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Background: Harvard has a set of 18 Russian bells purchased from the Soviet government in 1930, one of only five complete, intact sets of pre-revolutionary Russian bells left in the world. They came from Moscow's oldest monastery, which is now also the Patriarch's residence. The monastery has been trying to get the bells back for the past 20 years, but they have become part of Harvard's culture too, and the university is not just hoping to get rid of them. Also, the towers would have to be dismantled in order to remove them. Nonetheless, the dialogue has been amicable, and Harvard is willing to entertain the idea of their return.
Russian Bells Inspire Tug of War at Harvard
By Avery Johnson
MOSCOW - Every Sunday, at the Lowell House dormitory on Harvard University's Cambridge, Massachusetts campus, a klappermeister climbs to the top of a red brick tower and creates a sound that has become almost as central to dorm life there as all-night study sessions or fast food.
The klappermeister (Harvard's name for a bell-ringer) rings 17 bells - Russian bells, originally from Moscow's Danilov Monastery.
When the Soviet government threatened to destroy the Danilov Monastery's bells in the late 1920s, American industrialist Charles Crane saved them by purchasing the entire set of 18 bells, and it was installed at Harvard in 1930. But the further fate of the bells would prove as uncertain as their past - because at Harvard, no one could stand the sound of them.
In his 1936 history of the bells, "The Lowell House Bells," unofficial klappermeister Mason Hammond described the Danilov bells' first concert in their new home.
"At once the horrid truth became apparent - this zvon was no carillon or set of chimes on which each note could be played independently with some semblance of a tune ... . Invariably the undergraduates reacted with cat-calls, alarm-clocks, saxophones, tin-pans, etc."
Although the students eventually grew to appreciate the bells, the Danilov Monastery has always been home to dozens of listeners who long to hear their zvon, or ring. And this year, Patriarch Alexy II and several priests at the Danilov Monastery, where the offices of the patriarch are housed, launched a campaign to return the bells to the monastery's bell tower in time for the 700th anniversary of St. Daniel's death in March 2003.
"The patriarch wants to return the bells in order to restore historical truth and correct a historical mistake," Father Alexei Polikarpov, the vicar of the Danilov Monastery said last week.
The monastery's bell tower is not empty today: It was rebuilt in 1985 and outfitted with bells taken from razed churches in northwest Russia, but Father Roman Ugrinko, the current ringer at Danilov, said the substitutes' sound doesn't come close to the original bells' distinctive ring.
"The bells have a weak sound, and they don't play well together because they come from different churches," he said. "But to ring the original bells - that would be a pleasure. They are the bells Gogol heard, they are the bells that called our forefathers to worship."
But fulfilling the patriarch's request to return the bells would require closing the Harvard dormitory for a year, dismantling the Lowell House bell tower and shipping the cumbersome copper bells - the largest of which weighs 13 tons - halfway around the world. Former Lowell House dormitory directory William Bossert said last week in a telephone interview that the effort would cost tens of millions of dollars. Despite the price tag, current Lowell House director Diana Eck said that she and Harvard president Lawrence Summers are considering the Russian patriarch's appeal, which comes 14 years after a similar move in 1988.
"Ronald Reagan was at the monastery and there were discussions. He promised to help the church talk to Harvard," said the Russian Orthodox Church's official bell-ringer, Igor Konovalov. But follow-up negotiations failed.
Subsequently, in 1990, Bossert received a letter from the Orthodox Church via the Harvard president's office and helped the university's general counsel draft a reply. At the time, Bossert said he suggested returning the 18th bell it hangs alone in Harvard's Business School as a compromise, but this was never done.
"They [the Russian patriarchate] were just hoping that moving the bells would be an easy thing, and that we [Harvard] didn't want them," Bossert said. "They said 'thank you for being a wonderful steward for the bells during a difficult period, but now we want them back.' But now the bells are a part of Harvard history, too."
In an e-mail interview last week, Harvard's current official klappermeister, Alex Healy, said any attempt to move the bells would prove to be "an architectural and engineering feat" complicated by the fact that the tower was actually constructed around some of the bells. He added that the dormitory "is very proud of its Russian bells. They have been with the house since it was built, and despite the occasional complaints, I cannot imagine the house giving them away," he wrote.
Polikarpov, however, has no trouble imagining the bells in Danilov's tower.
"To transport the bells will be difficult but, if people can fly to Mars, then it's possible," he said.
Polikarpov is currently preparing the monastery's arguments for returning the bells, which will be presented to Harvard early next year. Church leaders disagree, however, over what exactly their approach ought to be.
Konovalov has suggested that Harvard foot the bill for returning the bells, without compensation from Danilov, arguing that the church didn't sell the bells, so it shouldn't pay for their return.
"Lenin and Stalin were gangsters," he said. "The church couldn't defend itself."
But Polikarpov is more moderate. "It was a sale. No one took the bells by force," he said, adding that the church is willing to pay for the bells' return, although it would have to solicit donations in order to do so.
At present, neither side is considering filing suit but, if the case ever gets that far, the history of the Danilov bells will certainly play an integral role in making a judgement.
The sale of the bells was finalized in the late 1920s, before the Soviet government closed the Danilov Monastery in 1930. To remove the bells, the top third of the Danilov bell tower was removed. It was rebuilt in 1988 in time for the 1,000th anniversary of Christianity in Russia.
Although the 18 bells shipped to Harvard were cast as a set intended to be played together, the making of the set occurred over a period of several centuries. Tsar Fyodor Alexeyevich commissioned the set's largest bell - the 13-ton bell, which is called "Mother Earth" by Harvard students in 1686. Another three were cast over the next 50 years. Later, in the late 19th century, 14 smaller bells were cast to match the older bells.
When the bells arrived in Cambridge in the fall of 1930, the tedious process of hanging, tuning and playing them proved too difficult for Harvard's experts, so the Soviet government sent its own bell specialist to help: Konstantin Saradyev supervised the installation and tuning of the Danilov bells and taught bell ringing to a select Harvard few.
But, within a few months, Lowell had caught Saradyev drinking ink as an antidote to the poison he believed the Americans had slipped him, and sent the Russian ringer back to the Soviet Union, where he died in a Moscow mental hospital in 1942.
The bells have not been tuned since, although a $1.7-million renovation of the tower in 1996 and 1997 confirmed that their pedestals and cables still function properly.
Proper tuning or no, however, in Healy's opinion the bells' sound isn't as important as that of other instruments - since their traditional function is to call the faithful to prayer rather than produce music for entertainment's sake.
"Many of the higher bells are 'out of tune' in the sense that there is a natural Western scale to which several of the lower bells have been tuned, and the higher ones do not quite match," Healy wrote. "This can often be a little disturbing to Western ears, but, for me, the distinctive sound of Russian bells comes from the sound of a single bell and its overtones and not the tuning of the entire set of bells."
During their first several decades at Harvard, the Danilov bells received far less attention than they have since the 1960s, when a group of undergraduate ringers began meeting once a week and on special occasions (Halloween, the Harvard-Yale football game, the springtime performance of Pyotr Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture") to play the bells for 15 minutes.
Today, including the Danilov bells, only five complete, intact sets of pre-revolutionary Russian bells remain in the world.
"In that respect, we're glad that the bells weren't melted," Polikarpov said.
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