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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Resurgent Tradition Rings a Bell




ST. PETERSBURG -- In Russia's past, the bell tolled to expel devils from the soul, to announce an execution or to start off a national celebration. Today, for whom the bell tolls - or if it tolls at all - comes down to a question of money.


When the Godless Society roused itself to its greatest anti-religion campaign ever - under the leadership of Stalin in the late 1920s - church-goers stood their ground, armed with sticks and pitchforks, to defend their bells from local Communists and Komsomols, or youth leagues, who were ordered to melt them down for scrap metal.


Despite the will of the believers to defend their fortress, the bells were silenced and transformed into items more useful to the Soviet leadership. And the churches themselves were turned into granaries, bakeries, lunchrooms, nurseries, libraries and - in the case of the Kazan Cathedral on Nevsky Prospect - a museum of atheism.


Now, restoring these bells comes down to a matter of financing, and most cathedrals are finding the challenge impossible without outside support.


In recent years, campanology, the art of bell ringing, has been making its way back to Russia. Only last year, the Kazan Cathedral received a 1,200-kilogram bell made by specialists from the Baltiisky mill - the first bell to return home after the cathedral was turned into the museum of atheism in 1932.


Of course, churches need sponsors to have their bells back.


"It took us about two months to make the bell for the Kazan Cathedral, but not everything depends on us," a worker from the Baltiisky mill said. "Until the government or some company sponsors it, the Kazan Cathedral's bells are only a distant dream - they wouldn't be able to afford it themselves."


The Peter and Paul Fortress' cathedral was more fortunate. The cathedral - famous for its century-old tradition of hosting exquisite carillon concerts - has the financial support of foreigners to keep its bells chiming. The first carillon, installed during the reign of Peter the Great, was destroyed by the fire of 1756. Empress Yelizaveta Petrovna ordered a replacement from Holland, and from that time daily concerts pleased audiences until 1850, when the old carillon was finally removed.


In 2000, thanks to the Belgian government, cultural foundations and private donations by Belgian citizens, the full 51-bell carillon will finally be returned to its perch atop the fortress church. The first bell of the carillon was installed last fall.


"The revival of the ancient musical traditions of the Peter and Paul cathedral will make St. Petersburg even more magnificent, and we are happy to help it," said musician Jo Haazen, director of the Royal Carillon School in Mechelen, Belgium, who initiated the project and brought the first bell to St. Petersburg.


Russia's most enthusiastic bell-ringers have even formed a national campanology association, financed by theRussian Cultural Foundation and including members from Moscow, St. Petersburg, Samara, Yaroslavl, Krasnoyarsk, Yelabuga, Krasnodar and many other towns.


On the opening and closing days of the "Stars Of the White Nights" 1999 Mariinsky Theater festival, Mariinsky Symphony Orchestra percussionist Mikhail Peskov - who also looks after the theater's two sets of bells - organized concerts involving his bell-ringing colleagues from the Vladimirsky and Peter and Paul cathedrals. Remarkably enough, Peskov himself owns the city's largest private collection of over 40 bells, including such rarities as a 19th-century ship bell from Helsinki and an 1806 bell from Mexico.


"I purchased my first bell when I was 15 from a store on Sadovaya Ulitsa," Peskov recalled. "It was quite small, but the largest one, which I brought from Cherepovets, weighs 1,200 kilograms."


Peskov, who has been working for the Mariinsky Symphony Orchestra for over 20 years, said that the theater's belfry - though hidden a bit behind the scenes - is a sight worth seeing. At the top of a narrow, wooden ladder leading to the belfry hang nine massive bells, dating back to 1824, that were taken from Count Arakcheyev estate's cathedral in Gruzino, which was destroyed during Stalin's industrialization process in the 1930s.


This collection, along with another set consisting of 13 Italian bells from 1896, are put to constant use by the city's leading opera and ballet company. Their ancient chiming can be heard in various operas - Mussorgsky's "Khovanshchina," Tchaikovsky's "The Queen of Spades," Borodin's "Prince Igor," Rimsky-Korsakov's "The Maid of Pskov" and "The Tale of Tsar Saltan" and ballets - Prokofiev's "Romeo And Juliet" and Assafiev's "The Fountain of Bakhchisserai."


"When going on tour we pack the bells and take them with us, but, of course, not the most precious antique ones," Peskov said.


As for the future of the city's precious bells, Peskov admitted that government funding is lacking. "We can barely afford anything," he said, adding that even the cost of attending this month's campanology conference in Yaroslavl will be difficult.


But for the enthusiasts there is always the hope that one day the ringing of the bells will return to the city streets and the tradition will be restored. Peskov himself also has a more modest dream of producing the first compact disc featuring the "marvelous tintinnabulation of the Mariinsky's unique bells."