Fr. Roman Lukianov

A Brief History of Russian Bells

nizhni-novgorod bell market

The old Nizhni-Novgorod Bell Market

An address delivered May 22, 1999
at the Northeastern Regional Meeting of
The American Bell Association (ABA) International, Inc.
by Archpriest Roman Lukianov, Rector,
Holy Epiphany Russian Orthodox Church, Boston, Massachussetts.
Printed in the ABA's official publication,
The Bell Tower (vol. 57, no. 4: Jul-Aug 1999).
Republished here by kind permission of the author and publisher.

(Click here for another Overview of the Origin and History of Russian Bell-Founding.)

In the one-thousand-year history of Christian Russia, bells have played a rather prominent role. But before talking about Russian bells, I would like to bring up a short historical perspective.

Bells are some of the oldest man-made musical instruments. On the stone cuttings of the 4th century BC, bells are shown on the horses of Alexander the Great's war charioteers. In China, sets of tuned bells have been found dating to the 5th century BC. For some reason they seem to have disappeared about the time of the birth of Christ, and were unearthed by archaeologists only at the beginning of this century!

In the Bible, in the Book of Exodus, the Lord orders Moses to put small golden bells on the vestments of Aaron, the High Priest, so that his "sound shall be audible when he ministers, as he goes into the sanctuary before the Lord, and as he goes out, that he die not." (Septuagint, Exodus 28:3 1) One can see that these bells were of utmost significance, carrying even the penalty of death. In the Orthodox Christian church, to this day the vestments of the Bishop are adorned with small crotals, which constantly emit faint sounds while the Bishop is serving.

In the 150th Psalm we read: "Praise Him with melodious cymbals: praise Him with loud cymbals. Let every thing that has breath praise the Lord." (Septuagint, Psalm 150:5)

The cymbals mentioned in the Bible resembled pitchers with a wide open neck. When they were struck against each other, they produced a strong sound, emanating from the opening.

Bells are probably the closest relatives to the Biblical cymbals• they are a beautiful combination of percussion instrument and horn, emitting both a dispersed sound, and a concentrated beam of sound from the impact of the clapper against the body of the bell.

The first use of bells in the Christian church is traditionally credited to St. Paulinus, Bishop of Nola, in Italy in the 4th century. Another account reports that St. Anthony the Great, founder of desert monasticism in Egypt, [ed. note: already in the 2nd century-- but this strikes us as doubtful] was using a bell to call his disciples to worship. In the 5th century, St. Patrick, the Enlightener of Ireland, was known to have used a bell. It has been preserved even to this day. By the 6th century bells were widely used in the city of Alexandria, in northern Egypt. In the same century, a Deacon Fulgentius sent a bell from Carthage, also in northern Africa, to his friend, an abbot in Naples, Italy, with a letter urging him to use the bell for gathering of the brethren to prayer.

Also in the 6th century, bells were used by St. Gregory of Tours, in southern France. In the 7th century, Sabinianus, Pope of Rome, approved the use of bells in the church services, thus precipitating their widespread usage in the West.

Venerable Bede, an English saint of the 8th century, is credited with the introduction of bell ringing at funeral services. By the ninth century, use of bells spread even to the small parish churches of the western Roman Empire.

In contrast to wide acceptance of bells in the Church in the West, in the Eastern Roman Empire, now commonly referred to as the Byzantine Empire, the use of bells was slow in coming. Even though a set of twelve bells was given to the Emperor of Constantinople in the year 886, bells were used only to chime the hours at the Imperial Palace, and at the Latin Rite church. Eastern Orthodox Christians were accustomed to the sound of hand-held narrow wooden boards, called "semantrons," which were struck by special hammers at various points, thus producing sounds of various timbres. It was not the sound, but the rhythm, which carried the message.

For more important occasions in the church service, large boards [also known as "semantrons"-- ed.], suspended on ropes, were struck with two, or even four hammers, producing loud, rhythmic sounds. A great monastic scholar of Constantinople, St. Theodore the Studite, instructed his disciples to "make wood sound like a trumpet.

A Persian historian, Mashudi, who in the first half of the 10th century traveled extensively through the Balkans and western Europe, wrote in his diaries that "the Slavs ring bells in the same manner as our Christians strike on wood." He must have meant Western Slavs, Serbs, Bulgarians, Czechs, and Moravians, who were baptized as Eastern Orthodox Christians in the 9th century, almost a full century before the baptism of Kievan Rus in 988.

