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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Repealing 70 Years of Silent Belfries

All you need is a little arithmetic to know that Russia's patriarch has a supply and demand problem on his hands. Some 55 churches have been refurbished in Moscow alone in the last six years, and another 205 are under way.


The Orthodox canon stipulates that at Easter time, bells should be rung "unstintingly" to celebrate the resurrection. The average belfry needs at least two people to keep all the bells going in full swing; the Danilov Monastery requires five people, and the bell tower of Ivan the Terrible in the Kremlin needs 10 strong men just to ring its Great Bell, not to mention up to 10 more to toll the others.


So last Easter Sunday, where did all the extra bell-ringers come from?


By Orthodox tradition, anyone can come and ring the church bells at any time during Easter week. But that still left the problem of finding professionals -- the real "ringers."


The Danilov Monastery in southern Moscow, home to one of the city's grandest belfries, has revived its pre-Revolutionary traditions of bell-ringing and runs a thriving school which supplies many of Moscow's churches with bell-ringers.


"Bell-ringing is a great art, an essential part of Russian Orthodoxy," said Hieromonk Zosima, a monk at the monastery. "There are special sequences for different services, different feast days, funerals, fasts, as well as local variations. The technique has been handed down from person to person for many generations."


The art was kept alive at the Danilov Monastery by "Old Mikhailov," a faithful churchgoer who used to ring the monastery bells before the 1917 Revolution. Four years ago, after bells once again began to sound at the monastery, he began teaching a new generation of ringers. One of his pupils tolls the bells at the Kremlin.


"Most of the pupils are boys, some as young as 8 or 9," said Hieromonk Zosima. "The young ones prefer it to serving in church because they can pull strings, run around and make a lot of noise. They love it."


On Easter Sunday, the bells of the 17th-century church of St. Fyodor the Stoudite rang out on Nikitskiye Vorota for the first time since 1920, leaving the neighbors in no doubt that the church is in business again.


"It's not a renaissance, it's a super-renaissance," said Father Pavel Vishnevsky of St. Fyodor's.


"We realize that the people living around here haven't been used to hearing church bells for the last 75 years," said Father Pavel. "So we muffled the bells at first so that people would get used to them."


The church's three new bells, cast and tuned at the ZiL limousine factory, were installed just before Easter in the newly rebuilt belfry, reconstructed based on 19th-century illustrations. The metal in the main bell alone cost $4,000 and was paid for by the Culture Ministry.


The new bells were tolled by Fyodor, 19, who pedaled the largest with his foot, while pulling the cords of the other two with his hands like a kite-flyer. Fyodor acquired his bell-ringing skills at the Danilov Monastery and now passes on the art to all comers. He is proud of his new bells, which he enthusiastically swings into a cacophony of rhythmic clanging. "They've got a lovely tone, clear and beautiful," he says, tapping them lovingly.


St. Fyodor's was built by Metropolitan Filorets Romanov -- the father of Mikhail, the first tsar of the Romanov line -- in gratitude for a safe return from captivity in Poland.


The church's bell tower was largely demolished under communism, and it only found its voice again after years of serving as a residence. One of the workmen who helped to rebuild the tower lived for many years in its ruined base, while the main part of the church was used as a laboratory by the Institute of Fat Research. The scientists left the building practically ruined; fatty deposits, by-products of margarine experiments, still clog the drains.