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Dostoevsky Literary Museum

The streets to the east of the Central Square are an old part of town, with single-storey wooden Tsarist houses, crumbling Soviet apartment blocks and brightly hued modern structures forming an often chaotic jumble. One block behind the city akimat building stands the Dostoevsky Literary Museum. The museum is centred on the modest log-walled building in which the great Russian writer Dostoevsky lived in exile from 1857-59 with his wife and baby. It was in Semey that Dostoevsky began one of his most famous novels, The Brothers Karamazov, and made friends with the extraordinary Shokan Ualikhanov (Chokan Valikhanov), a prince of the Kazakh Middle Horde, explorer, intellectual, and spy in the Russian army. A plaque on the outside wall records that he met here with the scholars Chokan Valikhanov and Pyotr Semyonov-Tianshansky. Dostoevsky's house is dwarfed by the large concrete extension added in the 1970s, with a large relief of Dostoevsky's face on the outside wall.

The great Russian author spent the second stage of his exile here in Semipalatinsk, from 1854 till 1859, having already spent five years in the southern Siberian city of Omsk. His work Notes from the House of the Dead is dedicated to that first period of his exile. Along with more than 100 other members of the St Petersburg literary circle, Dostoyevsky was arrested and convicted after an informant of the Tsar's secret police had reported on their discussions about Russian serfdom. The sentence for the writer, already well known in Russia, was changed to exile literally seconds before he was to be executed.

Once in Semipalatinsk, Dostoyevsky received the support of Governor Spiridonov and Baron Wrangel. The latter arranged for the author to get back his officer's rank and his civil rights. This made life in exile a lot more comfortable for Dostoyevsky, and he lived in relative peace here. It was in the city that he met his first great love, married her and went to live in a two-storey wooden house in the Tartar neighbourhood. This house, with a large building attached to it, is now the museum. A guided tour reveals much of the man behind the famous author. A metal statue of Fyodor Dostoyevsky and the young Kazakh scholar and travel explorer, Chokan Valikhanov, stands next to the museum, documenting the many friendly encounters in the city between these two men of genius.

The inspiration for the statue is the 1859 photograph of the two together, of which you can see a copy in the museum, but a comparison of the two is instructive, particularly in respect of Valikhanov. The dashing and resolute figure of the statue seems a long way from the face which stares out from the photograph. Dostoevsky, in contrast, is balding throughout.

The museum displays Dostoevsky’s life and works, including his five years in jail at Omsk and five years of enforced military service at Semey. His rooms have been maintained in the style of his day, and the vast number of images of Dostoevsky alone make it worth a visit.

A plaque in the foyer records the 1971 decision of the Council of Ministers of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic to open the museum. The main display is upstairs in the modern extension. There are exhibits related to the writer's early career in St Petersburg. In the centre of the room, the period of his imprisonment in Omsk is illustrated by a striking space walled off by a composition featuring 400 wooden faces, entitled The House of the Dead and inspired by Dostoevsky's semi-autobiographical account of prison life. There are sinister-looking drawings by the artist A. Korsakova, used to illustrate Dostoevsky's The House of the Dead, and leg irons, weighing 4kg, of the type Dostoevsky had to wear throughout his time in Omsk.

Dostoevsky's exile in Semipalatinsk is illustrated by a relief plan of the grid patterned town and with contemporary photographs of the town and of his friends, including Baron Wrangel, Pyotr Semyonov-Tianshansky and Maria Isaeva. There is an 1859 photograph of Dostoevsky and Chokan Valikhanov together, used as the inspiration for the statue of the two intellectuals outside the museum. There are also illustrations by Korsakova used for the novellas Uncle's Dream and The Friend of the Family, on which Dostoevsky worked in Semipalatinsk. Haunting, wide-eyed, accusing faces are drawn in a smudgy style. Dostoevsky's later life and career are also covered, with family photographs and displays on his major novels, the latter illustrated with more drawings by Korsakova. There are also Kazakh-language- translations of Dostoevsky's works on display. The room is decorated with a swirly 1970s Soviet frieze of Dostoevsky and his works.

The interior of the apartment in which Dostoevsky and his new bride lived from 1857-59 has been recreated from the memoirs of a Semipalatinsk resident named Z. Sytina. There is a dining room, with samovar and tea set ready for guests. Samples of the writer's handwriting are displayed in his study. The ground floor of the Soviet extension houses temporary exhibitions, such as displays of work by local schoolchildren.

A few blocks east of the Dostoevsky Literary Museum, amidst the grid pattern of small streets in this old part of town, stands the pastel-green-shaded Tsarist-era Mosque of Latif Sadikuly Musin. A cylindrical minaret rises to a green cone at the eastern end of the building. There is a large flattish dome behind it, standing on a low circular drum.