Then come items related to the writer Mukhtar Auezov, also a native of the region, who did much to popularise the work of Abai. A large Kozhakhanov tapestry at the end of the room, entitled Consonance, features a balding Auezov sitting attentively at the feet of an ethereal Abai. The last room looks at Abai's legacy, with medals associated with various anniversary commemorations of his birth, a frieze of the Abai and Shakarim Mausoleum at Zhidebay and a model of the museum complex.