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Harvard's Russian Bells Return Home

  • Andrea Shea

Antique bells that rang from a tower at Harvard University for the past 78 years are on their way home to a monastery in Russia. Andrea Shea has the story behind their long-awaited return.

The ornate bells in the belfry at Lowell House, a dorm at Harvard, chimed each Sunday afternoon for about 15 minutes. Graduate student Ben Rappaport is the Head Bell Ringer and says he and the other ringers often played contemporary tunes on the enormous bronze instruments. He reports that one of the most popular ones recently was the theme song to the Harry Potter movies.

But the bells themselves haven't always been popular. In fact, when they were installed at Harvard in the 1930's, students who lived in Lowell House couldn't stand the clanging and would protest the noise by flushing huge wads of paper down the toilets hoping to clog the system.

Professor Diana Eck, the current Master at Lowell House, says 80 years later, students still resent the bells. Part of the reason, she suggests, is that no one really knew how to ring them properly. "It's a little bit more like jazz, it requires a group of several people, it is improvisational," she explains, adding "when we began really hearing the Russians ring them, we knew that they were their bells."

Originally, the bells rang at the Danilov Monastery in Moscow. In the 1920's, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin led a brutal campaign against the Russian Orthodox Church, killing monks and destroying sacred property. But the monastery's bells were saved. And in the 1930's, American industrialist Charles Crane purchased them from the Soviet government and donated them to Harvard. "[The set] has been preserved here in a kind of refugee status in the Lowell House bell tower," Eck notes.

With the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the church began its campaign to get the bells back. Professor Eck has been working since 2003 to orchestrate their repatriation.

This month, with a choir singing in the background, the bells were lowered, by crane from the Lowell House tower. The Lent Bell weighs more than 1800 kilos. The biggest bell, known as "Mother Earth" weighs over 10,000 kilos.

Father Superior Alexy of the Danilov Monastery blessed the bells as they were loaded onto a flat bed truck. He was accompanied by Hierdeacon Roman, the Monastery's Chief Bell Ringer. Roman says the ceremony is a huge event because the bells symbolize the now-ended conflict between the Russian state and the Church, as he put it, "one of the sacred things that connects us with that time."

He called the bells the voice of the church, and said he was excited that they will again be one of the best sets in Moscow. "There will be a celebration from St. Petersburg to Moscow," he said happily, "all the churches will be ringing."

To mark the bells' departure, Heirdeacon Roman and officials from Harvard each rang the Matorin – or Tsar's Bell – the oldest of the set, cast by Feodor Matorin in 1682. Then it, and the other bells, set off for the long voyage back home to Russia.

But the Lowell House belfry won't be silent for long. A near-replica set, also made in Russia, will soon take the place of the antique bells high above Harvard's campus.

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