On hearing the name Semipalatinsk (population - 320,000), most people think of catastrophic atom bomb experiments on test sites in the Kazakh steppe. As a result, few would think of choosing this place as a travel destination. This, however, does a great injustice to the city, now known by its Kazakh name of Semey. Not only did the tests stop in 1991, but radiation has dropped to significantly below internationally recognized maximum levels of tolerance in both the city and its surroundings. There is much to see here as well-residents of Semey proudly refer to their city as the spiritual capital of Kazakhstan. In doing so, they can draw on a rich history.
The name of Semipalatinsk has internationally become closely identified with the Semipalatinsk Test Site, the location for 456 nuclear explosions between 1949 and 1989. It is located 200km down the Irtysh from Ust-Kamenogorsk. Between 1949 and 1989 the Soviet military exploded some 460 nuclear bombs in the Semipalatinsk Polygon, an area of steppe west of the city. The city has indeed suffered deeply from the health effects of the nuclear tests, both from fallout from tests conducted in the atmosphere and exposure of residents of the city working at the test site.
An unprecedented wave of popular protest, the Nevada-Semipalatinsk Movement, was largely instrumental in halting the tests in 1989, but radiation has taken a severe toll on the health of many thousands of people in Semey and beyond. When President Nazarbaev formally renamed the city, using its Kazakh name Semey, one of the reasons given for the switch was that the name Semipalatinsk had negative connotations which might put off potential foreign investors.
Yet Semey/Semipalatinsk is also one of Kazakhstan's most historically interesting cities, with some fine Tsarist buildings, a close association with the Kazakh poet Abai, and it was the place of exile of the Russian writer Fyodr Dostoevsky. There are good museums in the city honouring both Abai and Dostoevsky. While parts of the Semipalatinsk Test Site itself are still not safe to visit, these lie well away from Semey, which offers a rewarding stop on a Kazakhstan tour.
In 1616, word reached Russia about a city by the name of Dorzhinkit. It was said to be located on the right bank of the Irtysh, at the site of an ancient Lamaist monastery of Zhungar origin. This city, located in the fertile Irtysh Plain, had flourished thanks to the trade routes that crossed the river through a nearby ford.
The origins of the city date to Peter the Great's desire to see a line of fortresses along the Irtysh River to help defend the southern parts of the Russian Empire against the predations of the Dzhungars, as well as to develop trade routes and the exploitation of gold deposits. In 1717, one of several expeditions to the area was set up under Colonel Stupin. A detachment of this expedition led by Vasily Cheredov established the fortress of Semipalatinsk on the right bank of the Irtysh in 1718. It received its name, 'seven halls', from the seven buildings of a ruined Buddhist monastery nearby.
However, the name was only officially given in 1760 to a second fortress that was built on the spot where the present-day city is situated; apparently the first fortress, a rectangular wooden structure named Fort Yamyshevsk, was severely damaged on several occasions by the untamed Irtysh's spring floods, so it was decided to choose a better location at a higher level. In 1776, the fortress was again moved, this time a distance of 18 kilometres, and named Semipalatinsk. It swiftly developed into an important trade centre, and by the middle of the 19th Century, annual revenues from exchange of goods from Russia, China and Central Asia amounted to a million gold roubles. There was no end to the influx of caravans, and Semipalatinsk grew rich. Since that time, the city's coat of arms has featured a camel, symbolizing the caravans that once crossed the Irtysh here, bringing success and wealth to the city.
It received town status, as the administrative capital of Semipalatinsk Uyezd, in 1782. By this stage it was developing as a trading centre, its original military role having become less important with the removal of the threat from the Dzhungars. A customs office was opened at the fortress in 1748. The town grew throughout the 19th century, with a Cossack settlement to the north of the fortress, a Tartar one to its south. Fairs were held in the town. In 1880, the first steamer ploughed between Semipalatinsk and Tyumen.
Contrary to expectation, the Kazakh name for the city, Semey, is not derived from the Russian. It comes from an ancient Turkic word meaning holy or spiritual site. The Kazakh tribes of old appear to have given this name to the site, a prophetic decision since many of Kazakhstan's outstanding luminaries, in whom the nation takes great pride, originate from Semey, including the great poet Abai Kunanbayev, the writer and founder of Kazakh theatre Mukhtar Auezov, the poet and philosopher Shakarim, the founding fathers of the nationalist party Alash Orda and a number of important musicians, singers and other creative artists.
