Campus & Community

Rescued Russian bells leave Harvard for home

8 min read

In a succession of brief ceremonies outside Lowell House this week (July 8), Harvard University officially returned to authorities of the Russian Orthodox Church the last of a set of monastery bells saved from a Stalinist-era scrap heap.

Since 1931, 17 of the bells have hung in the Lowell House tower. One other bell, returned to Russia last year, had hung in the Baker Library at Harvard Business School.

The July 8 occasion – marked by brief speeches, chanted prayers, blessings with incense and holy water – capped five years of negotiations between the University and the Danilov Monastery. The 13th century monastery, on the outskirts of Moscow, is now the seat of the traditional Russian Orthodox Church.

Danilov, restored to the church in 1983 and now the home of the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexsy II, was stripped of its melodious bells in 1929. That was the year that Stalin accelerated the wholesale destruction of church artifacts, part of a decade-long Soviet campaign to erase the vestiges of Russian spiritual life.

At the time of the Russian revolution, thousands of bell sets – in ensembles called “zvon” – pealed in churches all over Russia.

In return for the original bells, Harvard has already received an 18-bell replacement set – metallurgically the same, but with largely different decorations, and even adjustments in shape and size.

The new set was cast by the Vera Foundry in Voronezh, Russia, which in the post-Soviet era has helped revive the nearly lost art of bell casting. Included are two gift bells. One is in place at Baker Library; the other, ready for ground-level ringing, will soon hang in the Lowell House courtyard.

Funding the new bells, and the mechanics of the exchange, was the Link of Times Foundation, chaired by Russian art and antiques collector Vladimir Voronchenko. His business partner, oil and aluminum billionaire Viktor Vekselberg, spoke at the ceremonies. He promised that the recovered bells in Moscow would peal every July 8, simultaneously with their sister bells at Harvard.

“It will take years,” said Vekselberg through an interpreter, “to fathom the importance of this day.”

The 25-ton bell set rescued from Stalin’s Russia was bought by American industrialist and diplomat Charles R. Crane. It was shipped from Moscow to Leningrad, and donated to Harvard in the fall of 1930.

Tufts University archaeologist Thomas Whittemore was an antiquities adviser to the world-traveling Crane, a 20-time visitor to Russia who received an honorary degree from Harvard in 1921. His grandson, Thomas S. Crane of Weston, Mass., was at the July 8 ceremonies.

The Danilov bell set was a lucky find. Of the thousands of sets that existed at the time of the Russian Revolution, as few as four survived the explicit Soviet attempt to erase all material vestiges of the Russian Orthodox Church. In 1918, all Russian bell ringing was banned; by 1922, authorities had begun to melt down bells and destroy monasteries.

The Soviet anti-religion campaign destroyed more than mortar and metal. Of an estimated 200,000 clergy in 1917, only a few thousand survived to see the onset of World War II. The last monks associated with the Danilov Monastery were executed in 1937.

The 17 bells at Lowell House, ranging in size from 22 pounds to more than 10 tons, were installed in 1931 in the new dormitory’s blue-domed tower, a structure originally intended for a clock.

For most of the next 77 years, a succession of student amateurs, stepping on pedals and pulling on heavy cables and braving wind and weather, rang the Danilov bells for 15 minutes every Sunday, and on ceremonial occasions.

The largest of the Lowell House set – called at Harvard the Mother Earth bell – was cast in 1890, and weighs 26,700 pounds. Rung, it can be heard miles away. Mother Earth was gently lowered from the tower by crane early on the morning of July 8.

By noon, the Lent bell – the third largest of the set – was lowered to a truck as part of the official ceremonies. Hundreds of onlookers crowded into scant shade on Winthrop Street to watch the bell, swaying ponderously, being placed on the waiting truck.

A choir of Russian singers from New York City, lined up along Winthrop, provided a musical accompaniment – a soulful, somber fugue by 18th century St. Petersburg composer Dmitry Bortnyansky.

Until this week, the intricately cast bronze bells in Harvard’s care were “in effect, refugees, gaining asylum in a foreign land,” said longtime Lowell House co-master Diana L. Eck, who helped organize the exchange, scout for funding, visit Russian bell foundries, and work out legal details. (She is a professor of comparative religion and Indian studies at the Harvard Divinity School.)

