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They Stir the Soul and Leave
a Ringing in the Ears


January 26, 2000

MOSCOW, Jan. 25 -- Maybe it is the belfry of the Church of the Nativity of the Mother of God, but it is still cold as Hades. Some 60 feet up a corkscrew staircase so narrow that your shoulders brush the cobbled walls during the stumbling ascent, a north wind tears beneath the arches supporting a blue onion dome, pauses to flash-freeze any bare skin it can find, then whips away.

Andrei Ilyin for The New York Times

Andrei M. Dorokhin ringing the bells after the Sunday liturgy at the Church of the Nativity of the Mother of God. "It's peace in the soul," said Dorokhin, who has been ringing the 14 bells there for three years. 

The mercury is somewhere below zero, but a thermometer would be redundant. 

Andrei Mikhailovich Dorokhin, clad only in pants, a loose ski sweater and mittens, is concerned, but not about himself. "When it's this cold," he says evenly, "you have to be very careful, because you can break the bell. You have to ring softly." 

Like a disheveled Bernstein taking the podium, Mr. Dorokhin then mounted a slim plank platform, planted a foot securely on a wooden pedal, raised his arms to the ropes and proceeded to make not music, but a miracle-- or at least, something akin to one. 

For there is nothing else quite like the sound of hand-rung Russian church bells. Unchanged for centuries, embalmed in the amber of Russian Orthodox Church tradition, it is a 4/4-time blend of dirge, railroad-crossing clanger and shattering wine goblet, a disharmonious sweetness that assails the ears and, once inside, makes a beeline to the heart. 

Mr. Dorokhin is one of two ringers at the Church of the Nativity, and of scores, if not hundreds, in Moscow proper. Most are unpaid newcomers to an art that stretches back to Russia's founding. What they create and give away, no loudspeakered belfry and Muzak peal can duplicate, nor can money buy. 

"Cacophonous and at the same time hypnotic" is how the historian James H. Billington described bell-ringing in his classic study of Russian cultural history, "The Icon and the Axe." 

"It's peace in the soul," said Mr. Dorokhin, 29, who has been ringing the 14 copper-and-tin bells of the Church of the Nativity for the last three years. More than that, it is an affirmation-- a religious celebration of death and resurrection, and a secular paean to the triumph of good over evil. For however mystical their peals, the real miracle of the bells at the Church of the Nativity, as with church bells all over Russia, is that they ring at all. 

Andrei Ilyin for The New York Times

The bell tower at the Church of the Nativity, an edifice that served as a lion pen in Soviet times. 

For more than 70 years, during nearly the entire span of Soviet rule, Russian Orthodox belfries labored under an enforced silence. One of the early aftershocks of the Great October Socialist Revolution in 1917 was the seizing and destruction of church bells across Russia, followed-- astoundingly -- by an outright ban on church-bell ringing. 

That ban prevailed, and Russian belfries stood largely gagged, until Mikhail S. Gorbachev began lifting restrictions on religion in 1989. The Communists razed many churches; in others the altars were pointedly converted into toilets. 

The Church of the Nativity met a gentler fate. Its bells were carted off, and the vacant building became a holding pen for circus lions. Not until 1993, after decades of silence and lost dignity, did the church regain its parishioners and its voice. 

"You could almost call it a zoo," Mr. Dorokhin said. It was, he said, a shameful era. 

These days, Moscow is fairly awash in bells, so much so that one man recently wrote a Moscow newspaper to complain that the racket was keeping his daughter awake nights. In truth, bell ringers are fairly restrained most days, either chiming the hour or emitting a modest clang to mark the beginning and end of weekday services. 

But Sundays and religious holidays are another matter. On those days the ringers get something of a free rein, performing 10- and 15-minute solos after ordinary services and pealing throughout the day on special holidays like Easter. 

Last Sunday, Mr. Dorokhin spent about 10 minutes at his job, one foot keeping time on pedals connected to two large bells. His hands, and even his elbows, pulled and strummed ropes tied to lesser chimes. His mouth hung half open, lessening the pressure from the bells' sound waves against his eardrums. 

"The sound depends on many factors," he said afterward, "like the form of the bell, the shape of the tongue, the makeup of the alloy. It even depends on the humidity in the air. When it's cold, like this, it sounds better. When it's more humid, the sound is muffled. 

"Like a musician, I can express myself. I can ring them strong, and I can ring them soft. It's like an art." 

To those who have never heard them, that is not so easy to explain. Suffice it to say that Russian church bells are to Western ones as blini are to a Denny's pancake stack: the same thing, prepared by wholly different rules. 

Western church bells rock back and forth, hitting their clappers at their apogees. Russian bells are stationary, and the ringer strikes them by pulling the tongue with a rope. Western bells are frequently harmonized; Russian ones are carefully tuned, but harmony is coincidental. 

Western bells ring out "Silent Night" and "Rock of Ages." In Russian bell music, rhythm is everything. A Russian Orthodox church bell would not be caught dead playing a melody. 

A Western bell would not be caught dead, period, of course; Western bells are inanimate hunks of metal. Not so Russian bells, which have been endowed by their creators for centuries with names, personalities and, it once was said, the ability to speak straight to God. 

In fact, Russians have had a love-hate affair with their bells since the first ones came from Byzantium in the 800's. That stems in part from the Orthodox Church's central role in Russian social life. In the church, where musical instruments are prohibited and the choral repertoire is derived from chants, the bells have always been an essential element -- a melange of jazz combo, church bulletin and time clock. 

Church doctrine and local priests prescribe the order of strikes for certain events: one note to call worshipers to the service, a high-to-low-note procession for funerals, low to high for a baptism. But within those bounds a ringer was free to improvise the number of strikes and the rhythm as he wished, with the result that many ringers seldom play the same sequence twice. 

Lest anyone question the passion in this relationship, consider this: after Dmitri, the son and heir to Ivan the Terrible, died in 1591, his throat slit, a bell was heard to ring by itself. The bell immediately was given 100 lashes with a whip, its ears were cut off so that it could not be hung and it was imprisoned in a windowless room in a monastery. 

"In Russia people consider that each bell has a soul," Mr. Dorokhin said. 

Mr. Dorokhin says he enjoys the creative freedom, but that is not what led him to become a bell ringer. An economist for a credit card company on weekdays, he was not all that musically inclined. Nor did he care much for Russian Orthodox services, which require worshipers to stand on bare marble floors for most of the two-hour liturgy. 

But the Church of the Nativity, which he regularly passed on the way to his studies, somehow drew him in, and he soon found himself practicing four nights a week at a Moscow church and bell museum rigged with training bells for aspiring ringers. 

After three months of bell-ringing theory, practice and history, he returned to try his hand on the Church of the Nativity's bells, and he never looked back. Like many Russians, he finds the rhythmic clanging to be a spiritual tonic. "If I have some problems before the church and don't know how to decide them," he said, "the next day, after ringing the bells, I know what to do." 

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