Paying respects to sailors, a century later
A long and gruelling hunt for the graves of two Russians who died in their quest to honour King Rama VI paid off, writes Thana Boonlert
There are many ways to pay homage to departed souls. Yet one that stood the test of time took place late last month at Soosan Farang (Cemetery for Westerners), formally known as the Bangkok Protestant Cemetery on Charoen Krung Road.
On Dec 12 a memorial service for two Russians was held, 108 years after they died of food poisoning in December, 1911.
Fedor Tunyakin and Yakov Tymin were navy sailors of the celebrated Russian ship Aurora that sailed from Russia to attend the coronation of King Rama VI in Bangkok in 1911, according to Galina Savelyeva, president of the Information and Analysis Centre of "We Remember Everyone By Name".
The group is an independent non-governmental organisation dedicated to preserving the memory of Russian servicemen in 75 countries around the world.
"In December 2017, we asked the Committee for External Relations of Saint Petersburg to help identify their graves in a cemetery in Bangkok. Then the committee contacted officials in Thailand," she told the Bangkok Post.
"One year later, the National Legislative Assembly [NLA]'s Committee on Religion, Arts, Culture, and Tourism replied. It was reported the two Russian sailors were buried in the Bangkok Protestant Cemetery in grave numbers 833 and 834 in December 1911, but the exact location [of the graves] was not known."
Yanina Zaluzhnaya, the Bangkok-based representative of the organisation, said she had to visit the cemetery several times. She conducted eight searches to check the identities of 1,800 graves at the former Bangkok Protestant Cemetery.
"Each time I came here I spent more than four hours trying to make out illegible inscriptions on tombstones," Ms Zaluzhnaya said.
The task was more time consuming than she thought it would be. At first, Ms Zaluzhnaya thought she would easily find the graves of the two sailors as she had already found the grave of EW Polhaus who died on Dec 7, 1911. The sailors died in Bangkok on Dec 5 and 10.
Yet the graves were not located in chronological order. Ms Zaluzhnaya had to search the whole cemetery looking for those without names.
Finally, she found what she was looking for in the inner part of the cemetery. "Behind grave number 831, I saw two similar dilapidated tombs without inscriptions. I looked around and found nothing else like them. I think the bodies might have been brought by small boats to the pier. Maybe the procession didn't want to walk too far away. It was the only idea that worked after I explored the cemetery," she said.
Ms Zaluzhnaya said she not only took part in the quest to find the graves, but also made an arrangement to install a new monument for her compatriots at the cemetery.
"Our Russian architect drew up the draft. The large marble slab is 1.15 metres tall and weighs 1 tonne. It stands on a black pedestal, symbolising the silhouette of the ship. You can see their personal data on the front side and epitaph on the back," she said.
During the ceremony, priests gathered at the site to unveil the new memorial and sang in unison. One priest sprinkled incense-infused holy water to consecrate the burial ground. The event also marked the 20th anniversary of the Russian Orthodox Church in Thailand.
Thai-Russia maritime contact
The visit of the Aurora highlighted the high-profile relationship between the two nations, which was initiated by monarchs.
Now housed at a museum in St Petersburg, the ship has become a tourist attraction and a symbol of the October Socialist Revolution as it fired the historic shot that launched the uprising in 1917.
Yet Russian ships had visited Thailand for diplomatic missions before the Aurora, according to Evgeny Tomikhin, ambassador of Russia to Thailand.
"Our bilateral contact started earlier thanks to the effort of our Russian seamen. Back in 1863, two ships which were part of the Pacific Squadron dropped anchor in the Chao Phraya River. Today we are standing on the shore of the same river. Our countries are bound by relations of warmth, friendship, trust, and mutual understanding," he said.
"Thailand is our friend and good partner in Southeast Asia. In three years, we will celebrate the 125th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between our countries."
Resting in peace
Roderick Turner, manager of the Bangkok Protestant Cemetery, said few people know that the two Russian sailors are buried there.
"They were recorded in a book, Bangkok: Protestant Cemetery, written by Justin Corfield, but we could not find their graves because their headstones were destroyed," he said.
Mr Turner said the two Russian seamen were buried at the Bangkok Protestant Cemetery because the Protestant and Orthodox sects are close.
"The cemetery provides a burial ground for all Christians as well as Jewish people. However, we expect the relatives of the deceased to look after their graves because there are too many for us and it costs a lot of money. We have no funds and rely on donations," he said.
Prior to having its own cemetery, the Protestant community had to bury its dead in the Catholic graveyard, said J Geoffrey Walsh, the cemetery chairman.
"Then the Protestant community asked King Rama IV if he would make arrangements to provide some land to bury foreigners. The King granted the land, which became known as Soosan Farang in 1853. We have a few well-known people who made a contribution to Thai society, such as Dan Beach Bradley, who pioneered modern medicine in Thailand, and Henry Alabaster, who served King Rama V," he said.
Mr Walsh said the necropolis on the nine-rai plot still has room for another 200 bodies.
"It is an active cemetery. Roderick and I want to be buried here. Another alternative is to be cremated, which is popular among Buddhists, but not farang. The other alternative is to ship the bodies back to Germany, England, or wherever, but it is very expensive," he said.
Thada Savetsila, a descendant of Henry Alabaster and chairman of the Protestant Cemetery Foundation, said that in the face of rapid urbanisation the graveyard doubles as a serene garden in the heart of hectic Bangkok.