Introducing Semey (Semipalatinsk)
Semey, 200km down the Irtysh from Ust-Kamenogorsk, is sadly better known to the world by its Russian name Semipalatinsk. Between 1949 and 1989 the Soviet military exploded some 460 nuclear bombs in the Polygon, an area of steppe west of the city. Locals say they knew when tests were taking place because the ground would shake – often on Sunday morning. An unprecedented wave of popular protest, the Nevada-Semipalatinsk Movement, was largely instrumental in halting the tests in 1989. Short-term visitors are not considered to be at any risk, however the bomb effects live on: radiation has taken a severe toll on the health of many thousands of people in Semey and beyond.
Despite its Soviet-generated sufferings, Semey is one of Kazakhstan’s more interesting cities. Set in the territory of the Middle Horde, noted for their eloquence and intellect, the city and area have produced several major Kazakh writers and teachers, notably the national poet Abay Kunanbaev (1845–1904). In 1917 Semey was the capital of the short-lived Alash Orda independent Kazakhstan government.
Like Ust-Kamenogorsk, Semey was founded, in 1718, as a Russian fortification against the Zhungarians. In the 19th century, writer Fyodor Dostoevsky was among several democracy-minded Russian intellectuals who spent years of exile here. Their presence spurred a flowering of arts and learning among educated local Kazakhs.
Semey today is one of Kazakhstan’s more economically depressed cities, but the centre is steadily brightening up with new stores and restaurants. A multimillion-dollar suspension bridge across the Irtysh, funded with Japanese loans, gives the place a modern skyline.