For Whom Will Harvard's Bells Toll? That's in Question
- 2004.01.05 NYT:
January 5, 2004
For Whom Will Harvard's Bells Toll? That's in Question
By STEVEN LEE MYERS
MOSCOW, Jan. 4 - Harvard is not the villain here.
It has, however, found itself on the wrong side of an abiding faith
in Russia that God speaks to the soul through cast metal.
For 73 years Harvard has been the home of 18 bells that pealed atop
the gate tower of the Danilov Monastery - until Stalin silenced the
sound and killed the monks who made it.
The bells - 17 in Lowell House and the last at Harvard Business
School - were a bequest from the American diplomat and plumbing
magnate Charles R. Crane, who bought them from the Soviet government,
saving them from the molten fate of thousands of others.
While Russia experienced bleak decades of state atheism, the bells
continued to sound, though for reasons more secular than spiritual.
They have rung at commencement, New Year's and such earthly
manifestations of faith as Harvard beating Yale.
No one disputes Harvard's legal claim to the bells. But the monks at
Danilov, the restored headquarters of a resurgent Russian Orthodox
Church, prefer to think of the university as a temporal caretaker
that should now return the bells.
"These bells lived a long history in this monastery," said
Heirodeacon Roman, the chief bell-ringer in a place stripped by
history of its original bells. "They are witnesses. They watched
people come to the church who are now considered saints."
He added: "For me, these are not just instruments. These are what
bind us to our roots."
The monastery, supported by the Russian government, has intensified
its efforts to have the bells returned - a campaign begun after the
Soviets relented enough to allow the monastery to reopen in 1983. A
delegation that included Father Roman and Archimandrite Aleksy, the
monastery's father superior, traveled to Cambridge, Mass., in early
December and held four days of talks with Harvard officials.
After years of politely avoiding the question, the university agreed
to study the feasibility of removing the bells from Lowell House and
returning them to the monastery, founded in the 13th century by
Prince Daniil of Moscow.
"It is necessary and timely to study the question of the return of
these bells," a joint statement said.
The university agreed to pay for the study, but suggested that the
Russians pay to ship the bells to Moscow and replace them with new
ones. The agreement prompted jubilation here. A drive to raise funds
for the new bells is already under way.
The celebration may be premature.
Alan J. Stone, a Harvard vice president who took part in the talks,
said in a telephone interview the university had not yet agreed to
return the bells since much still needed to be considered.
First there is the difficulty of removing them. The tower of Lowell
House, a university residence hall, was built in 1930 specifically to
house the bells, the largest of which is nearly nine feet across and
weighs nearly 13 tons. Removing them would require dismantling at
least part of the tower.
Then there is Harvard's own tradition. The bells have become a
fixture of Lowell's identity, a symbol on its paraphernalia and a
source of pranks
(including one that duped Franklin D. Roosevelt into believing the
bells would be dedicated to him). Lowell residents have over the
years created a society of bell-ringers, known as the
Klappermeisters, who play the bells and welcome visitors to play
William H. Bossert, a professor and former master of Lowell House,
suggested that Harvard had preserved the bells in a way that the
monastery might not in today's Russia.
"The bells have been viewed by thousands, not just students but
people coming from all over the world to visit them and play them,"
he said. "It's been a very open curatorship, and if they were
returned there wouldn't be that kind of openness."
"I think there will come a time when the bells will be back in
Russia," he added. "I just don't believe this is quite the right
time." T At Danilov, a place that has suffered so much, there is
After the Soviets turned it into a camp for the children of
dissidents, then an orphanage, and later a community center, the
monastery has restored what was lost. It is now the official
residence of Patriarch Aleksy II.
The tower atop the 18th-century Chapel of St. Simon Stylites, razed
in Soviet times, was rebuilt in 1985 and filled with 15 bells saved
from destruction in other parts of Russia. Danilov is far from silent
today, but without the originals, Archimandrite Aleksy said, its
restoration is incomplete.
The bells - the oldest cast in 1682 - are believed to be one of only
five complete sets to have survived the Soviet purges.
Each bell is said to have not only its own distinguishing peal, but
also its own inseparable soul. Playing them is an act of pious
devotion - the monks pray as they ring the bells - and supreme
physical coordination. The monks stand astride a wooden platform with
pedals fitted to the clappers of the larger bells. They hold the
cords of the smaller bells in the right hand while pulling the cords
of still more with the left.
On ordinary days, the bells simply toll. On religious holidays, like
a recent one honoring the Virgin Mary, the bells begin with a steady,
sonorous clang and then trill with a joyous, clanging rhythm.
As a member of the delegation to Harvard, Father Roman, 28, became
the first monk from Danilov to play the bells since they left the
1930 - an experience he described as deeply moving and bittersweet.
He is troubled that for seven decades Harvard's students have rung
the bells for something other than the work of God. But he is also
"Actually it is very good that they are not dead or mute," he
said. "It is better to play them this way, than to not play them at
Anne K. Kofol contributed reporting from Cambridge, Mass., for this
article. Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company
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