LifeStyle: The Russia Journal Weekly Supplement
Issue No.5 (48) | 14th Feb 2000

When the Tsar-Bell Rings...

LifeStyle interview with the Patriarchal Bell Ringer, Igor Konovalov

Igor Konovalov

Igor Konovalov is the most famous bell ringer in Russia. Not only is he the chairman of RussiaŸs Society of Bell Ringers, but he has also been ringing the bells at some of the nationŸs most prestigious churches, including those at the Kremlin, for the last fifteen years. Twice a week, he tutors his students on the art of bell ringing. And twice a week, he makes the familiar trek to the Christ the Savior cathedral, where he rings the bells on weekends. He is the Moscow patriarchŸs senior bell ringer and is known around the world as the man who revived RussiaŸs traditions of bell ringing. Many of his bell chimes are recorded on tapes and CDs.

LifeStyle: How did you become a bell-ringer?

Konovalov: Before the revolution, Russia boasted 80,000 belfries, but only a few survived the Soviet era. One of them was at the Danilov Monastery, which once boasted a remarkable collection of bells. As a child, I often dreamed of being a bell ringer. After working for five years at a machine design bureau, in 1985 I became an active participant in volunteer weekend brigades set up by the Russian Society for the Protection of Historical and Cultural Memorials. 
Igor Konovalov (right) with the ZIL (Moscow automotive plant) managers, who made the main bell for the Christ the Savior Cathedral. The bell is behind them.

Our goal was to restore the Danilov Monastery. We started out by removing the rubble, carrying bricks and doing all sorts of manual labor. Step-by-step, I learned the ins and outs of church culture, including bell chiming. That same year, the Danilov MonasteryŸs community invited me to join them as a belfry man. 

LifeStyle: How did you restore the Danilov MonasteryŸs bells?

Konovalov: During the Soviet era, the priceless bells were sold abroad. Some Rusian bells now have been brought back from overseas. 

LifeStyle: Do you know where the original Danilov bells are today?

Konovalov: The bells were sold to the United States and currently adorn a Harvard University tower. They chime when their varsity football team plays, on New YearŸs Day and other notable occasions. The American press once published a story entitled, "Thirty Tons of Metal and Not One Note." I disagree. These bells created by Russian masters generate up to 15 notes. 
Konovalov (right) is ringing the heaviest bell of the 20th century

LifeStyle: What materials were used to make bells in Russia?

Konovalov: When choosing the material, Russian bell-makers used a mixture of metals with the best acoustic properties. This often contained 80 percent copper and 20 percent tin. The quality of sound depends on the materialŸs purity.

LifeStyle: IŸve heard that some sensational discoveries were made at the bell acoustics lab.

Konovalov: Yes, scientists have discovered that sound waves emitted by a bell are cross-shaped. When ringing, a bell shrinks and expands. For big bells, the amplitude may reach several millimeters. 

LifeStyle: Legend has it that the sound of bells kills microbes and this is why bells often rang during epidemics. Is this true?

Konovalov: Italian researchers have proven that the sounds from a bell can kill the flu virus and some other microbes. By the way, some of our bell-ringers are 90 years old and are still in excellent health.

LifeStyle: Do you have any advice after fifteen years in the business? 

Konovalov: A bell-ringer should never hurry while climbing a belfry. I always try to arrive at least 10 minutes before ringing for meditation. While ringing, I say certain prayers. ArenŸt you afraid of growing deaf? Doctors say it often happens to bell-ringers.

You just have to obey certain rules. A bell ringer should not stand right under the bells and his ears should be lower than the bellŸs cup edge. Also it is recommended that bell-ringers open their mouth wide as they strike the bells.

LifeStyle: What was it like to restore the bells of Ivan the Great.

Konovalov: It was probably the most memorable day in my life. It was Easter of 1992. There were no scaffoldings and I had to use a safety rope. But I really wanted to hear the 2.5-ton Nemchin chime. It was the same sound heard back in the 16th century.

LifeStyle: You supervised the belfry arrangements at Christ the Savior Cathedral.

Konovalov: I can boast that the cathedral has the heaviest bells made in the 20th century. The biggest one weighs around 30 tons. 

LifeStyle: How many bells are there in the cathedral?

Konovalov: Fourteen. They have a good sound and are getting better with time.

LifeStyle: You mean the longer a bell is used the better the sound?

Konovalov: Exactly, like any other musical instrument. Christ the Savior bells will sound better in two or three years.

LifeStyle: Do you agree that bells create a special atmosphere in the city?

Konovalov: Moscow has a long way to go to catch up with European bell-music culture. Now the most prevalent sound in the city is car rattling. In Munich, I once saw people coming to a bell-tower square with their chairs, sitting down and savoring the music.

LifeStyle: Have you rung RussiaŸs biggest bell?

Konovalov: Yes, I have rung this bell, which is in one of the KremlinŸs Big Assumption belfries. It weighs around 60 tons, is more than 4 meters in diameter and height. When it chimes, you feel the sound not just with your ears but with your whole body.

LifeStyle: Is it easy to master the bell-ringer profession?

Konovalov: It takes at least 7 to 8 years to become familiar with the bells and understand them.

LifeStyle: What is your dream as a bell-ringer?

Konovalov: I want to hear the TsarŸs Bell chime.

LifeStyle: You must be kidding?

Konovalov: Not at all. There is a popular association, Krasny Zvon, or Red Chime, which aspires to make a bell with the same weight as the TsarŸs Bell—

LifeStyle: 202 metric tons.

By Alexander Astafiev