More than 10 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian Orthodox Church is still recovering from damage done to its churches and monasteries. Last week, the church and its believers celebrated the return of something that is big both in size and in symbolism: two enormous church bells.
A group of priests, clothed in black robes, sang, as hundreds of people gathered in the square at the Holy Trinity St. Sergius Monastery.
They came to watch a landmark event in the history of religion in Russia. Two massive bells were lifted up by a crane and gently hung in their rightful place in the bell tower. It is the tallest bell tower in all of Russia.
The new bells won't be issuing their loud, deep peels for another month. The massive iron clappers that hang inside the bells will not be hung until next month, when the monastery holds one of its annual festivals.
The two bells, called Firstborn and Evangelist, are reproductions of bells that were torn down in 1930 by communist authorities who were trying to wipe out religion.
The head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Alexy II, blessed the bells before they were hung.
The Patriarch asked God for his blessing for raising the two bells.
The two bells are huge. One weighs 27 tons and the other 35.5 tons.
They were poured at the "Zil" automobile factory, the same company that made the prestigious limousines used by top Soviet officials.
Church bells have always had a special significance in Russia.
When Peter the Great ruled, he stripped many of the churches of their bells and melted them down to make cannons or bullets. During Soviet times, almost all remaining church bells were removed and many of the churches and monasteries themselves were either destroyed or closed, or used as clubs, schools, or dance halls.
A photo exhibit at this monastery shows how its original giant bells were pushed out of the tower into the snow and then destroyed. But some of the monastery's bells survived.
The man in charge of the reconstruction, Father Aristarkh Smirnov, says bells have always been the voice of the church and of Russia itself.
Father Aristarkh says the bells are a symbol of belief and independence, a symbol of greatness and of the state. He says it is hard to imagine the life of a Russian person in the pre-revolutionary period without bells. They rang out often to call people to prayer or to alert them to danger.
The fact that more than 1,000 people gathered for the bell-hanging ceremony is a sign of how religious life is slowly returning to normal in Russia.
Local resident Valentina Konstantinovna was in the crowd.
Ms. Konstantinovna says she came to the monastery to see the bells hung, because she is an Orthodox believer, and wanted to celebrate this historic occasion. She says it is not at all like Soviet times, when almost no one went to church. She thinks religion is returning to Russia.
According to a recent survey published by the Russian newspaper, Izvestia, almost 60 percent of Russians consider themselves Orthodox.
Among them is Russian President Vladimir Putin. And although Mr. Putin was not at the bell-hanging ceremony, his presence was felt. His name is written on both of the bells. Church officials say it was a tradition during czarist times to write the name of the czar, or leader, on the side of a new bell. Many church leaders also credit him with creating the political environment in which this ceremony could be held.