The people of Kazakhstan have the 19th Century Russian tsars to thank for this, because they used Semipalatinsk as a place of exile. The young, democracy-minded aristocrats when from 1825 onwards, began to strive for reforms in the tsarist autocracy usually ended up here. But their exile did not stop these well-educated, energetic noblemen from proclaiming their ideas. Libraries, museums and schools were opened. Scientific societies and cultural circles were established. In all, though unwittingly, the tsars had done the area an immense favour. Intellectual life in the garrison town increased by leaps and bounds thanks to the presence of great people such as Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Yevgeny Mikhaelis, the four Byeloslyudov brothers and many others. The establishment of the city library dates back to that time, as well as that of the Society for Geographical and Statistical Science.
Young Kazakhs such as Abai Kunanbayev, eager to learn, were welcomed into the company of Russian democrats, and an extensive mutual enrichment was the result. The development of the minds and personalities of people like Abai and Shakarim was a natural result of this concentration of brilliant and critical minds at a time when all over Russia social contradictions were crystallizing. Considering this, it is no surprise that the founders of the nationalist party AlashOrda, which in 1917 stepped forward to claim independence, should come from Semipalatinsk. The fact that all the inheritors of Abai's legacy, including the leadership of Alash Orda, the philosopher Shakarim and with them the bulk of the Kazakh intellectual class, were to be caught and murdered in the 1930s by the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD), was an immeasurable loss both for Russia and the Kazakhstan to come.
Semipalatinsk, which was briefly renamed Alash Kala, became the capital of the short-lived Alash Autonomous Government headed by Alikhan Bokeikhanov, which lasted from 1917-20. The Alash Government initially formed part of a disparate group of White forces lined up against the Bolsheviks, but later sought an alliance with the Bolsheviks as the Civil War turned in favour of the latter. The Alash Autonomous Government ceased to exist in August 1920, when the Kyrgyz Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was established.
Semey has weathered economic hardships in the post-independence period. Its Soviet industrial base was focused on light industry and food processing. The city's industries were particularly noted for the provision of clothing and canned meat for the Soviet army. These did not well equip Semey for the arrival of a market economy. The loss of its status as a regional capital following the administrative reforms of 1997, when Semipalatinsk Region was merged into East Kazakhstan, provided a further blow. A sense of decline has affected even its football team. Semey has claims to be the birthplace of football in Kazakhstan, and its club Yelimay Semipalatinsk was three times Kazakhstan champion in the 1990s. But the club, now called FC Semey, currently languishes in the First (that is, Second) Division.
Semey is only now starting to see the kind of regeneration that has brightened other cities in Kazakhstan. A multimillion-dollar suspension bridge across the Irtysh with pylons 90m in height at least gives the city a modern skyline and provides a symbol of optimism for the renewed growth of the city.
Fortunately, the city and its surrounding area still bear many traces of their history in the form of museums and monuments, which have been or are being restored, and are definitely worth exploring. The Local History Museum (a kind of museum called Muzey krayevedyeniya- "local lore, history and economy museum" in Russian) is a good start for a cultural tour around Semey. Situated on Abai Street/Lenin Street, it was established as the Gogol Library, with an appropriate exhibition, by exiled democrats led by Yevgeny Mikhaelis. It is hard to overestimate the huge merit of this initiative, which for the first time held a mirror in front of the region through which it could see its own history. The oldest exhibits include a collection of 60 household tools from the Kazakh daily life of old, donated to the museum by Abai.
Orientation - Nearly everything of interest is on the north side of the Irtysh River. The main streets, slicing across town from southwest to northeast, are Shakarima and Internatsionalnaya.
Getting there and around - The airport, whose proud title of Semey International Airport is just about justified by a weekly flight to Moscow on the Russian airline S7, is around 13km from the city centre. There are five flights a week to Almaty on a cramped Yak-40 aircraft operated by the local airline SemeyAvia. Scat also has two flights a week to Almaty and four to Ust-Kamenogorsk, two of which take a circuitous route via Ayagoz. Air Astana flies six times a week between Semey and Astana, on an An-24.
The railway station is in the northern part of the city, at the northern end of the busy Shakarim Avenue. It is the northern terminus of a daily train to Almaty, and also lies on the route between Almaty and Zashita (Ust-Kamenogorsk) as well as destinations in Russia. There are less frequent departures to Pavlodar and Astana. The bus station is closer in, at the northwest edge of the city centre close to the main bazaar.