As I’m currently in Singapore for a brief visit, I thought it would be interesting to take a detour to Fort Canning Hill for this blog post. The Hill – formerly Government Hill or Bukit Larangan (“Forbidden Hill”) in Malay – is near the Singapore River and was the site of a walled Christian cemetery from the early colonial period. Burials took place there until 1865. Most of the graves were exhumed in the 1970s and the headstones moved. However, a cluster of tombs remains in a corner of Fort Canning Green opposite the Arts Centre, itself a former British army barracks.
It includes that of Vladimir Astafev of the Imperial Russian Navy (d. 23 October 1890, N.S.). As the date of his death suggests, Astafev was not originally buried in Fort Canning but was laid to rest in a cemetery in Bukit Timah. As is the way with all things in Singapore, that cemetery was also redeveloped and Astafev’s headstone was moved to its current position in Fort Canning.
Just who was Astafev? The service record of Vladimir Petrovich Astafev (born 2 July 1860 in Novgorod) notes that he entered the navy as a student at the age of 14. He graduated ten years later from the Hydrography Department of the Nikolaevskii Naval Academy, today the N.G. Kuznetsov Naval Academy. From then onwards he served as an astronomer and hydrographer in the fortress-port of Kronstadt, embarking on an expedition to the Arctic archipelago of Novaya Zemlya and earning the rank of lieutenant in the Corps of Navigators.
In June 1890, just a few months before his death, Astafev was appointed senior navigator on the Admiral Nakhimov, a cruiser in the Imperial Russian Navy’s Pacific Fleet stationed in Vladivostok. His post coincided with Russia’s eastward expansion: The port city of Vladivostok was undergoing rapid development and plans to build the Trans-Siberian Railway were reaching fruition. In Singapore, a Russian consul-general was appointed that same year to cement imperial interests in Southeast Asia. And in October 1890 [O.S.], eschewing the usual European Grand Tour, Tsarevich Nikolai Aleksandrovich – soon to be Tsar Nicholas II – embarked on a ten-month voyage of Asia, including a brief stop in Singapore. In autumn 1890 Astafev was still on an English ship en route to his post in Vladivostok; on arriving there, he and the rest of the crew of the Admiral Nakhimov would have been assigned to the Tsarevich’s entourage.
Astafev never made it to Vladivostok. Having contracted a tropical fever on board the English ship, he was sent to shore in Singapore where he died in hospital two months later. He was buried with full naval honours, coffin draped in the Russian flag and accompanied by officers and men from British units, since there were no other Russian troops present in the port. His widow, Larisa Nikolaevna, received a letter from the Russian consul-general in Singapore A.M. Vyvodtsev describing the ceremony and the tomb. She never remarried.
Astafev’s tombstone has taken on symbolic significance, drawing together memories of the Russian presence in Singapore in colonial and post-colonial times. Much of the information on his tomb comes from a November 1975 article by Novosti journalist Iurii Borisovich Savenkov, titled “Remember That of Goncharov” (“Pomnite, u Goncharova”), which appeared in the Russian magazine Around the World (Vokrug sveta). Savenkov’s visit to Astafev’s tomb frames the bustling activity of the contemporaneous Singapore-Soviet Shipping Agency, founded in 1968. At the same time, the article’s title sets Astafev’s ill-fated journey against the Far Eastern voyage of the famous Russian writer I.A. Goncharov, who himself travelled to Singapore in 1853 on the frigate Pallada. The lines Savenkov’s friend wished him to remember were from Goncharov’s travelogue:
Where am I, oh, where am I, my friends? Where had fate brought me, away from our birch trees and spruces, away from the snow and ice, from wicked winter and indistinct summer?
Где я, о где я, друзья мои? Куда бросила меня судьба от наших берез и елей, от снегов и льдов, от злой зимы и бесхарактерного лета?
The visit must have made an impact on Savenkov, for he spoke of it again in a short book, Singapore Etudes (Singapurskie etiudy), published in 1982.
An even earlier memory of the tomb came from Iurii Vladimirovich Tsentalovich, who travelled to Singapore on board the scientific vessel Iu.M. Shokal’skii and wrote an essay about his journey titled “Unexpected Meeting” (“Neozhidannaia vstrecha”). His travelogue provided important biographical information on Astafev, but opened with scenes of Singapore in the 1970s: now-vanished shops named Odessa, Moscow and Nakhodka for Russian sailors on the junction of High Street and North Bridge Road, a Russian ensemble with the very characteristic name of “Birch” that played in City Hall. The “unexpected meeting” with Astafev’s headstone – “muzhiki, look at the cross!” – prompted an investigation and a letter to Around the World, which Savenkov’s article answered. At the same time, it led Tsentalovich to reflect on the legacies of Astafev as well as those of oceanographer Iulii Mikhailovich Shokal’skii, after whom his ship was named: “Russians should know and remember what has been made glorious by previous generations, be proud of these.” («Русские должны знать и помнить, что сделано славного предшествующими поколениями, гордиться этим…»)
Savenkov’s and Tsentalovich’s compatriots laid flowers on Astafev’s tomb. A fresh wreath was still being placed there in 2011, but as of July 2018 there was nothing but a small plastic bag containing uneaten nuts, sweets and a braised (in soy sauce or tea) egg. As for the body of Astafev, Arctic explorer, it now lies close to the equator in an area now occupied by Kampong Java Park and the KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital.