Monastery Mourns Loss of Bells

MOSCOW—At the top of the bell tower of Danilov Monastery, fruit flies buzz around the dark metal bells and a cool breeze sweeps off the nearby Moscow river.

The 11 bells hang in heavy silence, far above the hustle and bustle that can be seen all around the walled-off grounds of Moscow’s oldest monastery.

The bells, too, seem like a part of the city’s ancient history.

But they are merely a substitution for the originals which now hang in the Lowell House bell tower.

Charles Crane, an American businessman, bought the bells from the Soviets in the 1920s, saving them from ruin. He gave them to then University President A. Lawrence Lowell in 1930.

For almost 70 years, while Lowell House residents rang the Russian bells every Sunday, the Danilov monastery was silent.

It was completely shut down by the atheist Soviets in 1930 after the Bolsheviks overturned the tsardom.

Turned into a prison for children, the Soviets killed or arrested all of the monks remaining in the monastery by 1937, destroying the icons and graves on the grounds.

Almost 70 years later, the Soviets have been ousted and much has changed. A free market reigns in Russia and the Danilov is an operating monastery once again, as Russian Orthodoxy makes a rapid comeback from the days of Communist atheism.

Since its reopening, the monks of the monastery have been busy rebuilding its churches and gathering its scattered icons.

While they’ve been successful in retrieving a number of sacred relics—including the remains of the monastery’s founder, St. Daniel—their attempts to get the bells back from Harvard have failed.

This year, with the celebration of the 700th anniversary of St. Daniel’s death, the monastery has renewed their campaign to get their bells back from Lowell House.

Nearly 4,500 miles apart, this quaint center of Russian orthodoxy and America’s bastion of higher education are unlikely adversaries in a tug-of-war over tradition.

A Sacred Sound

From the very top of the monastery’s pink stucco tower, Father Roman Ugrinko, the senior bell ringer, points out the Moscow sites that have become familiar to him during his three years at Danilov—the Zil auto factory, the bend of the Moscow river, the sparkle of the Kremlin’s gold onion domes in the distance and the imposing Soviet-style cardboard box buildings that elbow the skyline.

Just a few metro stops from Moscow’s Red Square, the quiet stillness of Danilov’s bell tower makes the monastery seem far removed from the frenetic, modern city that has grown up around it—and the political and cultural revolutions of the past 100 years that have transformed Russia from a centuries-old monarchy to a Communist dictatorship to a free market democracy.

But behind its 14th century walls, the monastery—and its bell tower—have been constantly ripped apart and pieced back together through these transitions.

The tower has been rebuilt from scratch since its destruction by the Soviets and an amalgam of substitute bells hang from its rafters.

Despite the structural changes, the Russian Orthodox tradition remains.

Father Roman steadily climbs up the narrow stone stairs within the wall of the bell tower.

Father Roman is used to feeling his shoulders brush against the stucco walls in this quick, but steep climb. He is in charge of a group of several monks that operate the bells on an everyday basis as well as more elaborate orchestras on holidays.

When the monastery was allowed to begin operating again, the monks began searching for bells to fill the restored tower. Hanging from a system of pedals, wheels, ropes, hooks and girdles in the tower is a mix of bells gathered from churches in several Russian districts.

On regular days at the monastery, Father Roman uses a rope at the foot of the tower to ring the “everyday” bell four times per day to signal the beginning and end of the morning and evening church services.

But on holidays like Easter or Christmas, three or four monks operate the bells, with Father Roman dictating the tempo from the platform of pedals and ropes.

“To ring the bells is an expression of prayer,” Father Roman says, explaining that some Orthodox Russians immediately make the sign of the cross when they hear bells ringing. “They’re born from the archangel. The bells are the symbol of that music that will sound gathering people in the face of God.”

The largest holiday bell, used only on the most important Russian Orthodox holidays, hangs in the center of the tower. There is extra room in the tower, Father Roman explains, because it was rebuilt to fit the largest bell—now hanging in Lowell House—which is three times bigger than the one at the monastery.

Eight smaller “guardian” bells hang at the side of the tower.

He carefully demonstrates how the rhythm of the ringing comes from a series of four wooden pedals. As he shifts his weight back and forth and pulls gently at the strings attached to their tongues, the bells let out a soft clanging ring.

“To make your ringing a piece of art, it takes years, as with every art,” he says.

The melody comes from the rhythm that the bell-ringer chooses, he says, adding that he mostly follows the traditional style.

The return of the Lowell House bells would be a welcome replacement, Father Roman says. Unlike the current Danilov bells, the Lowell bells were created by the same bell maker to be used together.

“It’s a pity that they’re all from different places and they don’t ring well together,” he says of the current assembly.

Bell Tower to Ivory Tower

The monastery’s campaign to bring their bells home began in 1984 when a U.S. ambassador to the U.S.S.R. first informed the archimandrite of the bells whereabouts.

Last spring, Father Roman and other monks sent two letters to University President Lawrence H. Summers to introduce the idea of returning the bells.

According to the monastery’s administrator, Father Innokentiy Okhovoy, Summers sent them a reply in May saying that he would be willing to further discuss the bells with the monks.

The monks say the archimandrite—the assistant to the patriarch, the highest position in the Russian Orthodox Church—may make a special trip to Harvard to speak with Summers in October.

In an interview last week, Summers said he would be willing to talk to a representative from the monastery, but thought the cost of removing the bells would make a transfer difficult.

The Danilov monks say they understand Harvard may not be willing to part with the bells—and legally has no obligation to give them back.

But the return of the bells, they say, would complete the monastery’s restoration from its days as a Soviet prison and signify the end of a long and winding journey.

“It’s a living connection with our past and with a monastery that existed long, long ago,” Father Innokentiy says. “For some time the life of the monastery was broken and the bells are a link to the old Orthodox tradition.”

“It’s God’s will that the bells survived,” Father Roman says.

Father Innokentiy says he knew it would be almost impossible for Harvard to return the bells to the monastery for the anniversary year.

But now there is a committee from the monastery working towards the return of the bells and both Father Roman and Father Innokentiy say they are hopeful that Harvard will help.

“It was not fair to take the bells out of the monastery in the first place,” Father Innokentiy says. “But it wasn’t Harvard’s fault. It is Harvard’s right to say how it will be done because they legally received the bells.”

The monks say they are waiting to hear Harvard’s opinion about returning the bells before beginning extensive fundraising in anticipation of the costs of transporting the bells out of Harvard and into the bell tower in Moscow.

“We are very grateful now because all this time Harvard kept the bells and they were not destroyed,” Father Roman says.

Though they haven’t journeyed across the Atlantic to visit Harvard and hear the bells ring in person, Father Innokentiy and Father Roman say they can attest to the beauty of the bells’ sound—from hearing them on the Lowell House web site.

Sitting in Father Innokentiy’s office beneath brightly colored icons, the monks lean in to look at their Sony computer screen.

With a click of his mouse, Father Innokentiy rings one of the virtual bells and the monks listen intently.

“It’s not an ordinary thing even for Harvard to have such splendid bells,” Father Innokentiy says quietly.

—Staff writer Anne K. Kofol can be reached at kofol@fas.harvard.edu.