With 200 celebrants gathered under a big tent near Lowell House, Eck called the bells “singing icons that for centuries have created the soundscape of Russia.” They evoke, she said, a millennium of deep tradition in the Russian Orthodox Church.

The Danilov bells survived Stalin’s attempt to bury spiritual pursuits under a noisy blanket of “factory whistles and machines,” she said, and now the recovered bells represent the awakening of a new Russia.

“These new bells will ring over an old university in the process of remarkable change,” said Eck, acknowledging Harvard President Drew Faust, sitting nearby. “And the old bells will ring over a monastery, a city, and a nation in a time of rapid and remarkable change.”

She ended her remarks with a wish: “Our hope for today is that the voice of these bells, old and new, will link our communities together in friendship. In a world beset by division and intolerance may these two sets of bells in Moscow and in Cambridge always give voice to the enduring value of harmony and cooperation.”

Following Eck, Archimandrite Alexiy – father superior at the Danilov Monastery, where he oversees everyday life – spoke through a translator.

“Today is a thanksgiving day for all of us,” he said. “We would like to thank God for the grace, and we would like to extend our thanks to Harvard University.”

Alexiy added, “No doubt, God will pay everyone back for kind things.”

A few feet away, on Holyoke Street, at least some of Harvard’s kindness was on display. Thirteen of the old brass bells, gray-green from years in the elements, were arrayed on a flatbed truck. Lined up next to them were ornate and shiny new bells, which will be installed at Lowell over the summer.

Nearby, suspended in a steel frame, was the Matorin bell, the fourth largest of the set, and the oldest, thought to have been cast in 1682.

Guests at the ceremony, starting with Faust, were allowed to take hold of a thick rope and ring it.

By mid-afternoon, with the crowd of guests scattered, James Pates ’55 – a Lowell House alumnus and retired admissions official – was the last to toll the Matorin bell.

“I got a ring out of it,” he said – and it was an emotional experience. “These were the bells that awoke me Commencement morning.”

Pates watched a flatbed truck ease down Holyoke Street with two big bells in back for the trip to a Boston warehouse. “The nicest thing about it all is that they’ll be back where they started,” he said of the bells, destined for a sea voyage back to Russia and Moscow, where a Sept. 12 ceremony is planned at the Danilov Monastery. “I’m proud of Harvard for doing this.”

Earlier in the day, Luis A. Campos ’99, Ph.D. ’06 had rung the Matorin bell, too. But it was a more familiar experience for the Drew University history professor, who as an undergraduate was a “klappermeister” – a member of the Lowell House Society of Russian Bell Ringers.

“Mechanically, it’s a vigorous workout,” he said of his stints in the tower as an undergraduate. “And it’s fun to make noise in front of all of Cambridge.”

Campos has been researching the bells, formally and informally, for 12 years, a labor of love and curiosity that in part inspired him to switch from a biology concentration to the history of science. He returned to Cambridge last month from a fellowship in Berlin, just to see the old bells lifted from their perches and trucked away.

Campos, part of a University committee on the bell exchange, has visited Russia five times now, and will be in Moscow for the Sept. 12 ceremony, too. “This is a family reunion,” he said, standing outside Lowell House July 8. “And when I go to the monastery, I feel like I’m going home.”

The ceremonies at Lowell House had a third act that few people saw.

It was only the next day (July 9) that the final bell was lowered from the Lowell tower. The Sacred Oil bell, second largest of the set and weighing 7 tons, was eased down onto a flatbed truck at 10:55 a.m.

A minute later, Eck – in hardhat and sandals and toting a camera – scrambled onto the truck to touch the bell and pose for pictures. Before hopping lightly off the truck, she gave the bell a farewell kiss.

“My emotions today are quite mixed,” she said next to the idling truck, while workers cinched the last bell in place. “I have really come to love these bells and to see the very last one go – it’s sad.”

Then again, said Eck of the departing bells: “I’m sure when we visit them in Moscow, it will be like visiting old friends.”