“Erected by the Care of the
Imperial Russian Consulate
Imperial Russian Consulate
Striking in the simplicity of a white marble cross and gold lettering, the memorial to Lieutenant Wladimir Astafiew shows evidence of continuing care. A recent wreath with ribbons in the colors of the Russian flag, lies at the base. The gold lettering is precise and elegant against the white marble. Yet, there is no other marker, no small plaque telling us who Lieutenant Astafiew was, or why his life ended so far from home.
Who was the late Lieutenant of the Imperial Russian Navy, who died in Singapore in 1890, just 30 years old, a life still to be lived?
First the date of death, 1890: the old Burial Ground, consecrated in 1834 by the 5th Bishop of Calcutta, rapidly found occupants, and by 1865 was closed to further burials. The archives reveal that Lieutenant Astafiew was interred not on Government Hill, but in the Christian Cemetery at Bukit Timah, and as that in turn filled, the land was eventually reclaimed for the living and some memorials of note moved to Fort Canning Park. The Astafiew memorial was one of those moved.
We surmise that Lieutenant Wladimir Astafiew was an officer navigator, for on the plinth reverse is written “поручик корпуса флотских штурманов”, that is “Lieutenant of the Corps of Naval Navigators”. One of the side panels has “Erected by the Care of the Imperial Russian Consulate at Singapore”, while the fourth panel is blank. Google searches in the English language reveal nothing, but a Russian language Google search begins to fill in the picture. The prestigious travel journal Вокруг Света (“Around the World”) in a November 1975 issue, tells us that the Straits Times of October 24th, 1890, reported the burial of Lieutenant Wladimir Astafiew with full naval honors. “The coffin was draped in the colors of the Russian flag and the ceremony was attended by the Russian consul, the crew of the British cruiser “Porpoise”, officers and Band of the 58th British Infantry Regiment and other officers of the army and navy”.
We know a little more about the life of this Russian Naval Officer, caught by fate in Singapore. The Corps of Navigators had an independent command structure, and in 1885, its purpose served, it was disbanded and its officers subsumed into the Imperial Navy. Lieutenant Astafiew was likely one of the last cohort to be trained under the old structure. He was attached to the Russian cruiser “Admiral Nakhimov”, one of the ships detailed to join a squadron of three frigates, “Memory of Azov”, “Vladimir Monomakh” and “Admiral Kornilov”. These constituted the personal fleet of the Czarevich, the later Nicholas II (and the last Czar) who with some relatives, was on a tour from Egypt to Japan. We surmise that Astafiev’s ship, the “Admiral Nakhimov” was to join this distinguished convoy probably for purposes of defense and for an increased visibility of the journey. Sadly, he contracted Dengue en route to joining the “Admiral Nakhimov”, and after two months in hospital in Singapore, on October 23rd 1890, he died.
From the Moscow archives, letters from his widow, Larissa Nikolaevna to the Consul General tell us the Astafiew home was in Novgorod. The Consul General Artemy Markovich Vyvodtsev, newly arrived in Singapore from Hamburg, tells her of the monument to her husband, a cross in Carrera marble.
That is the cross we see today, a visible tribute as fresh as when first raised over a century ago. We wish to honor Lieutenant Astafiew and his widow with our short post. Dengue fever, then as now, is a terrible disease.