Even at the beginning of the 13th century, a Russian pilgrim to Constantinople, Archbishop Anthony, reported that only wooden instruments were being used in churches in Byzantium, and that bells were used only in the Latin churches.

In contrast to Constantinople and the Greek churches of the eastern Roman Empire, the churches of the newly baptized Kievan Rus began to be adorned with bells almost immediately.

According to one report, at the time of the baptism of Rus in the year 988, there were two bells in the city of Kiev. Less than fifty years later, a multitude of bells are reported to be in use not only in the churches of Kiev, but in the other major cities as well. In 1066, it is reported that bells were already prizes of war in conflicts between principalities. Less than 150 years after the baptism of Rus, the city of Novgorod is reported to have had 230 churches. The story of the life of a local saint tells us that as he was on his way into the city, he heard ringing of many bells which were calling the faithful to the evening vesper services.

What made bells so popular in Russia? Certainly the sound of early bells did not have much aesthetic value. The sound of wooden instruments, used by the Greeks, probably was not uncommon in the thickly wooded country of Russia, where much of the work was performed with axes. Thus, the sound of a semantron did not differ greatly from the commonly heard impact (or percussive?) sounds of daily living. But the sound of a bell was different: it carried for longer distances and was uniquely recognizable. It called people to something special, to the service of prayer, it was calling them to God.

For people who accepted the teaching of Christ with their whole hearts, who made an effort to live their daily lives in accordance with God's commandments, a call to prayer was a welcome relief from the harsh realities of daily existence. Bells called people to another world, the heavenly world of beauty in the churches. The churches for them were heaven on earth, places where salvation was being taught, where sins were being forgiven and one was sanctified.

The bells not only called people to the beginning of worship, but by means of ringing different bells or different ringing patterns, they instructed those who could not make it to church, which important parts of the service were being celebrated, so that absentees could mentally and spiritually participate in the services. Thus one can say that the bells spread the walls of the church as far as they could be heard.

In addition, the bells had other duties. Certain designated church bells were rung when there was forthcoming an important announcement from the Prince or from the ruling civil body. Other bell sounds alarmed people at the approach of an enemy, or, worst of all, of a house being on fire, which often spread to the whole city or village.

The sound of bells, long before its aesthetic musical evolution, had become an integral part of Russian Orthodox Christianity, of the true glorification of God. Bell ringing in Russia became akin to shofars, the horn trumpets of the Old Testament, proclaiming the joys and the sorrows, the bloodless Offerings to God, and calls for defense of town or country. And the desire to announce important events far and wide led to rapid evolution in the size and weight of Russian bells.

The Mongol invasion of Rus in the middle of the 13th century, and the destruction of Kiev and southern Russia, slowed down, but did not stop the development of bells and the spread of bell ringing. The Mongols did not prohibit practicing the Christian faith, nor did they interfere with bell ringing. The northern Russian cities, such as Novgorod the Great, were not destroyed by the Mongol invasion, and the bells there kept ringing as usual, and were growing in size.

Toward the end of Mongol domination, at the end of the 15th century, the chronicles talk not only about bells in general, but about new, and great bells. To accommodate them special bell towers began to be erected at the churches, monasteries and convents, and even special churches. In the year 1476, a special church for the bells was erected at the Trinity-Sergius monastery northeast of Moscow.

At the beginning of the 16th century was constructed the famous Kremlin bell tower called Ivan the Great, which had 24 arches to support the bells. At that time in the city of Moscow there were almost thirty bell foundries, a fact which indicates the existence of tremendous demand for bells, as well as of a high level of bell casting technology.

In the years 1520 and 1521, in the city Pskov, three brothers, Mikhail, Onufry and Maxim Andreev, cast two bells for the Spaso-Miroshsk Monastery; one weighing 1.6 and the other 3.5 metric tons, which translates into 3,500 and 7,000 American pounds, no small weight even in our days. While the largest bells cast in Pskov did not exceed 6.4 metric tons, or 14,000 American pounds, in Moscow, during the reign of Basil III, in the year 1533, a bell was cast weighing 16 metric tons, or 35,000 American pounds. And in the year 1551, during the reign of Tsar Ivan IV, commonly called in the West "the Terrible," a 35 metric ton bell was cast, which is 77,500 American pounds. This bell, because of its beautiful timbre, was nicknamed "The Swan."

