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Call of the Urals? German transplant to Russia finds the adventure of his life.

breaking barriers

Stefan Semken closed a business in Bremen 15 years ago. Today he and his Russian wife introduce tourists to the 'real' Russia in a formerly closed military industrial region.

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    Former German businessman Stefan Semken and his Russian wife, Olga, at their little guest house in the Urals village of Byngi, on September 13, 2016.
    Fred Weir
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You would probably never guess that the owner of that brightly painted peasant house along the muddy main street of this remote Urals village could be a jovial, modern-minded German businessman.

But such a person, Stefan Semken, did, in fact, transplant himself to this formerly closed Russian military-industrial region several years ago and marry a local woman. Today they run a moderately successful, off-the-beaten-track tourist enterprise out of this very cottage, or izba, as the traditional Russian peasant house is called.

But that doesn't begin to describe the complicated life of Mr. Semken, who closed his lithography business in Bremen about 15 years ago to pursue what he says was his life's dream of visiting Russia.

He somehow washed up in Yekaterinburg, a grim industrial city straddling the boundary between Europe and Asia that was about as far from the familiar Western consumer life as he could get.

There the gregarious German met his future wife, made friends who helped him navigate the bizarre hurdles of Russian bureaucracy, did odd jobs, and started to involve himself in the local arts scene and charity work. He has since made headlines a couple of times, attracted the attention of the FSB security police, and touched the hearts of many around here with his efforts to become a contributing part of their world.

Like a penguin in a jungle

Even his Russian friends say they're constantly amazed at how a total alien somehow manages to fit into the very specific, tradition-bound rhythms of Urals life. It's as if “a penguin suddenly appeared in the jungle, and started telling the lions how to run things – and the lions actually tolerated that,” says one acquaintance.

“I was shocked when I came here, to see how poor the people were and how frozen in time it seemed,”says Semken. “It was like I traveled back across the Iron Curtain. But I started meeting people, and doing things just to help, maybe change things a bit. That felt very new and satisfying to me. When I was a businessman in Germany, it was only about money. Here was a whole new way to look at life.”

Yekaterinburg's mayor, Yevgeny Roizman, says he first met Semken in 2004, at a children's hospital in the city.

“I was a deputy of the Duma [Russia's parliament] in those days. I had come to Children's Hospital No. 15 to talk with management about how we could help. And there was this fellow, Stefan, arguing with the doctors in almost non-existent Russian about a little 1-year-old girl with a hip bone deformity,” says Mr. Roizman. “He was insisting her condition was operable, but the doctors just shrugged at him. So, Stefan went away and figured out how to send that little girl to Germany, where she had the operation. She's walking around in Yekaterinburg today.”

About eight years ago Semken and his Yekaterinburg-born wife, Olga, decided to buy the little village house in Byngi, and start a tour business to encourage adventurous Europeans to come and visit the "real" Russia. They now host about 50 people over a summer season. Semken takes them on alternative tours of the Urals region, including visits to a gold mine, schools, businesses, a home for disabled children, and a tank factory town. The tours also include viewing – from a distance – NovoUralsk, one of the biggest Soviet-era closed military cities remaining in Russia.

“The people who come here are not the type who want to lie on a beach in Spain,” he says. “I try to make sure everyone gets a personal itinerary.”

Petition against gold mine

Often the little guest house is filled up with Semken's own invitees, like German pop groups for whom he arranges gigs in local schools, bars, and houses of culture. He similarly helps Russian musicians to travel to Germany, and he seems to constantly have some project in the works.

One day in September he was organizing a visit by four German clowns, from the Clowns Without Borders group, to perform for children in the nearby military-industrial city of Nizhni Tagil, where closure of the local circus last year created a catastrophic clown shortage.

“I had to get German clowns because – you won't believe this – they're much cheaper than Russian clowns,” he says. “But the kids need to laugh.”

Sometimes his projects cross an invisible line, as when he initiated a petition against a local gold mining company that planned to introduce a process using cyanide to separate gold from sand and gravel. The petition, supported by the local Orthodox priest and many of Semken’s neighbors, actually forced the company to back down. But it also attracted the attention of the FSB security service who, according to Semken, called in several of his friends for private interviews about his activities.

“I sent them [the FSB] a letter, telling them to come and talk with me if they had any questions,” he says. “They haven't answered it so far.”

Konstantin Brylyakov, a former deputy minister of tourism in Sverdlovsk region, says he has been amazed to watch how Semken has managed to integrate into the village community. “The people in Byngi have accepted this family, even though he is a Westerner, and they stopped viewing him as a stranger long ago. They pull together, they help each other. It's something to see.”

Shared grief for war

One of Semken’s biggest wishes was to address his neighbors at a May 9 rally, the day Russians mark the victory over Nazi Germany. Last year he was invited to talk to a crowd of about 3,000 at a large war memorial in the nearby city of Nevyansk.

“I had been driving around this region for years, and noticed that every tiny village has a war memorial with a long list of names. I figured out that about half of all military aged men at that time were killed by Germans,” Semken says. “So, I was pretty nervous when I spoke. I told them I was sorry on behalf of my family, that my own grandfather was killed on the eastern front, and that I hoped our countries will always be friends.”

His wife, Olga, says the crowd listened silently. “A lot of those people had never even seen a German before, much less heard those words from one. It really meant a lot to Stefan,” she says. The speech was broadcast on regional TV, and Semken became a bit of a local celebrity.

“Stefan looks a bit crazy to Russians, but I have the feeling he looks crazy to Germans, too,” says Mstislav Zakharov, an editor with Ural State TV, which broadcast Semken's May 9 speech. “It's not that he's hanging between two worlds, because he strives to be part of both. He really is convinced that Germany and Russia have a lot in common, that they are interconnected. He has great enthusiasm for bringing Germans here and showing them a Russia they will never see on a standard tour.”

Semken still winters each year in Bremen, with his wife, where he says he “rests” from Russia. But, he adds, he's always eager to return to Byngi in the spring.

“Russia is the adventure of my life,” he says. “I found a way to live, and the right people, to make me happy. And it keeps me busy, very busy.”

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