Russian and Finnish Ambassadors at rededication of listed memorial in Lewes

Russian war memorial, St Johns Sub Castro, Lewes
Russian war memorial, St Johns Sub Castro, Lewes

The Ambassadors of both Russia and Finland will be in Lewes next week for a poignant ceremony honouring conscripts of the Tsar.

They will attend the re-dedication of the so-called Russian Memorial in the churchyard at St John sub Castro.

The Grade II Listed obelisk has been repaired and cleaned at a cost approaching £9,000 and paid for by the Russians and organisations based in the Aland Islands of Finland.

The memorial is to the 28 Finnish soldiers who died as prisoners in Lewes during the Crimean War of 1854-56 and are buried in the churchyard. They were from the Aland Islands and serving in the Russian Army.

Dignitaries from the Russian and Finnish Embassies will be at the site on Saturday, September 28, where they will be greeted by the Mayor of Lewes, Cllr Ruth O’Keeffe, and the Chair of Lewes District Council, Cllr Michael Chartier.

They will be joined by representatives from the Aland Islands, members of the Friends of Lewes and the Anglo-Finnish Society.

The ceremony is due to start at 12noon and include a blessing of the memorial and wreath-laying. All are welcome to attend. Afterwards there will be a reception in the church.

The memorial facelift came about after the Finnish Embassy was alerted to the fact that it was in a poor state. Staff there contacted colleagues at the Russian Embassy and the project took off.

Erected in 1877 at the behest of Alexander II, Emperor of Russia, the obelisk is 17ft (5.2m) in height.

In June 1854, concerned at the possible threat posed to Britain by the Russian Baltic Fleet, the Royal Navy attacked the fortress of Bomarsund in the Aland Islands off the coast of Finland.

That attack was repulsed, but a further attack by British and French forces in August proved successful. The fortress was destroyed and prisoners taken to Britain and France. Some 340 members of the Fusilier Grenadiers were taken to Lewes.

The officers were Russian, but the men were mostly Finns – Finland was part of the Russian Empire at the time and many of the defenders of Bomarsund had been Finnish conscripts.

The men were confined in the old County Gaol, in North Street (long since demolished), which had been given a new lease of life as a naval prison. A workshop was set up so that they could produce wooden toys for sale to the public to earn themselves pocket money.

But by September 1855, 15 prisoners had died of disease – tuberculosis was prevalent – and the death-toll would rise to 28 by the end of their incarceration.

Interestingly, the story of the men who died so far from home was the inspiration for an opera called ‘Finnish Prisoner’ by Orlando Gough and Stephen Plaice which had its world premiere in Lewes in 2007. Susannah Waters, the Artistic Director of The Paddock, oversaw the production which involved the Finnish National Opera and Finnish Chamber Opera.