Love for ringing bells permeated all levels of the Russian society. Even the Tsar Ivan loved to ring the bells, and so especially did his son Theodore. The Tsar used to say that his son should have been born a Psalm-Reader [this is a church office --ed.], and not a Tsarevich.

The 17th century was the greatest period of Russian bell culture development. In the city of Moscow and its suburbs there were about four thousand churches, each of them having up to as many as ten bells. On Paschal night, the custom was for the big bell in the Imperial bell tower of Ivan the Great to strike the first sound in the dead of midnight. And immediately the bells of all the other churches would start ringing, bringing out the great news of the Resurrection of Christ. One can only imagine the level of bell sounds, floating over Moscow, bringing joy to the hearts of all its inhabitants, whether they lived in palaces, or the lowliest huts, or even prisons. During the whole Paschal week, as was the custom, anyone who wanted to ring the bells was permitted to do so. The sound of hundreds of bells vibrated over the city, and this was the time when aspiring bell ringers could practice on the real bells.

In the Russian bell ringing system, the bells themselves are mounted stationary, with free-swinging clappers. Thus the Russian bell ringers have complete freedom and control not only of the instance of impact, but of the intensity of the impact as well. They can, and do, produce a large variety of rhythmic patterns and combinations on the same bells, from the solemn sounds of a funeral peal or lenten zvon, to boisterous, joyful music on the great feasts, sometimes bordering on dance imagery.


The 17th century is distinguished in Russia by two major developments: casting of the giant "Tsar-Kolokol" bells in Moscow, and casting of a set of great tuned bells in the city of Rostov the Great.

The giant bell standing on display in the Moscow Kremlin is actually the last of the four bells which bore the nickname ["Tsar-Kolokol" or] "Tsar-Bell". The first was cast in the year 1599, during the reign of Boris Godunov, by master bell caster Andrey Chohov. It weighed 35 metric tons, or 77,000 American pounds. It fell victim to a Moscow fire near the middle of the 17th century. Its metal was used in the casting of the second Tsar-Kolokol, in the year of 1654, during the reign of Tsar Alexey Mikhailovich. Master bell caster Emelian Danilov cast this bell right in the Kremlin, in the middle of Red Square. The new bell weighed 128 metric tons, which is 282,000 American pounds. The Tsar, happy about the successful accomplishment, ordered to mount the bell on a temporary bell loft and to try out its loudness.

For this the Tsar also ordered that all the bells of Moscow be rung at the same time. As it turned out, the sound of the new bell hovered over the sound of all the other bells and was heard eight miles away! Alas, maybe the bell had a hidden flaw, or the two groups of twenty-five soldiers each, engaged in pulling the clapper back and forth, became over ambitious, but at some moment the bell emitted an uncertain sound, cracked, and fell into pieces. The disappointed Tsar immediately ordered casting of a new bell.

The third Tsar-Bell was cast in the same place by a twenty-year-old master, Alexander Grigoriev, a year later. Actually, the work itself took only six months-May through October. The new bell, officially called the Great Dormition Bell in honor of the Dormition Cathedral of the Kremlin, weighed now 160 metric tons, 350,000 American pounds. It took ten years before this bell was raised onto a temporary bell loft, and another ten years before it was installed in a specially constructed bell tower at the side of the tower called "Ivan the Great." This third Tsar-Bell was rung only on special occasions, with advance notice to the residents, because it caused vibrations akin to a small earthquake. It rang for 45 years, before another fire in the Kremlin made it fall down and crack in the year 1701.

Not until the year 1730, did Empress Anna loannovna give the order to re-cast the leftovers of the third Tsar-Bell into a new bell, with the addition of 32 tons of new metal, thus bringing the weight of the fourth Tsar-Bell to 220 tons, almost 500,000 pounds. This work was entrusted to Master Ivan Motorin. After five years of preparations and an unsuccessful first casting, Ivan Motorin died and the completion of this effort fell to his son Mikhail. Mikhail perfectly organized the whole complicated process, and in 1735 cast the giant bell successfully on the first try. It is interesting to note that the casting process itself took only 36 minutes. The molten metal flowed into the pit at the rate of almost 6 tons a minute. This is no small feat even for today's industry.

