Why Semey Should Be Considered a Historical Center of Kazakhstan

The city where Abay Kunanbayev lived and studied

A Real Kazakhstan project author from Semey talks about life in the city, its new projects, and problems with medical education and old-established architecture.

The city, which is located on both banks of the Irtysh River, was built 300 years ago. In the nineteenth century, it served as a penal settlement for many Russian writers and poets who were considered enemies of the Tsarist regime. For example, prominent Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky, political activist Eugeniy Mikhaelis, and revolutionary Nifont Dolgopolov lived here. Abay Kunanbayev, a famous Kazakh thinker and poet also used to live and study here as well as Mukhtar Auezov, who wrote the two novels “Abay” and “The Path of Abay” and Kanysh Satpayev, a well-known Soviet geologist. 

Abay Museum in Semey has been working since 1940. It’s one of the most popular sightseeing spots in the town. Its guests can observe old-style merchant’s house and Muslim school (madrasa) where Abay studied.

pochemu-semej-dolzhen-stat-istoricheskim-centrom-kazaxstana (2).jpgMadrasa Akhmet-Riza, where Abay Kunanbayev studied, after its remodelling.

In 2020, when Kazakhstan celebrated Abay’s 175th anniversary, local authorities made a large-scale reconstruction of the museum.

pochemu-semej-dolzhen-stat-istoricheskim-centrom-kazaxstana (8).jpgAbay Museum in Semey after its renovation 

Inside the museum, there are many artifacts of old-style Kazakh life. Some of these objects were in the personal possession of Abay or collected by Nifont Dolgopolov, who used to live in a Kazakh village (aul) for a while. 

There is a lot of books and other information in the museum about Abay’s legacy.

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Abay’s room interior in the house of Aldiyar Moldabayev, the poet’s follower

«Khaliolla Uskenbayev, a younger brother of Abay, studied in Russian cadet corps in Omsk, which was also the alma mater for another prominent Kazakh scientist, Chokan Ualikhanov. When Khaliolla visited Abay, he always brought a lot of books and taught his older brother to speak and read in Russian. When Khaliola suddenly died, Abay asked relatives to give all his books to him. Later Russian exiled people opened a public library in Semey. In the late 1880s American journalist George Kennan, who had been traveling through Kazakhstan and Siberia, visited this library,» said Meyramgul Kayrambayeva, deputy head of the museum for science.

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Abay’s works in different languages

Old Buildings Are Fading Away

There are 66 heritage sites in Semey including 34 listed buildings, 16 monuments and 16 historical assets. 

pochemu-semej-dolzhen-stat-istoricheskim-centrom-kazaxstana.jpgOld mosque with two minarets, historical monument

Ten of these heritage assets have a nationwide significance; 56 have local significance, including the building of a women’s secondary school, which was built in the early twentieth century. Unfortunately, this building is in a dangerous condition. 

pochemu-semej-dolzhen-stat-istoricheskim-centrom-kazaxstana (15).jpgThis building was built in 1910 as a women’s secondary school. In 1917 it was severely damaged by fire. Once it was restored, it served as a college, hospital (during World War II) and then as a veterinary institute. In 1986 there was a fire again.

«This is a very sensitive topic for us because since the 1990s the building of veterinary institute has been possessed by private companies. Currently, a construction firm from Almaty is building Semey Mall, so we hope that they will renovate this historical building as well. Another old building, the first telegraph in Semey, was abandoned for almost 30 years. Now it’s the property of the local administration. However, the mayor’s office believes that it isn’t worth being restored for public money, and of course, there is no interest in acquiring the building from the private sector. It is just fading away,» said Ardak Isatayev, head of the Department of Architecture in Semey administration.

Also, there are still about 40 old houses of rich merchants in the town; they were built in the middle of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. 

pochemu-semej-dolzhen-stat-istoricheskim-centrom-kazaxstana (16).jpgOld house of merchant 

Unfortunately, these houses are not considered architectural or historical heritage and they just are fading away as well. Some officials want to use this land for other purposes. 

