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The Bells Return

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The Bells Return


The ceremony to hand over the bells of the St. Danilov Monastery took place in what had to be the most unfortunate weather possible for the open-air event. Cold, wind and pouring rain forced the majority of those present to think mostly about the position of the crowd’s umbrellas, about obstructed views, dangers to eyes and water draining on their faces.  Such was the atmosphere on the square where the bells recently brought from America were on display. Interrupting disputes about the umbrellas were occasional remembrances that everyone had come to celebrate the memory of Daniel of Moscow and the bells’ return. In the end, it wasn’t worth arguing over such trivial issues. That seemed to calm people down, although many of them continued to hold their umbrellas as they saw fit and turned their conversation to the cool and rainy weather.

The arrival of Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow and All Russia and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev created some signs of life in the crowd. For many, though, the numerous umbrellas became a serious impediment to actually seeing the two men. Apologies were forthcoming, and members of the crowd soon began cooperating when it came to deciding which umbrellas should be removed in order to afford the best view to everyone.

The brief ceremony was also attended by Vladimir Resin, first deputy mayor of Moscow, Viktor Vekselberg, founder of the Link of Times Cultural and Historical Foundation and owner of the Renova group of companies, and John Beyrle, U.S. Ambassador to Russia. Alexy II gave a short speech on the importance of what was taking place, said a prayer of thanksgiving and blessed the bells. Viktor Vekselberg, whose charitable foundation sponsored the bells’ return to Russia, also kept his message short, expressing hope that despite the rain, people’s hearts were warm and sunny at the event. A symbolic ringing of the so-called “imperial” bell then took place. The imperial bell is the oldest of the group that was returned. It was cast in 1682 and presented to the monastery by Tsar Feodor Alekseevich. President Medvedev was the first Russian head of state to take part in ringing the bell since Ivan the Terrible. The brevity of the ceremony, however, could hardly affect the event’s significance. One of the world’s only remaining ensembles of church bells had been returned to Russia – one that is also regarded as one of the most melodious and harmonious in its arrangement. 

Restoration work on the St. Danilov Monastery’s bell tower, where the returned bells will be placed, is being carried out in part with funding from the Russkiy Mir Foundation. Contributing to the bells’ successful return is the least the Foundation could do. Every step of the way and every detail were important, and the Foundation has been honored to be able to make every possible effort.

The history of the bells’ removal and return is actually quite representative of Russian history. In 1930, when the St. Danilov Monastery had already been closed, the bells were purchased by the American philanthropist Charles Crane with the assistance of the archaeologist Thomas Whittemore. Both men were lovers of Russia and Russian art and they felt that saving a piece of Russian church art was the least they could do in the face of religious persecution in the Soviet Union. The very history of the bells’ purchase and delivery to America is full of mystery. For example, the belfry was quite difficult to acquire given the absence of dollar accounting between the United States and the Soviet Union (trade was calculated using gold as a standard). One way or another, the fate of the bells was something the authorities were completely indifferent to, and when the opportunity came about to sell all of them abroad, they did so immediately. The bells were installed in Lowell House at Harvard University where they spent more than 70 years. They were often used for a variety of seemingly strange reasons, such as celebrating the football team’s victory. There is also the story of one student who rang the bells 100 times to mark the end of the Second World War. It is especially noteworthy that the Lowell House bell tower was installed with careful adherence to all requirements for an Orthodox belfry, and students tried in one way or another to maintain the traditional art of bell ringing.

The bells’ return has taken place at a new stage in history – in a new Russia where a new attitude toward the Church, religion and tradition predominates. It is important that private institutions exist in Russia that were able to speak the same language as Harvard University and arrange for the bells’ return. Even today, however, when the contracting parties share common values and speak the same legal language, the process was even more complicated than the half-adventurous purchase in 1930 in a virtually isolated country that viewed the bells as expensive junk. The fact that an agreement was possible is by no means insignificant.

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