I was born in Sebastopol

Published 22 March 2014  |  

To be precise, I was born just outside Sebastopol, in Panteg, near Griffithstown on the way to Sebastopol. Readers with an eye on international affairs will realise that I refer not to the famed city on Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, but a small town in the Torfaen unitary authority in south east Wales. Take the road north from Newport and turn left on the road signed to Pontypool and you're there. It was named after the British and French forces achieved victory against the Russian forces during the fall of the city in 1855.

Somehow news of the fall of Sebastopol in 1855, with victory achieved by the British and French against the Russian forces, reached Pontypool on the evening of Monday, 11th September of that year. Presumably surviving soldiers returning home carried the news and it made quite an impression.

Then, as now, this bloody conflict centred on Russia's dominance of the Black Sea. Its navy was based in this sea port, giving access to the Mediterranean and nearby Turkey. Fearing an imminent Russian victory over the Ottomans in nearby Turkey, Britain and France embarked on a series of bloody battles on the peninsula. Tens of thousands of soldiers lost their lives in conditions which were to be replicated and magnified during the First World War. The Battle of Balaclava inspired Alfred, Lord Tennyson's Charge of the Light Brigade:

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
"Forward, the Light Brigade!
"Charge for the guns!" he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

But it's a random and strange connection between this geo-political conflict and a small hamlet in the Welsh valleys. Even today Sevastopol (as it's now called) has a population of 300,000 whereas Sebastopol has less than a tenth of that number in its parish.

Back in 1855 the population of the parish of Panteg just south of Pontypool, had grown rapidly in size from 550 in 1801 to 2,432 due to the success of the iron works, the canal, the railways and the lush fertile farmlands nearby. The industrial revolution was at its height and the leaders of this community were looking for a new identity, one not shared with anyone else. The founders of this new settlement immediately identified themselves with the mighty conquest on the Crimea and assumed a name that sounds as strange today as it must have then. Their new name gave this small steel town an exotic and continental air, although the differences between the two communities could not be greater. One is a large coastal resort whereas the other remains a small, post-industrial town on the way to Blaenau Gwent.

Curiously enough Pentecostal Christianity is strong in both areas. Ukraine has experienced wave after wave of revival in the past 100 years, sitting uncomfortably in the dominant shadow of its powerful Russian Orthodox older brother. In the last twelve months, Torfaen too has witnessed its fair share of ecstatic faith. Victory Church in nearby Cwmbran has baptised hundreds of new converts in a period the church dubbed the Welsh Outpouring.

Unlike its South Wales counterpart however, Sevastopol is fighting for its identity. Eyewitnesses are reporting numerous check points all over the Crimea manned by Cossacks and other unruly pro-Russian elements. They are apparently often drunk and intimidate the native population. It was believed that last Sunday's referendum will deliver a false result as a result of bully boy tactics. With the Russian government claiming a 97% yes vote in favour of joining the Russian Federation, many Christians are worried there will be stiff reprisals against any dissenting voices.

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