A monument in memory of 28 Russian Empire soldiers who died as prisoners of the British during the Crimean War 1853–1856 was unveiled on Saturday 28 September by Alexander Yakovenko and Pekka Huhtaniemi, the Russian and Finnish ambassadors, in Lewes.

The Russian dead numbered 53, while the allies lost a little more than 100 men. About 2,000 officers and men of the Russian Empire forces (Russians and Finns) were captured and sent to Britain and France. The commander of the fortress was allowed to keep his sword in recognition of the valour he had shown.

The memorial was built in 1877 on the instructions of Emperor Alexander II in memory of the defenders of the Bomarsund fortress (in the Åland Islands, now part of Finland). After the fortress was taken by the enemy in the middle of August 1854, some of the captured garrison, including its commanders, were sent to France, and the remaining 340 officers and men were sent to the town of Lewes in Britain. Most of the officers were Russian, while the other ranks were Finns.

A workshop to make children’s toys was built next to the former town prison, where the soldiers were confined. The prisoners of war made toys and sold them to earn money for themselves.

The story of the Russian prisoners became well known in London, but the British press, which supported anti-Russian feeling in society during the war, was indignant at the fact that the enemy soldiers were allowed to live freely in the depths of the English countryside.

“When we see orphans and widows of our fallen soldiers starving, the Russian prisoners of war are living in luxury and their wives have come to live with them,” said The Times at the time.

The prisoners of war returned to their homeland after the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1856. Local historians recount that there were moving scenes as they bade farewell to the local residents. The senior officer thanked the town’s authorities and residents on behalf of the whole group of prisoners of war for their hospitality and kindness. The local residents came out onto the streets to say goodbye to the departing Russians and Finns, many of whom had become their friends.

Twenty-eight soldiers did not live to return – they died of various illnesses, mainly tuberculosis, and were buried at St John’s Church in the town. A monument designed by British sculptors was erected on the grave in 1877. The monument was restored in 1957 with help from the USSR Embassy, and in 2012 it was restored for a second time with help from the Russian and Finnish embassies.

“The Russians and the Finns have jointly restored the monument that was created by the British and dedicated to the prisoners of war who lived here and met with a warm reception from the local population. They lived here, thousands of miles from home and from the battlefields of a war that nobody needed,” said Alexander Yakovenko, the Russian ambassador, at the official unveiling ceremony.

He also mentioned that 2013 is the 160th anniversary of the beginning of the Crimean War, but the countries of Europe and the world should not forget its lessons.

“The existence of this monument and its unveiling today (after its restoration) mark the triumph of human relations, the victory of friendship over enmity, and demonstrate that the many peoples of the world can find a common language and tackle problems together. We are all one big European family,” the ambassador added.

After his speech, wreaths from the Russian and Finnish embassies were laid at the monument, and priests from the Anglican, Finnish Evangelical Lutheran and Russian Orthodox Church held a memorial service.

The battle for the Russian Bomarsund fortress between the Anglo-French allies and the Russian-Finnish garrison was fought from 3 to 16 August 1854 in the Åland Islands and ended with the fortress being captured and destroyed.

The first attempt to take the fortress was made in May 1854 – the Baltic Sea and the Åland Islands were blockaded by a combined Anglo-French squadron after the Crimean War started. The Bomarsund fortress, which had effectively not yet been completed, found itself isolated from the Russian Empire and was a convenient target for the allies’ first strike in the Baltic Sea. London and Paris decided to attack Bomarsund with their combined ships and infantry.