Semey University Anatomical Museum
A small but incredibly intense collection at the Medical University in Semey
. It illustrates what devastating effects on health the legacy of radioactive fallout from the nearby Polygon
(the infamous Semipalatinsk nuclear test
site) had on the region and its population. It's not for the faint-hearted, it's hard to stomach, but it's highly illuminating. A very dark site indeed.
>More background info
>What there is to see
>Access and costs
>Combinations with other dark destinations
>Combinations with non-dark destinations
>Photos (warning! Some of these are very graphic!)
The people living around the test site, and in a few cases possibly even within its perimeter, were mostly unaware of what was happening and what risks they were being exposed to – but of course those responsible must have been aware of this …
It was either ignored or deliberately taken into account that people would be affected by the tests. It is in fact a common claim that these people were abused as something like human guinea pigs.
No wonder, then, that there is also a lot of anger involved in dealing with this legacy. And a gruesome legacy it is. Elevated cancer levels amongst the local population is just one aspect that is typically attributed to radiation pollution. And even though nuclear testing may have stopped over two decades ago, the after-effects due to radiation are here to stay for a long time. That's because genetic damage is long-lasting.
One such aspect is the large number of birth defects that have occurred in the Semipalatinsk region – and which, too, are still occurring today. Amongst them are anencephaly, hydrocephalus, missing limbs, and many other conditions. Some are so severe that they result in stillbirths and it is cases like these that are mostly documented in Semey's anatomical museum. In other cases, those born with non-life-threatening, but still horrific deformities, are left to cope with their fate with usually only minimal support from the state. Compensation is hard to come by, as it is difficult to prove in every individual case that the defects are indeed attributable directly and only to radiation from the tests, however likely it may obviously be.
All this has been the subject of various photographic documentation, and also films, not to mention the countless volumes of medical reports and different books. This website, however, cannot cover the medical, political and social issues involved in this in any similar depth.
You may even ask: what could this possibly have to do with dark tourism at all. But before you even think it: I'm not suggesting voyeuristic visits to orphanages or hospitals where those affected live (nor am I discouraging visits to such places if it's for reasons of support – there are also various charities that one can donate to).
However, this medical aspect is part of the region's nuclear legacy and should not be simply ignored by the dark tourist either. And this museum in Semey
, the largest city affected, is certainly the best place for seeing at first hand, albeit in a sober museum setting, the horrific medical effects of nuclear testing. This aspect would otherwise remain totally abstract if you only visited the Polygon
and its museum. It really is a vital component of a nuclear tourism
tour of Kazakhstan
if you are to gain a more complete picture.
UPDATE: I've meanwhile been informed that not all the gruesome deformities exhibited in the museum are the result of nuclear testing at the Polygon, but that many speciemen come from other parts of the former Soviet Union and Russia. This had not been made clear to me at the time of my visit.
What there is to see: not all that much, but what there is to see is not for the faint of heart. This is tough. Really tough. The gruesome deformities you get to see in this museum can be quite a shock to the system. So be prepared for it.
UPDATE 11/2015: I've just heard from a reader who's been to this site recently that the museum apparently has undergone a "refurbishment" and that there are now fewer specimens on display. However, so I was told as well, the overall character has not changed too much from the impressions I gathered and which are described below. Yet some of the specific exhibits commented on in this text may no longer be there.
As you enter the museum's single exhibition room, you soon see on your left the one "star exhibit" that you may have heard of – and/or even have seen pictures of online: a cyclops, floating diagonally in a jar. It's a baby boy. He has occasionally been referred to as "the one-eyed baby" (cf. A Nuclear Family Vacation
) or even the "monster of Semipalatinsk". I had seen photos of this before too, which may well have slightly dampened the shock effect on encountering it for real. But it's still quite heart-stopping. The simple sign in front of the glass container the little boy is floating in says "Cylopia" in Russian and English, adding only in English "(single eye), numerous cranial defects." Otherwise it's left to "speak" for itself.
However, I noticed that there was embossed lettering on the glass front surface. It said "EXIDE, made in USA". How ironic, I thought, that he should be in an American jar – given the historical links with regard to nuclear testing
and Museum of the Test Site
). But apparently, these glass cases are antique battery jars – you even see them offered on eBay! So the American link may well be completely accidental.
The rest of the museum contains many more examples of deformities, though few are as directly shocking as the cyclops. But no less heartbreaking and horrific. There's at least one anencephalic, a couple of Siamese twins, a two-headed baby even, and examples of various other defects. Many of these are not explained by labels – or if they are, then only in Latinate medical terminology (so presupposing familiarity with this jargon). But for the non-specialist visitor, it's more about witnessing the exhibits visually anyway. A couple of the faces look almost alien-like – or like old men but tiny in size.
You can only assume, of course, that all these deformities are really to blame on nuclear testing fallout, but it is more than likely. And it's this that adds a particular dark edge to the collection: the knowledge that this is not just the result of nature having made an 'unnatural' mistake (which just does happen occasionally, albeit rarely), but no: it's the fault of human activity. You could even say it's the outcome of callous experiments on human guinea pigs.
Other than whole, or partly dissected babies, there are also jars containing individual or grouped body parts. Hands for example. Tiny hands. I took one picture holding my own hand next to the glass to give a scale reference. One shelf was full of jars with slices of brain tissue, another jar contained a halved head – without brain, i.e. almost hollow.
