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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.


Published on Monday, October 27, 2003

Visa Troubles Keep Monks From Visiting Lowell Bells

Contributing Writer

Visa problems prevented a delegation of Muscovite monks from coming to Harvard this weekend on a quest to reclaim their sacred bells from Lowell House.

Lowell House Master Diana L. Eck said six representatives from Moscow’s Danilov Monastery, the Lowell bells’ original home, were supposed to visit Harvard this weekend to start talks about whether the bells could feasibly be returned to the 721-year-old monastery.

But Eck said the Russian monks failed to secure visas in time to come to Cambridge this weekend.

Representatives of the monastery have been seeking the return of the bells for almost 20 years, but intensified their quest last year before the 700th anniversary of St. Danil’s death.

While the monks’ attempts to secure the bells’ return for the celebratory year failed, they are not giving up.

And Eck said that their planned visit this weekend was meant to jump-start more discussions of the bells’ future.

“I personally would like to see the bells returned,” she said. “There are a lot of steps that need to be taken, and the purpose of the discussion is to talk about those steps.”

Despite her desire to see the bells back in their home in Moscow, Eck said she understands that there are many roadblocks to their transatlantic return.

University President Lawrence H. Summers said in September that the cost of removing the bells from Lowell and shipping them to Russia might prohibit a transfer.

Luis A. Campos ’99, a former Klappermeister, or bell-ringer, and a resident tutor in Lowell, said he had been looking forward to learning more about the bells’ history— and possibly picking up a few pointers on ringing from the monks.

“I’d love to have a chance to talk to them to piece together our understanding,” Campos said. “I want to know how they ring [the bells].”

Eck said the University and the monks were working on rescheduling the visit, possibly for December.

As part of their campaign against the Russian Orthodox Church— and in an effort to make money— the Soviets took the bells from the monastery and sold them to Charles R. Crane, an American industrialist, in the 1920s. Crane then donated them to Harvard in 1930, and Lowell residents soon created their Sunday tradition of bell-ringing.

Aara E. Edwards ’02-’04, who has been ringing the bells since her freshman year, said she thinks the Lowell ringers do a good job even without training from the expert monks.

“You practice in your dreams, just dream about bells,” she said.

Despite their informal introduction to bell-ringing, Edwards said the Lowell Klappermeisters still abide by some rules. Theme songs from “The Simpsons” and Harry Potter are forbidden, as are “Happy Birthday” and Klezmer music.

But Eck, Campos and Edwards each said they had no idea what the Danilov delegation would think of Lowell’s weekly musical routine.

Eck, a professor of comparative religion and Indian studies, said she is well aware that those who are Russian Orthodox consider the bells, which are covered with icons, sacred.

In Lowell House, most students sleeping in on Sundays simply consider the bells an alarm clock without a snooze button.

“People will wake up,” Edwards said. “They’re counting on us.”

The Lowell Klappermeisters rang the bells yesterday at 1 p.m., as they do every Sunday.

To make sure that Lowell residents woke up on time, Edwards opened the padlocked door and climbed the steep, rusting staircase above F entryway shortly before 1 p.m. yesterday.

When the clock on St. Paul’s Cathedral nearby rang on the hour, Edwards began tugging at the 800-pound clapper in the center of “Mother Earth,” the 13-ton bell hanging above its own platform in the tower.

On the first of three rings, Mother Earth immediately drowned out the St. Paul’s bells. A few students who had come to the ringing without earplugs covered their ears.

Edwards seemed to swing back and forth with the clapper, using her weight to slow its motion and time the interval between the three rings.

The three Klappermeisters and two guests took turns ringing the other smaller bells, which are connected by wires to a lectern next to Mother Earth.

Each spent a few minutes improvising a tune until the minute hand of the St. Paul’s clock reached the quarter hour.

Mother Earth bellowed three more times and the symphony was over.

Despite the absence of the Russian visitors, Edwards said she was particularly aware of the bells’ origins yesterday.

“It feels very Siberian,” she said, looking out on Cambridge from the tower as the moist wind blew between the bells.


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