The last Tsar-Kolokol never rang. While it was still in the pit, a Moscow fire set ablaze the scaffolding above it. The burning scaffolding fell down into the pit, and well meaning people started to pour water over it in order to save the bell! As a result, the bell cracked and a big chunk fell off. For almost one hundred years the bell lay in the pit where it was cast in Red Square. Then, with great difficulties, it was raised from the pit and placed on a postament for everybody to admire its size and the beauty of its decoration. Even if the bell had not cracked, it probably would have remained silent, because not only would it have created earthquake-like vibrations, destructive to surrounding Kremlin walls and cathedrals, but also its sound would have been about one octave lower than the lowest key on the piano. This would make it sound more like a gurgle, rather than a musical tone.

Near the end of the 17th century, in Rostov the Great, three bells were cast on orders of the local Bishop, Metropolitan Jonas. The Moscow masters Philip Andreev and Flor Terentiev in 1682-1688 cast three bells weighing 8 tons, 16 tons, and 32 tons; or 20,000, 40,000 and 80,000 pounds. The unique aspect of these bells is that they form a major chord, thus indicating that they were cast to produce specifically desired results. The other unique aspect of this set is that they, along with other bells, are mounted horizontally on a special bell loft, in which the body of the building acts as resonant chamber. The large open arches of the upper structure do not impede spread of sound, and the zvon of these bells can be heard some 20 miles away.

During the reign of Tsar Peter 1, in the year 1700, after he lost all of the Russian artillery in a battle with the Swedes near Narva, the Tsar ordered all churches, monasteries and convents to turn in one-third of their bells for recasting into artillery pieces. This order had one beneficial side effect: everybody gave up the worst bells they had, and therefore the quality of the bell sounds in Russia drastically improved.

The bell casting industry, however, along with other crafts, suffered major setbacks because Tsar Peter directed most of the efforts to the wars he had to fight, and to construction of the new capital of Russia, Sankt Peterburg (St. Petersburg). But the setback was temporary. By the mid-18th century expansion of Russia to the east caused demand for church bells in newly developing villages, towns and cities. A whole new bell industry had emerged, that of small bells for horse carriages. Farmers along the new travel routes to Siberia started to cast horse bells in their own farmyards. Bells from the village of Valday became famous because of their especially melodic sound. Other horse bell casters imitated Valday bells by placing the Valday name on their bells. On many occasions village craftsmen cast sizeable bells for their village churches. At big annual fairs hundreds of bells were put on display, suspended from scaffolding so that the customers could ring the bells and buy sound combinations to their liking. Bells were tuned by the village smith by chipping away metal about the rim. In the year 1811, thirteen bell-casting factories produced 4220 church bells, in addition to thousands of horse bells.

Russian bells reached even the New World. Near the end of the 18th century Russian traders established settlements in Alaska. Soon missionaries arrived, and many natives became Orthodox Christians. Churches were built, and of course, bells were brought from Russia. One Russian bell is known to have been in the chapel at Fort Ross in California. Other Russian bells are probably scattered throughout Orthodox churches in Alaska and on the Aleutian islands. Russian bells donated by Emperor Alexander III are at Holy Trinity Cathedral in San Francisco, the cathedral of the Orthodox Church in America's Western Diocese. Another set of six Russian bells is in the church in Bridgeport, CT. They were donated by the last Russian emperor, Tsar-Martyr Nicholas II, on the occasion of his coronation in 1894.

After the Russian revolution in 1917, and the establishment of the communist regime, the Orthodox Church was subjected to most brutal persecution. Most of the clergy were executed, churches closed, robbed of their artifacts, and often destroyed. The Communist Plan called for complete annihilation of all religious activities and organizations. Of the 60,000 pre-revolutionary churches and 1,000 monasteries and convents, only about 500 churches were still functioning in 1941, and no monasteries or convents.

Removal and destruction of bells became almost a passion for the Communists. Bells were thrown down from the bell towers and carted off for re-melting. Around 1935, all ringing of bells was totally prohibited. Only the Kremlin tower clock chimed the hours with a new melody.

But a few sets of bells survived the carnage. The bells from the Danilov Monastery in Moscow were intercepted on their way to re-melting by Thomas Whittemore of Boston and, with the help of American millionaire Charles Crane, were transported and installed in a tower at Lowell House of Harvard University. Unfortunately, the Russian bell ringing culture did not take root at Harvard and the Danilov bells now are used mainly to announce the results of football matches of the Harvard team.

