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Exploring Uralsk

Most of the town's sights are found along or close to Dostyk Avenue, which runs north-south through the heart of Uralsk. The oldest part of town is a district known as Kureni, at the southern end of the town centre at the confluence of the Chagan and Ural rivers. It was here that the Cossack settlement was born. This remains a district of single-storey wooden dwellings, often with painted wooden shutters. Heading northwards through this district along Dostyk Avenue, you reach on your left, at the junction with Stremyannaya Street, the log-walled building containing the House Museum of Yemelyan Pugachev.

The house, one of the oldest in Uralsk, was owned by Pyotr Kuznetsov, whose daughter Ustinya became Pugachev's second wife.
One room of this small museum chronicles the history of the Pugachev Rebellion. The basic weapons of Pugachev's forces, including knives, forks and clubs, are contrasted with the finer sabres, rifles and muskets of those in the Tsarist ranks. A decree of Pugachev is displayed, promising his supporters land, fishing rights and provisions. There is a stamp and coins of 'Tsar Peter III', and a curious portrait of Pugachev, painted over one of Catherine II, whose eyes are eerily still discernible.

The throne Pugachev used at Yaitskiy Gorodok is on display, as is a portrait of the celebrated general, Alexander Suvorov, looking very pleased with himself, taking the captured Pugachev off to meet his fate in a small cage. A model of this highly restrictive cage is also on show. Another room looks at the life of the Yaitsk Cossacks, with photographs of net fishing across the river and of the fish bazaar. A third room, focused on a large oven, is set out as a Cossack kitchen, rich in wooden utensils. There is a living room/bedroom, with icon in the corner and a female Cossack dress and priest's robes on display. And there is a display about the visit to Uralsk of Pushkin in 1833, gathering material for his studies on the Pugachev Rebellion.

Continuing northwards along Dostyk Avenue, you soon reach on your right the pale green-walled Cathedral of Archangel Mikhail, completed in 1751 and one of the oldest buildings in Uralsk still standing. The main body of the church is square in plan, topped by onion domes, with a large square-based bell tower above the main entrance. The cathedral, part of the fortress area of Yaitskiy Gorodok, was at the centre of the siege during the Pugachev Rebellion. The original, more elaborate, bell tower was destroyed during the course of the siege. It was replaced initially by a wooden bell tower and then, in 1861, by the present one. The cathedral has a rich iconostasis and a largely female congregation. It served as a museum during Soviet times, and was returned to the Church in 1989.

Continue north along Dostyk Avenue, passing a road sign which still tells you that the thoroughfare is named in honour of Lenin. At the corner with Pugachev Street stands a modern statue of Pushkin, looking rather dapper in a long coat. Uralsk's connection with the great Russian poet rests on a short trip made by Pushkin to the town in September 1833, while carrying out his research into the Pugachev Rebellion. The results of this research would be Pushkin's History of the Pugachev Rebellion as well as the historical novel The Captain's Daughter, published in 1836. In the novel Pugachev is one of the main characters, first encountered as the mysterious guide who leads our hero, Pyotr Grinov, to the safety of an inn during a ferocious blizzard, for which act Pyotr rewards him with his hareskin jacket. Pushkin arrived in Uralsk on 21 September, together with his friend, the lexicographer Vladimir Dal. They were warmly greeted by the ataman of the Cossack Host, given accounts of the rebellion and visited the Kuznetsov house and the fortress.

Turning right onto Pugachev Street at this intersection, you soon encounter, on your right, a striking war memorial, close to the bank of the River Ural. Two tall white-painted concrete panels stretch skywards. A frieze depicts scenes of Red Army valour and of the devastation wrought by German bombers. The faces of local Heroes of the Soviet Union, among them female machine gunner Manshuk Mametova, are depicted in relief. And there is a dauntingly long list of the names of those killed, organised by district. Behind the main monument, a simple memorial, a Red Army helmet on a rock, commemorates the 28 local people killed in the Afghanistan conflict in the 1980s.

Continuing further north along Dostyk Avenue from the Hotel Pushkin, you come to the main building of the West Kazakhstan State University on your right, a pastel green-painted block with protruding wings, its frontage embellished by white Corinthian half-columns. It was built in 1939 on the site of the Kazan Cathedral. Across the road is a statue of a small boy in uniform, standing next to his dying horse: it honours Misha Gavrilov, a young hero of the Civil War. The impressive red-brick building with the green vaulted roof behind this is now a school. It was built in the 1870s as a private house by a wealthy merchant family named Vanyshin.

This stretch of Dostyk Avenue features many fine one- and two-storey Tsarist buildings, several of them embellished with plaques recording once momentous meetings and events, such as brief stays by the Civil War commander General Frunze. Opposite the Nature Museum, the two-storey green-walled Italianate building, largely given over to a military hospital, was the Ataman House in which Pushkin stayed during his visit to Uralsk in 1833. It was the residence of Ataman Pokatilov, who welcomed Pushkin to the town. A small part of the building now houses a Pushkin Museum. The museum was opened during the 2006 visit to the city of President Putin of Russia. It comprises one room, smartly laid out with furniture contemporary to Pushkin's visit. There are photographs of the various places in the town visited by the Russian poet, and on a writing desk a copy of a letter written by Pushkin to his wife, Natalya Nikolaevna, describing the warm reception he had received from the local ataman, which had included two dinners incorporating fresh caviare. There are descriptions of other Russian literary figures to have visited Uralsk, many of whom also stayed in the Ataman House, amongst them Leo Tolstoy and the poet Vasily Zhukovsky. Also covered are the Kazakh writers, including Abai and Shakarim, who translated Pushkin's poetry into the Kazakh language.

