Russian monastery's delight as bells head home from Harvard
· Metals tycoon pays for return of 'singing icons'
· Brass replacements to be cast for university
Tom Parfitt in Moscow
Thursday September 7, 2006
Seventeen Russian bells which hang in a Harvard University tower are destined to return to their spiritual home near Moscow after nearly 80 years in exile.
The bells were saved from destruction at the Danilovsky monastery - seen as the spiritual home of the Orthodox church - during Stalin's attacks on religion in the 1920s. The homecoming is seen as a deeply significant event in Russia, where bells are considered "singing icons" which act as a spiritual intermediary between God and the faithful.
After years of negotiations the return of the bells was only finalised in recent weeks when metals tycoon Viktor Vekselberg, who bought $90m (£47m) worth of Tsarist Fabergé eggs at auction two years ago, stepped in to pay for it.
Chicago industrialist Charles Crane bought the brass bells, which weigh 27 tonnes in total, from the Soviets in 1929 and donated them to Harvard university in Cambridge, Massachusetts. At that time Soviet leader Joseph Stalin was leading a brutal campaign against the Russian Orthodox church that saw thousands of monks killed and buildings destroyed.
It was not until the mid-1980s, as the Soviet freeze on religion thawed, that letters began to arrive from Russia pleading for their return.
Mr Vekselberg is funding the repatriation of the bells by ship and train, plus the casting in Russia of replacements for Harvard at a cost of about $900,000.
The bells are eagerly awaited at Danilovsky, a walled monastery in an industrial suburb of Moscow.
The bells were invaluable to the monastery, said bellringer Father Roman, because they were witnesses to historical events: "The burial here of [novelist] Nikolai Gogol, the devastation that was wrought after the revolution when our brothers continued to go to the cathedral despite the opposition of the powers."
Last week a Harvard delegation visited Moscow to finalise the agreement and tour foundries that will cast replacement bells.
Luis Campos, a PhD student from the university and Tutor of the Bells at Lowell House, said Harvard first warmed to the idea of returning the bells in 2003 when a delegation from Danilovsky visited the university.
"That was the moment of conversion for me," he said. "When Fr Roman came into the tower and tested one bell, then another, and begin to ring, it was just as if the heavens had opened up."
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