Another set of historic Russian bells survived in Rostov the Great. For some unexplainable reason it was protected by a wish of an early Soviet Minister of Culture. This set, which was described earlier, was silent until the late sixties, when the Soviet government decided to display its 'cultural artifacts' and allowed issue of an LP record, entitled "The Rostov Zvons." The narrative which accompanies the bell ringing avoids all references to its religious nature.

The Second World War caused a tremendous revival of the Church in Soviet Russia. In a period of a few years it grew to about 20,000 parishes and several monasteries. But while using the influence of the Church in defeating the Nazi invasion, the Soviets kept it under strict control. Bell ringing was not allowed even in the reopened churches; but also, the bells were not there, having been destroyed in previous persecution. Only abroad, where hundreds of thousands of Russian refugees fled after the Revolution and during the Second World War, bell ringing resurfaced in the often makeshift, primitive emigre churches.

in Germany, after the war, in the refugee camp Fussen in the Bavarian Alps, during a Christmas service of 1946, the camp inhabitants were shaken by the beautiful bell ringing sounding from the powerful camp loudspeaker. Many people were in tears, not having heard bell ringing for years of communist oppression.

People were asking, where did the bells come from? Little did they know that the crew of technicians of the Radio Center had improvised bells by using a silver tea kettle, several large soup ladles and soup spoons, and other artifacts, suspended on a steel wire and connected to a makeshift microphone. An experienced old-timer bell ringer approved their sounds, and, at the proper time in the church service, played the zvons in the office of the Radio Center.

About a year later, with the refugee camp having been moved to Munich, a church was established in one of the wartime barracks. Almost immediately a bell loft was constructed, carrying a large and several smaller gas cylinders with their bottoms cut off, and several pieces of rails of different lengths, but no bells. Every Sunday and church feast day the inhabitants' spirits were uplifted by traditional zvons, performed by several surviving bell-ringers who had made it to the West.

The bell ringing culture was lovingly preserved by the Russian emigration. Bells are regularly played at the Russian churches in Geneva, Switzerland; Brussels, Belgium; Frankfurt and Munich in Germany; in Paris, in Luxembourg, and of course, in the United States. One can hear the most beautiful zvons in Jordanville, New York, at Holy Trinity Monastery; in Boston, at our Holy Epiphany Church; in Nyack, New York, at the Pokrov church; and in many other Russian emigre churches throughout the world. It is encouraging to see that young people pick up the bell ringing tradition from the tapes and records which are now widely available from Russia.

Since the celebration of the Millennium of the Baptism of Russia in 1988, and disintegration of the communist regime in 1991, the Church in Russia has experienced unprecedented growth. Over 10,000 parishes have opened since that time, thousands of ruined churches and hundreds of monasteries and convents are being rebuilt, and the art of bell casting is being resurrected to meet demand for traditional bell ringing to accompany services of praising the Lord.

In 1991, while visiting Russia, I came across bells newly cast in Voronezh and in Moscow. The Voronezh bells seemed very crudely made, with rather mediocre sound. It was obvious that they were first attempts at bell casting. The bells cast at a Moscow factory were excellent in both workmanship and tonality. They were cast using most advanced casting technology at what probably was formerly a defense factory. About two years ago, at Pascha, the bells at St. Basil Cathedral and at the Ivan the Great bell tower in the Kremlin were allowed to ring again for the first time since they were silenced in the 1920's or 30's. In northern Russia bell ringing started to be resurrected by museum workers, who collected bells from various museums and found some old people who had rung the bells in their youth.

In the heart of Moscow, the newly rebuilt giant church of Christ the Savior had new, large bells installed last year, cast in Russia. Several years ago a researcher in Russian history from Novosibirsk contacted me for advice, asking where they could buy bells for the newly built church at the Academic Town, where most of the Siberian scientific institutions are located. When he heard American prices for bells, he was horrified, they could not dream to afford them. I suggested to him: "Why don't you people start your own bell casting? You certainly have great specialists in metallurgy." About two years later he wrote to me, thankful for my suggestion, and reporting that now they cast bells right there for the Siberian churches.

The sound of bells again floats over Moscow and the whole of Russia, far and wide. While the politicians quibble about power, mafiosi shoot each other for money, television wallows in pornography, and the press in sensationalism, the sound of bells calls again upon the little people: "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest ... For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." Amen!

Blagovest Bells wishes to express its gratitude to Fr. Roman and to the American Bell Association International, Inc., for their kind permission to carry this excellent synopsis on our website.


(Click here for another Overview of the Origin and History of Russian Bell-Founding.)

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