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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA


Ringing the Glory in Russia
Vyacheslav Perkhovsky

Cities, like people, have their own character and peculiarities, making each one special in its own way. Venice brings to mind carnivals and gondolas; Paris, small cafes and street organs on the boulevards; Vienna, luxurious facades and the opera. Moscow, at least according to the recollections of visitors in times gone by, was a city of churches and the constant sound of church bells.

I met Ivan completely by accident. One sunny Sunday morning I was walking through an old part of Moscow and heard amazingly beautiful bells ringing from a small church not far away. Something made me go inside. I made my way through the modest doors of the belfry and heard footsteps. A minute later a short, thin, middle-aged man was standing next to me. I started talking to Ivan, my new friend, about the beauty of the peel of church bells, about bell-ringers, about traditional methods of casting church bells. As it turned out, casting bells was Ivan’s job, ringing the bells on Sunday was his hobby.

There are about 500 churches in Moscow now, but there were over 1000 before the Revolution. If you consider the size of old Moscow; roughly the area of the central part of Moscow within the third ring road, and the fact that there were between 3 and 20 bells in every belfry, then you can imagine just how significant the ringing was on Sunday mornings, not to mention on major religious holidays, and most of all, at Easter. The bell ringing started at midnight with a single ring of the biggest Moscow bell of all, the Uspensky Bell which weighs 64 tons. It now hangs in the Kremlin’s Filaretovsky belfry and is rung several times a year. Then to the peel of several thousand bells, the Easter procession in all of Moscow’s churches began. The ringing continued the whole of the next Sunday, everyone was invited into the belfry to try their hand at ringing.

Vyacheslav Perkhovsky

The bell-ringing technique in Russian churches differs from that in Western churches. In Russia, the ringer extracts the sounds, pulling on a rope which is tied to the clapper, whereas in the Western system, the whole bell is swung. The Russian system allows complex musical compositions to be performed.

People used to gather in crowds to hear the virtuoso church bell-ringers who were quite famous, one of the last and most famous of whom was Constantin Saradzhev who used to ring the bells of the Maron Pustinnik church on Yakimanka Street in the Zamoskvorechiye part of Moscow. Constantine possessed a phenomenal musical ear, and he described in writing the sound of over 300 large bells in Moscow and surrounding areas. Using these notes, we can today estimate the approximate weight of many of the old bells and way they were hung. It was Saradzhev who in the 1930s, was called on to choose the bells for the belfry of Harvard university. He chose the unique collection of bells used in the Danilov monastery, bells which had already been taken down and were destined for re-smelting. Russia has to thank Charles Crain, an American businessman for saving these bells when he purchased them from the Soviet government and transported them to the USA. In 2009, the Harvard University collection of bells was ceremoniously handed over to the Moscow Patriarchy and returned to the Danilov monastery.

The church bells in Rostov the Great, in the Troitse-Sergiev Lavra in Sergiev Posad, Zvenigorod and Valdai were also famous. A unique set of 17th century bells has been preserved in Rostov the Great, each of which bears its own name: Sisoi (32 tons), Polieleini (16 tons), Lebed (8 tons), Golodar (4 tons). The Zvenigorod bell (35 tons) was particularly beautiful, and was cast for the Savvino-Storozhevsky monastery by order of Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich in 1667. The bell was smashed in 1943, when workers were lowering it from its belfry.

People have always loved church bells in Russia, and master casters built reputations for themselves by creating bells which weighed many tons, had beautiful resonance, and were elegantly decorated. Many bells were adorned with large calligraphy which bore historical significance.

In the 16th century, bells of 20-30 tons were already being cast. Master bell-maker, Alexander Grigorev, cast a 150-ton bell in 1655, and in 1735, Mikhail Motorin created the Tsar-bell which weighed 202 tons. But this giant bell was never rung.

Bells in the church of St. George in Kolomenskoye

There was a major fire in the Kremlin in 1737. The wooden buildings over the casting pit where the giant bell was positioned caught light. Whilst trying to put out a fire created by burning beams, workers ran to the site and poured water into the pit. Cold water came into contact with the red-hot metal and the bell cracked; an 11-ton section fell off. The Tsar-bell lay in its casting pit for over a century, and was only raised to the surface in 1836 by a French architect Monferran, who is also responsible for the creation of the pedestal on which the bell sits, next to the Ivan the Great Bell Tower in the Moscow Kremlin to this day.

Bells are cast using bell bronze together with a mixture of copper and tin. The proportions are well-known and have not changed since the middle ages. The casting process of the big bells was accompanied by ritual and ceremony. On the day before the bells were cast, the owner of the bell-casting factory or people who he hired specially, would spread the most absurd rumours around the city. It was considered that the more people believed the rumours, the better the bell’s ring would be. Police frequently warned the factory owners, against spreading wild rumours, but this only resulted in such rumours spread more quickly. A new meaning of the verb to pour (заливать) appeared in Russian, with the meaning to deceive.

At the beginning of the 20th century more than 20 bell workshops cast bells weighing a total of more than 1,200 tons each year. After the Revolution, a merciless hate campaign against Russia’s religious past was stoked up. Bells were thrown down from belfries and sent for recycling.

By some miracle, some of the bells from the Troitse-Sergiev Lavra, Rostov the Great, the Moscow Novodevichy Monastery were preserved in Moscow museums and theatres. Bell-ringing was forbidden; it was considered that such noise disturbs workers on their day of rest.

With the advent of Perestroika at the end of the 1980s, the ban on religion was ended. The restoration of churches began and the first church bell-making cooperatives were formed. That is when my friend Ivan started his unusual business.

Now there are several places where bells are made in Russia, but when they started back in the 1980s, it was necessary to relearn the bell-making craft once again, almost from scratch. The ringing of church bells ceased in most Russian churches right after the war, however a very few church bell ringers were still alive, and they taught the next generation. But nobody remembered how to actually cast new church bells. The last functioning bell-making factory, located in Valdai, which cast bells for fire engines and ships, was closed in 1930. Production was only possible because a few books had been miraculously preserved, and they provided the basic knowledge of how to create the bells. Things have changed completely now. The Moscow company where Ivan works casts about 70 tons of bells a year.

Ivan told me about miracles and legends connected with church bells, about their design, about the meaning of that special ringing sound in people’s lives. I listened to what he said and thought to myself that ancient Russian culture is still alive, despite of almost a hundred years of insane Bolshevism, Red Terror, Stalinist repressions and constant war with religious art.

The old culture is alive in its centuryold traditions, in people’s consciousness and striving for creativity. I thought about the fact that seldom are we able to afford the opportunity to participate in the resurrection of this culture, to find an occupation which allows us to realise all of this, ourselves, completely, and all of this is not bad at all.

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