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Background: Harvard has a set of 18 Russian bells purchased from the Soviet government in 1930, one of only five complete, intact sets of pre-revolutionary Russian bells left in the world. They came from Moscow's oldest monastery, which is now also the Patriarch's residence. The monastery has been trying to get the bells back for the past 20 years, but they have become part of Harvard's culture too, and the university is not just hoping to get rid of them. Also, the towers would have to be dismantled in order to remove them. Nonetheless, the dialogue has been amicable, and Harvard is willing to entertain the idea of their return.


March 18, 2003

Lowell House Bells Toll To Commemorate Saint's Death

Crimson Staff Writer

Lowell House attempted to share their coveted bells in spirit— if not in kind— with their original owner in a noontime ceremony yesterday.

The Russian relics— which are originally from the St. Danilov Monastery in Moscow, reverberated in recognition of the 700th anniversary of the saint’s death.

Four eager bell ringers, or Klappermeisters, played different harmonies to mark the event.

Even Lowell House Masters Diana L. Eck and Dorothy A. Austin joined in the bell-ringing.

Cast for the monastery in the 17th and 18th centuries, the bells were bought by industrialist Charles Crane in the 1920s after the Russian government threatened to melt them down, and were given to University President A. Lawrence Lowell as a gift in 1930.

The monastery said last year that it hoped for the return of the bells before yesterday’s anniversary, but Eck and Austin said that financial and tactical concerns prevented the unlikely exchange.

However, Eck and Austin said they are working to cultivate an understanding between Harvard and the monastery.

“Our ringing of the bells should be overlapping with the end of the day and the end of a 6 p.m. ceremony in Moscow,” Eck said.

She added that she has been in correspondence with the webmaster of the monastery and sent an e-mail to mark the event.

After a brief introduction addressing the significance of the bells and St. Danilov’s death, Eck distributed ear plugs to the small crowd that had assembled to hear the bells.

The group then climbed the narrow staircase leading to the bell tower, where the bells— ranging in size and weight from the 13 ton “Mother Earth” to 20 pounders the size of baseball hats— are strung to the inner supports of the tower.

The ceremony began with the ringing of Mother Earth. Once the vibration had subsided, the Klappermeisters took turns playing different tunes on the bells.

Mother Earth is rung by someone standing inside of it and swinging its pendulum, while the smaller bells are controlled by a series of wires connected to each bell.

“What we do is usually improvised,” former bell ringer Alex J. Healy ’02 said. “With practice you get used to the scales and setup.”

Current Klappermeister Benjamin I. Rapoport ’03 said the webmaster of the St. Danilov monastery has visited and responded to the portion of the Lowell House website devoted to the bells.

“I think it’s cool that we’re in touch with the monastery,” he said. “It’s very nice to ring the bells on this anniversary.”

Austin said she thought members of the monastery would have been “moved” by the ringing.

As the crowd of about 20 sipped sparkling cider to celebrate the event, Eck expressed her desire for future events to be coordinated with the monastery in order to maintain good relations.

“They know how very expensive it would be to transport the bells,” she said. “But there are other ways of communicating our understanding with the monastery.”

She said she thought that it was important for the monastery to understand that the bells have become an important part of the Harvard tradition.

“The bells are hung where we have an acute and respective awareness of their significance,” she said. “We ring the bells at commencement, formal dinners and other monumental occasions.”

In the past, Russian experts have come to the House to tune the bells. Eck expressed hope that in the future there could be even further coordination between Harvard and St. Danilov’s.

“We are hoping to establish a program of bell-ringer exchange and develop a tradition of the sacred sound,” she said.

However, Eck said that today it is most important that the bells toll for peace.

Copyright © 2003, The Harvard Crimson Inc.


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