When the Russian Imperial frigate Svetlana steamed into Norfolk in 1877, it carried Russian royalty and was considered a grand affair.
Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich, Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich and Prince Shcherbakov were visiting Hampton Roads as part of a diplomatic mission that involved entertaining hundreds of Americans aboard the Svetlana and dining at the posh Hygeia Hotel at Old Point Comfort in Hampton.
An opera singer from New York was even brought down to perform for the royals at the Church Street Opera House.
But while the Svetlana eventually left, not all of its crew did. Six sailors died of typhus while they were in Norfolk and were buried next to the naval hospital in Portsmouth.
Three of them were identified for the first time last month.
And Friday, about 140 years after they were interred, a formal funeral service was held for all six.
It was a rare sight of respect and cooperation for two countries that have been at odds over a number of issues in recent years. Tensions have included Russian aircraft buzzing a U.S. destroyer in the Baltic Sea in April and actions by Russian ships the U.S. Navy has deemed unsafe and unprofessional.
The funeral service was the result of the U.S.-Russia Joint Commission on POWs/MIAs that was created in 1992 by former President George H.W. Bush and former Russian President Boris Yeltsin.
U.S. Army Col. Chris Forbes, who oversees Europe for the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, said this is one area in which the United States and Russia have worked well together.
“Three are unknown, which brings the human side to this. They were known by someone. All they probably know is their families sent them off to the navy, did Russia’s business and didn’t return home,” Forbes said during the service.
“It’s fitting we honor them, as their families have not been able to do for so many years.”
While Russian historians have long known Russian sailors were buried near Portsmouth Naval Medical Center, it wasn’t until 2013 that they were identified online by volunteers of a Russian memorials project, according to the Russian Embassy.
Four of the graves say “Unknown Russian Sailor” while the other two are marked “Unknown Sailor.”
The Russians are buried along with American sailors and those from Brazil, Great Britain, France, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and Germany, as well as those who fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War.
The graves were first visited by the chief of the Russian office of the prisoner-of-war joint commission in April. In December, the Russian Military Historical Society was able to identify three of the six: 25-year-old Seaman 2nd Class Gavriil Vyakhirev, Seaman 2nd Class Arseniy Bragin and Seaman 1st Class Zakhar Lebedev. Lebedev and Bragin’s ages are unknown.
Russia’s embassy says it is hopeful that the other three sailors will be identified later this year.
“We’re grateful to the American side for preserving the graves. I’m sure it will be a great tradition gathering here at the end of January every year,” said Nikolay Lakhonin, the Russian embassy’s press secretary.
“We hope of course the other three seaman will not so long remain unknown. We will together discover our past in Norfolk that consisted not only of tragic and sad events, but also legendary and great examples of friendship and cooperation.”
Shortly after Lakhonin spoke, Americans and Russians together placed multiple red carnations on the headstones of the sailors who never made it home.