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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

How a Nuclear Plant Found Time for God

MTBells at St. Petersburg's Kazan Cathedral, made at the city's Baltiisky Zavod shipyard — one of a number of factories using their facilities to make bells.
A decade ago, Andrei Sushko, a nuclear physicist from one of Russia's top-secret cities, added another line to his resume: bellmaker.

It all started in 1991, when Sushko was standing in an honor cordon welcoming the relics of St. Seraphim to their final resting place at the Diveyevo convent, near the closed nuclear research city of Sarov. The sound of bells accompanying the procession dumbfounded him, he said.

"Diveyevo had awful bells," he said. "I really disliked their toll."

Sushko couldn't believe that was the sound that had inspired writers and artists in pre-revolutionary Russia, he said. It was then that he thought of trying his hand at bellfounding. With the help of his colleagues, he produced his first set of chimes a few years later.

"The idea was beautiful," Sushko said of bellmaking, speaking by telephone from the Russian Federal Nuclear Center, the heart of the country's nuclear program, located in Sarov, formerly Arzamas-16. "Everybody supported us," he added.

Founded in 1946 on Stalin's orders to create the first Soviet nuclear bomb, the center is effectively a self-sufficient town with a string of labs and plants, including its own casting facilities.

Now, more than 100 bells from Sarov's nuclear center adorn churches across Russia, including the country's northernmost church, on the Novaya Zemlya archipelago in the Arctic, Sushko said.

The largest bell he has made weighed 9 tons and the smallest just 6 kilograms, he said.

The origins of the centuries-old art of bellmaking in Russia are shrouded in the haze of time. The first mention dates back to 1066, when the First Novgorod Chronicle records an enemy prince seizing the town of Novgorod and claiming its bells as spoils of war. Bellmaking was slowed by the Mongol invasion in the 13th century but was later revived and began to flourish.

Rung today primarily for marking holidays and calling the faithful to worship, bells played a far greater role in pre-1917 Russia, when they were often the sole means of announcing news across vast open spaces.

By the early 20th century, more than 100 companies across the country were producing just under 2 million tons of bells per year, according to Metallurgical Bulletin. Pre-revolutionary Russia produced a wide range of bells, such as sleigh bells and ship bells, with church bells accounting for half of total production, according to the bulletin.

Fierce atheism brought about by the 1917 Revolution took a heavy toll on the industry. The last bellmaking facility is generally believed to have been shut down in 1930. But after the breakup of the Soviet Union, the revival of the industry was just a matter of time.

Nikolai Pyatkov, from the small Urals town of Kamensk-Uralsky, said he became the first post-Soviet bellmaker when he registered a bell foundry, Pyatkov and Co., in 1991. A metal caster by training, Pyatkov said he was also the only professional caster in the country.

"Apart from casting, I know nothing else in my life," he said recently by telephone.

Pyatkov worked in rented premises until he opened his own plant in 2003, and he now employs 30 people. Since 1991, his company has produced more than 1,000 bells, including some for St. Basil's Cathedral and churches in the United States and Greece.

Last year, Pyatkov and Co. produced 120 tons of bells, tripling the amount it produced in 2002. By comparison, he said the largest bell-maker in Europe produced 90 tons of chimes per year.

Pyatkov said his firm would also make 120 tons this year, a sign that demand was slowly leveling off.

"The boom is over," said Nikolai Kislitsyn, the editor of Metallurgical Bulletin.

The market in Russia is coming of age and has started to emphasize quality over quantity, with those less qualified or less determined dropping out, experts said. About six companies churn out bells now, Kislitsyn said, down from 10 enterprises just a few years ago.

A Voronezh-based firm called Vera is the only company that Pyatkov said could compete with his firm.

Courtesy of Baltiisky Zavod

Workers giving the new 72-ton Tsar Bell its first test ring at Baltiisky Zavod before its installation at Sergiyev Posad.

Between them, they control 80 percent of the market, Pyatkov said, estimating its total volume to be about 250 to 300 tons of bells per year. With 1 kilogram of bells costing $15 on average, he said, the value of the market could be estimated at $3.7 million to $4 million.

The largest bell produced by Pyatkov's firm weighed 9 tons and cost a customer 2.5 million rubles ($86,745). However, his business does not ring up huge profits, he said.

"This is a typical small business with all the problems associated with it," he added.

And then there are the bigger enterprises, for which bellmaking is a mixture of business, a clever marketing gimmick and a spiritual affair.

Automobile plant ZiL and shipyard Baltiisky Zavod make bells at their giant casting facilities in Moscow and St. Petersburg, respectively.

"For us, this is an absolutely unprofitable business," said Igor Savelyev, a spokesman for Baltiisky Zavod.

The first bell, weighing 1.2 tons, was made for Kazan Cathedral in St. Petersburg in 1998, Savelyev said. About 200 bells have been cast at the shipyard since then, he said.

It was the shipyard that was entrusted with making the modern Tsar Bell, which at 72 tons is Russia's largest functioning bell. It was hoisted into the country's tallest belfry, in the Moscow region town of Sergiyev Posad, in January 2004. It took five months, nine furnaces and 100 tons of bell metal -- a time-honored bronze alloy of copper and tin -- to produce a rough copy of the 200-ton Tsar Bell on display at the Kremlin, Savelyev said.

The Federal Nuclear Center's Sushko firmly believes in the peacemaking mission of the bells.

"The bells will save the world," he said.

Asked whether he saw any incongruity in combining nuclear weapons manufacturing with making chimes, he said:

"Both are for the good of Russia."