Some jars are apparently not in the best shape, or not as well looked after as they probably should be, given that in some the "waterline" (well presumably formaldehyde or some such chemical solution) has dropped so much as to partly expose the heads of the jars' "inhabitants". Some also seem to show certain degrees of discoloration. That can't be right. On the other hand, it sometimes adds an optical effect that is as intriguing as it is distressing.
But it isn't all about shock and horror. In fact, I found that some of the babies can even be perceived as having something almost "angelic" about them. It's a bizarre, silent and sad aesthetics, but I don't think it can be denied that there is also an element of detached beauty involved. And it's not just me. The same observation has been made about similar parts of the anatomical collection at the Narrenturm
(only that most of those parts of the Viennese collection are not regularly accessible to the public either, only a few representative examples are; so the effect is not as intense for the regular visitor there as it is here in Semey
Still, as we left the museum, we found ourselves rather silent for a while. It certainly made an impact. I've seen quite a few medical exhibitions in my time, but I have to say that this one in Semey
, also given the nature of its history, is clearly the darkest of its kind that I've ever encountered anywhere. It's hard core. But also strangely rewarding …
the main entrance to the university is very close to the city centre of Semey
, just a hundred yards from the western end of the Central Plaza up Abai Street. The Anatomical Museum itself is located in a separate building at the back (see directions below).
Access and costs: can be tricky, but free.
the museum doesn't seem to be open to the general public as such, and I haven't been able to find any official opening times or any information about admission fees published anywhere. When I went there in August 2011 it was as part of a longer organized tour (see under Kazakhstan
in general, and also under Polygon
), which was supposed to include a visit to the museum. But when we got there it actually turned out rather tricky getting in. A local guide we had booked left us in the lurch – the guided city tour including the museum was cancelled at the last minute, allegedly due to illness. But I have the suspicion that this was just an excuse and the real reason was that they realized that they couldn't so easily deliver what had been arranged. Not only was the local history museum closed for refurbishment (see under Semey
), the anatomical museum was closed for the summer too – as it was outside the academic session. Apparently no one had cared to check this beforehand.
So we had to try our luck independently. At first my guide and driver just asked for directions at the university and we went straight to the museum. But we were turned back – "it's not working" was the blunt response to our request to see it. We'd have to ask the university's head, the 'Rector' (Vice Chancellor in British terminology). So we asked for an appointment and to our surprise were given one after not too long a wait. My guide and driver then pressed the case for me, saying that arrangements should have been made for us, and that we were a "foreign delegation" who had travelled to Semey especially to see this museum (and that was more or less the truth too!). After some formal exchange of pleasantries and a short talk by the Rector about the general history and portfolio of his institution (mostly in Russian, but with bits of English mixed in too), he indeed suddenly granted us special access to the museum. He personally phoned the staff at the entrance and instructed them to let us in. And it cost us nothing – other than time and negotiation stamina. And I was even allowed to take photos, which is rarely the case in such places.
This may have been exceptional, however. And I cannot really judge what the procedures would be were you just to turn up at some other time of the year. I suspect, though, that it may not be too straightforward at any time. You could always just give it a try, but a sound knowledge of Russian will certainly come in very handy!
To find the entrance to the museum: first make your way through the central hall of the university's main building and out into the courtyard at the back, then continue left and right along a path leading roughly in the direction of the river (and away from main building), then turn right and the entrance to the museum will be on your left. Once through the main door you need to go upstairs, and turn left; the museum is behind the first door on the left of this corridor. But you'll probably be taken there by a member of staff anyway.
Time required: depends on how long you want to linger to take it all in. Some may have had enough after just a few minutes; others may need longer. I think we spent about 15-20 minutes there. Those with a keener interest in and understanding of the medical conditions involved could probably spend a lot longer here.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
in general see under Semey
– right opposite the Medical University stands a monument to those who lost their lives in another tragedy of the Soviet era: the conflict in Afghanistan. The monument, however, that is thematically much more closely linked to the anatomical museum is the so-called "Stronger than Death" memorial in the south-east of the city, which is dedicated to the victims of nuclear testing.
Of course, those on a mission to explore the nuclear topic to the full should travel on to Kurchatov
(with its Museum of the Semipalatinsk Test Site
) and possibly even the Polygon beyond, i.e. the actual test area where all that fallout and ongoing contamination originated from.
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
see under Semey
WARNING!: the photo gallery below includes a number of very graphic images that some may find quite distressing!!! Scroll down ... but view at your own risk.
... keep scrolling ...
- SMU 01 - grand from the outside
- SMU 02 - previous rectors
- SMU 03 - entrance to side wing
- SMU 04 - someone from pathology under a pink shroud
- SMU anatomical museum 01
- SMU anatomical museum 02 - the infamous one-eyed baby
- SMU anatomical museum 03 - anencephalus
- SMU anatomical museum 04 - half and half
- SMU anatomical museum 04b - two-headed baby
- SMU anatomical museum 05 - almost alien-like
- SMU anatomical museum 06 - angelic
- SMU anatomical museum 07 - little hands
- SMU anatomical museum 08 - see how small those hands are in comparison
- SMU anatomical museum 09 - spine-ripping
- SMU anatomical museum 10 - the grim legacy of nuclear testing
- SMU anatomical museum 11 - strung low
- SMU anatomical museum 12 - silently floating
- SMU anatomical museum 13 - more jars
- SMU anatomical museum 14 - sliced brains
- SMU anatomical museum 15 - hollow head
- SMU anatomical museum 16 - the face of death
- Semey Medical University