«The first floor of these houses – a basement – was designed for servants. Usually, one such building served as a house for several families simultaneously. This type of house was very popular among Tatar merchants and there are a lot of similar houses in Kazan, the modern capital of Tatarstan. I think it would be better if the government bought and renovated these old houses. At least those near the mosque; this neighborhood would serve as a historical museum in the open air,» Isatayev noted.

The town’s residents also want Semey officials to do something to save this old architecture. They are quickly getting upset with any news about demolishing historical sites and buildings.

Large-Scale Construction

With a population of 320,000 residents, the town of Semei is relatively big (the center of the East Kazakhstan region Ust-Kamenogorsk has 346,000 residents). Local authorities expect that this rate may reach 400,000 by 2025. People want to live in new modern apartment buildings that have been constructed in the town since 2014.

pochemu-semej-dolzhen-stat-istoricheskim-centrom-kazaxstana (10).jpgNew micro-district Karagaily 

According to the mayor’s office, the new micro-district Karagaily may host 35,500 people. 

«There is about 1.2 million square meters of available housing with a development footprint of 293 hectares. Construction of twenty-six apartment buildings is already over, the other 32 buildings are under construction and 14 of them will be finished by the end of this year. Moreover, local specialists are working on design specifications and estimates for an additional 42 apartment buildings; for the other 25 buildings these specifications are already under review by the authorized body. We are going to build 227 new apartment buildings with proper infrastructures by 2025, Isatayev said.

As the official noted, the micro-district resident can enjoy a sports and cultural center for 5,600 seats with an Olympic-sized pool, pools for children, a movie theater and playrooms. The center costs 24 billion tenge ($55.3 million), which was allocated by the state.

pochemu-semej-dolzhen-stat-istoricheskim-centrom-kazaxstana (7).jpgSports and cultural center in the Karagaily micro district

Local authorities also plan to open an additional 17 new social objects, including seven schools for 1,200 pupils each; seven kindergartens for 320 seats each, a recreational center for 150 seats and a hockey center for 500 seats.
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pochemu-semej-dolzhen-stat-istoricheskim-centrom-kazaxstana (5).jpgThe micro-district is actively being constructed 

There are two main contractors, Firma Asia and VostokStroy, plan to build all these buildings in two phases. The first one will last until 2025. At the second stage, both companies have to build seven dormitories for students of a medical university and its administrative building as well. 

In other parts of the city, construction and installation work are also underway, even though at a lower scale if compared to Karagaily. Last year private investors built in the central parts of the city nine apartment houses in the central parts of the city; this year they want to build an additional ten buildings. All these apartments will be sold on the free market in contrast with the micro-district of Karagayly, where people can rent their apartments or buy with help of a mortgage. 

“In 2020 we provided housing for 148 families including 78 large families, 26 orphans, and 44 disabled persons or incomplete families. In March, 126 additional families, including 25 orphans, 69 large families, and 32 socially vulnerable individuals were provided with rental housing, which they cannot sell,» noted Ardak Isatayev.

According to the Department of Housing and Communal Services and Housing Inspection of the town of Semey, there are 11,868 people staying in the queue for housing. Among them are 1,638 orphans, 756 large families, 3,920 socially vulnerable individuals and over 5,000 civil servants.

Workers in Demand

There is a shortage of workers in Semey, even though 912 people were registered at the labor exchange last year and 1,746 people this year, according to the local employment center.

«Since the beginning of the year, over 1,200 people have been employed for permanent jobs, 140 people have gotten social jobs, and 370 people started their work in the public sector. We are launching the new pilot program named My First Job with a salary of 58,340 tenge ($134,61). Each contract with young people (age up to 29 years) will last two years. During the first year, all wages will be paid at the expense of the employment center,» said Ardak Baysarina, head of the employment department of the Semey Employment Center.

Another problem is a lack of medical workers in Semey, even though there is the oldest medical university in the town. Usually, the vast majority of graduates leave Semey in order to find a job with a higher salary. 

