Russian monastery anticipates the familiar toll of ancient bells

After 78 years, a set of 18 iconic bells rescued from a Moscow monastery will return home.

Courtesy of Diana Eck
A long wait: Hierodeacon Roman, chief bell ringer of the Danilov Monastery in Moscow, inspects one of the iconic bells in Cambridge, Mass., before they are shipped home.

As the chiming of bells rang through Harvard University's campus among a field of caps and gowns last week, it was the final time they would be heard – the end of an era for the university, but also a new beginning.

For the past 78 years, the 18 bells have hung high above Harvard's buildings, chiming on Sunday afternoons and every year at commencement. This summer, the bells will return home to ring at the Danilov Monastery in Moscow from which they were rescued in 1930 at the height of the Stalinist era, at a time when antireligion campaigns sought to destroy monasteries and melt down their ironwork.

In a world where artifacts are often stolen and seldom returned, the story of the Danilov bells is rare.

It all began in 1929 when American philanthropist Charles Crane was prompted by his agent Thomas Whittemore to save the bells from destruction. He purchased them from the Soviet government, which "was apparently desperate for money and was selling off everything of value – imperial Bokhara rugs, artwork, and church property," says Luis Campos, a Harvard alumnus and history professor at Drew University in New Jersey who has been researching the bells. They were transported by train from Moscow to Leningrad, he says, and then shipped to the US.

Weighing in at 25 tons, the bells were installed in Harvard University's Lowell House residence hall and atop the Baker Library. Students embraced the art of bell ringing with the formation of the Lowell House Society of Russian Bell Ringers, later taking trips to Russia to experience the art firsthand.

"They really are the only four existing bell sets from the prerevolutionary times that weren't destroyed during the Stalinist era," says Diana Eck, professor of comparative religion and Indian studies at Harvard and master of Lowell House.

For the Danilov Monastery, now the home of the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, the homecoming of the bells is a matter of spiritual significance. "[The bells] are described as singing icons – that they have voices and tongues that are singing to God as they are ringing," says Professor Campos. "There is no way to replace these bells. They are an organic set and they have their own history from the place they were hung. They were very much a part of the religious community."

Hierodeacon Roman, the chief bell ringer at the Danilov Monastery, had only seen and heard the bells on the Internet until he visited Harvard in 2004, where he had a chance to ring them for the first time. "We've been anticipating [this] for a long long time in our monastery," he said, describing the event as being of "miraculous" importance and praising Harvard's cooperation.

The first request for the return of the bells came in 2002 and picked up momentum as Harvard alumni and the monastery made a case. Last September, Harvard returned the bell from the Baker Library and replaced it with a new bell. This summer, the university will begin disassembling the other 17. A new set of bells created at a foundry in Russia will replace them – all financed by Russian billionaire Viktor Vekselberg.

To commemorate the bells' return to Moscow, Harvard held a two-day event last week, inviting bell-ringing alumni and members of the monastery, among others, to recount the history, cite appreciation, and hear the bells for the last time on US soil.

The exchange of the bells has led to an ongoing friendship between Harvard and the Danilov Monastery. Harvard students and faculty will visit Russia, and members of the monastery will visit Harvard to teach Russian bell-ringing classes. "It's not just about moving metal back and forth across the ocean," Campos says. "It's about forging relationships between people."

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.