Three blocks to the north, at the intersection of Dostyk Avenue and Kirov Street, stands a particularly grand red-brick Tsarist building, the Karev House. With three storeys, this stood proudly above the other buildings of the town on its construction in 1901. One popular local tale relating to this building is based around the rivalry between two prominent merchants, Karev and Ovchinik. The latter had built his house across the road to two-and-a-half storeys, to stand out amongst the buildings of the town. Karev therefore resolved to build his house to three stories, which would also have the effect of cutting out Ovchinik's sun. But as the third storey was nearing completion, Karev, examining progress at the site, fell from the scaffolding to his death. The building now houses the regional philharmonia and a library.

Two blocks further north, take a detour by turning right onto Dosmukhamedov Street. After four blocks, you reach on your right a fine Tsarist-era mosque. Built in 1897, this features an elegant brick minaret with arched windows up its sides, which rises up from a hexagonal entrance hall in front of the mosque proper.

Back on Dostyk Avenue, you reach, one block north of the intersection with Dosmukhamedov Street, the central Abai Square. The western side is dominated by the regional akimat building, a fine Tsarist structure dating from 1896. The two wings of the building taper away from the main central block, which is embellished by two tall Corinthian columns rising up either side of the entrance. The park opposite features a serious modern statue of the poet Abai, behind which stand the offices of the city akimat, a dowdy block made uglier by its proximity to that of the regional akimat. There is a large television screen in one corner of the square, behind which stands the curved facade of the modern building housing the Kazakh Drama Theatre.

The pedestrianised Dina Nurpeisova Street, still known by most locals by its former name of Teatralnaya, runs eastwards from Dostyk Avenue past the offices of the city administration. It is a popular place for evening strolling and people- watching.

Continuing northwards along Dostyk Avenue, turn right two blocks north of the Regional Museum of History and Local Lore onto Saraichik Street. You reach on your left after a further two blocks an attractive single-storey brick bungalow with yellow-painted walls standing behind a metal fence. This is the House Museum of Manshuk Mametova. Through photographs and her family's personal belongings, the museum chronicles the life of machine gunner Manshuk Mametova, the first Soviet Asian woman to receive the award of Hero of the Soviet Union.

Manshuk, who was born in Orda in the westernmost part of the region, was adopted by the childless Ahmet Mametov and his wife Amina. The Mametov family lived in this house from 1932 until 1934, before moving to Almaty where Ahmet, a doctor, fell victim to Stalinist repression and was shot in 1938. It is striking that Kazakhstan's twin revered female Heroes of the Soviet Union, Manshuk Mametova and Aliya Moldagulova, both suffered so harshly in childhood from the Soviet regime. Manshuk was studying in the medical institute in Almaty at the outbreak of war. She joined the 100th Kazakh Brigade and served as a radio operator and then nurse before becoming a machine gunner, dying valiantly in battle in Pskov Region on 15 October 1943. The museum displays a touching selection of Manshuk's personal possessions, a gift to the museum from her mother Amina. They include Manshuk's red pioneer scarf, an embroidery of the Kremlin and a children's edition of Pushkin. The first room in the museum, which focuses on Manshuk's childhood, contains a sculpture of a smiling, skittish future war hero, holding a flower. The next room has displays on the war heroes of Western Kazakhstan Region. A third is laid out as it might have looked when the family lived there in the 1930s: Manshuk's battered globe stands on a side table next to an iron bed.

Behind the house is a modern brick building, put up in the early 1990s, which contains a diorama showing Manshuk's last battle, that for the town of Nevel in October 1943, with the brave and resolute Manshuk standing firm at her machine gun while German tanks and troops advance towards her. The birch trees in the grounds of the building were brought from Nevel.

Back on Dostyk Avenue, two blocks north of the intersection with Saraichik Street sits the exuberant Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. This Russian Orthodox church has an elegant brick design, with an octagonal tower topped by a spire on which is perched a golden onion dome, and a smaller octagonal bell tower standing in front of it. The years '1591' and '1891' are carved on panels either side of the steps leading up to the church. The significance of these dates lies in the fact that the decision to build the cathedral was taken at a convention of delegates from Cossack stanitsas in 1886, when they agreed that its construction would provide a fine celebration of the 300th anniversary of the Cossack Host, due in 1891. But revenue raising took longer than anticipated, and the cathedral was only completed in 1907.

In the small park across from the church is an equestrian statue of Syrym Datov, who led a Kazakh rebellion in the late 18th century against Tsarist Russian domination and those Kazakhs perceived to be too willing to accept Russian control. Esim Nuraliev, a grandson of Abulkhair Khan, was one of those killed by Datov's rebels. Syrym Datov is here portrayed holding out his right hand as if indicating to the invisible supporters riding behind him to slow down as they approach the busy road. The concrete bulk of the West Kazakhstan Regional Maslikhat stands behind the statue.

The north end of Dostyk Avenue hosts a concrete square with a golden statue of Manshuk Mametova, holding a string of machine-gun bullets.