“Medical workers want better conditions and that’s why they are leaving to Pavlodar or Nur-Sultan. Our graduates are welcomed everywhere. Here we need a lot of workers. Almost all enterprises of the city want workers, including the cement plant and Teplokommunenergo. The average salary is pretty low though, about $138. Irtysh broiler factory also needs workers. They need poultry breeders and locksmiths and are ready to pay about $230 plus free transportation services and lunches.

The bulk of the unemployed registered at the labor exchange are people between the age of 45-50 years. Often people of this age struggle to find new jobs, the center statistics show.

New Production Companies

Meanwhile, new production facilities are opening in the city. For example, a large oilseed processing plant is going to start its operations soon. About 90% of its future products are expected to be exported abroad. The plant has already been built and is being prepared for launch. The project cost is about 12 billion tenge ($26.6 million). As expected the plant will create 238 jobs.

Since June 2020, one of the oldest Semey enterprises with a 90-year history, the Semipalatinsk Leather and Mechanical Combine, has come to life.

pochemu-semej-dolzhen-stat-istoricheskim-centrom-kazaxstana (18).jpgCattle hides are purchased for reprocessing throughout the region 

pochemu-semej-dolzhen-stat-istoricheskim-centrom-kazaxstana (14).jpgThere is a high demand for leather products

pochemu-semej-dolzhen-stat-istoricheskim-centrom-kazaxstana (3).jpgThe plant produces 14 types of leather 

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All produced leather is exported to China 

Many years ago it was the only enterprise in the region of such kind. Once it started its work, other leather and wool production businesses emerged. 

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the plant found itself in private hands. In 1998 Semipalatinsk Leather and Mechanical Plant LLP was registered. In 2008, within the framework of the Industrialization Map, a $25 million reconstruction and modernization plan for the tannery was started. In 2012 the plant stopped its work for a while; at the time, it processed raw materials supplied by the customer and became indebted to the bank. When the plant was recognized as bankrupt, its property went to the bank and then to the IFC.

The current investor, Semey Tannery LLP, which has gained control of the property, invested into the plant about $599,908 and hired 95 workers. In six months they increased production volumes from 40 to 250 tons of leather semi-product per month. All these products are exported to China and local Kazakhstani shoe businesses. In the future, the plant is planning to increase the production output to 500 tons per month.

The business is good, even though a massive export of Chinese shoes negatively affects the plant in Semey, its executives said.

Problems and Prices

There are enough problems in Semey, including unsatisfactory street cleaning, low-quality construction work, problems with the public transport system, lack of water supply and lighting, illegal garbage dumps on the outskirts of the city and bad roads.

pochemu-semej-dolzhen-stat-istoricheskim-centrom-kazaxstana (17).jpgDulatova Street has not been repaired for many years. On the outskirts the situation is worse; residents of the Voskhod and Vostochny settlements located within the city continue to demand authorities to renovate roads, install lights on the streets, provide them with drinking water and improve bus transportation.  

Sometimes people describe the town of Semey as a “big village” because they are unhappy with the work of the mayor’s office in terms of how they are spending the budget funds.

pochemu-semej-dolzhen-stat-istoricheskim-centrom-kazaxstana (9).jpgThe authorities spent $2.5 million for the central park construction but the quality of work raises questions.

However, the administration promises to gradually solve all these problems. For example, they plan to build a centralized water supply system in the settlements of Voskhod and Vostochny. As of today, the main infrastructure networks of 2.5 km have been built; a water intake is being built.

They also plan to introduce a system of separate collection and sorting of solid waste with help of modern waste containers, covered areas and drop-points for receiving secondary raw materials. Another step is to build a sorting line facility with a capacity of 100,000 tons per year. In addition, they want to modernize the city’s lighting system on its 136 streets by the end of this year.

Food and clothes in Semey are cheaper than in Ust-Kamenogorsk. Therefore, many regional residents travel to Semey for shopping, especially in the fall, when families have to prepare their kids for school.

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