Semipalatinsk: City With A Past

Kazakhstan is not only Astana or Almaty, it’s a huge country with innumerable cities and towns. Semey  is in the northeastern province of East Kazakhstan and in the Kazakhstan part of Siberia near the border with Russian Federation. Semey, during the Soviet Union era, was called Semipalatinsk and for sure isn’t a new brand city as Astana . It’s a city with past and a complicated one.  Very close to the city centre of Semey,  there is a small town “Kurchatov” one of the dozen “closed towns” of Soviet Union. They were known only for the post boxes. Kurchatov was Semipalatinsk-21. It was site of nuclear power. The Soviets use all the nuclear weapons in this site.



Arriving in Semipalatinsk and stepping out from the airport hall there is a big label : “We are open for our friends”

Some years ago this area was closed. Movement in and out of the cities was restricted and entry was forbidden to foreigners.

“It was Lavrenti Beria, the ruthless head of Stalin’s secret police, who chose the location in the depths of Siberia for the Soviet Union’s nuclear testing programme and ordered the town of Kurchatov to be built-using gulag labour” to house its scientists. During a test of one particular powerful bomb, in 1953, the authorities evacuated villagers and livestock.But not everyone was evacuated. The Soviet scientists left a group of 40 men behind as human guinea pigs. Infant mortality increased four times of the level of the rest of the Soviet Union. Today, residents still have a life expectancy that is several years lower that in the rest of the country” Secret cities of the steppes, Jack Farchy, Ft weekend magazine, sept 6/7,2014.



The park in the city centre of Semey.


Abay museum, the national poet of Kazakhstan.












City centre.  A war memorial.


Semey, as part of Kazakhstan Siberia, is quite cold place, the temperature is around to -48 C during Winter but probably without Astana’s winds.



The city has a major university.



Binar hotel in the city centre. picmonkey_image


Semipalatinsk was the place of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s exile for five years and it was depicted in the various books of Dostoyevsky including  “The Brothers karamazov”

Personally, I had a lovely time there with my Kazakh friends and a major event, a veritable Kazakh wedding!


Joseph O’Neill and Me : A Common Ground

Who would have thought that Joseph O’Neill and I share common ground? When some years ago, I read his best seller book “Netherland” which I found superb – every sentence was a quote – I visualised him as an Irish  golden boy, Cambridge graduate,  high flyer lawyer in New York and the cherry on top, global bestselleristas.


When I met him at the presentation of his new book “the Dog”  my first thought was “here we are, my cousin Kostas from Greece has changed identity”. His black hair, an Irish characteristic as well but in combination with his average height  and his gestures  were more from my own part of the world than that of Anglo Saxons.

With the combination of what he said to the audience and the small talk I had with him I realised our similarities are more than what I was expecting. His mother is from the Black Sea region (Turkey), the same with my mother’s family and both of us we had moved around the globe so much – sometimes  perhaps we had overlapped somewhere between Athens, London, Bath, Dresden, Dublin, New York, Amsterdam, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Astana…  that we feel totally displaced and we enjoy it thoroughly! His last book “the Dog” is about Dubai the land of expats- the quintessential displaced people.

And in his own words – the interview he gave at Paris Review: “I’ve moved around so much and lived in so many different places that I don’t really belong to a particular place, and so I have little option but to seek out dramatic situations that I might have a chance of understanding. Hence Dubai: Dubai is an expat center…Before Netherland, I didn’t know how to approach that sense of chronic displacement. It took me a while to realize it was a huge story, the sense of not belonging, as you put it—of pretty much never being in a position to say, These people and I are the same. You could write a thousand novels about it and it wouldn’t get old, because it’s such an essential part of what it is to be human—that idea of where, if anywhere, you fit in, in the so-called scheme of things. And how does the world work? A lot of novels might inform you about how a character gets on with his Auntie, but they won’t necessarily tell you where the characters stand in relation to the world. I’m interested in putting characters in places where the world order is changing, and changing in a particular way. The word globalization grunts into view, here, along with post-nationalism, another brute.”


O’Neill as all the writers have an issue with publishing their books and sometimes it’s just perfect luck. He says about his book “Netherland” : “Then my luck changed. It could change again. That’s the way it is. My job is to keep writing.”

And our job is  to keep reading- isn’t it?