Semey, Kazakhstan: Ode to Dostoevsky and A Farewell to Nuclear Arms
I am in Semey. I find myself standing outside a two-storied log-house with a tin roof and green coloured windows. There are just a handful of people about; Russian tourists I presume. This is the well-preserved living quarters (and now a museum) of one of literature’s giants: Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky.
This diversionary trip was a last minute addition: it would be travesty to come away from Kazakhstan without paying homage to the Russian literary stalwart. So I took a flight from Almaty to Semey; by road it would have taken about 20 hours!
After spending 4 years in a Siberian prison, Dostoevsky was put in compulsory military service in Semipalatinsk (Semey), Kazakhstan, for 6 years. The author of Crime and Punishment, The Idiot (1869), Demons, and The Brothers Karamazov wrote 12 novels besides novellas, short-stories, essays and other writings. The museum has parts of manuscripts, handwritten letters, and his artworks. The basement is a recreation of his work space: his original writing desk, gramophone, books and other chattels provide a glimpse into 19th century aristocratic lifestyle.
The imposing joint-statue of Dostoevsky and Chokhan Valikhanovm in Semey is literally ‘a clash of civilisations’: Dostoevesky – exiled Russian littérateur meets Valikhanovm – Kazakh princeling and scholar, direct descendant of Chengiz Khan, and upholder of all things native.
I also took time to visit the Museum of Abay Kunanbayev, Father of Kazakh poetry, philosopher, social reformer. The impressive complex of buildings houses 17 halls, full of exhibits: impossible to traverse in a single day. I only had time to see Abay and his Epoch: his influence on Kazakh economic, administrative and socio-political structure.
Incidently, Semipalatinsk, was part of the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons program. The infamous ‘Semipalatinsk Polygon’ is just 150 kms away. These numbers are going to shake you: 456 nuclear tests were conducted in this area from 1949 until 1989. I feared that radioactive fallout might still be hanging around; but this is now an actively researched atomic testing site, and the only one in the world that is open to the public!