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Bells Deep

The unexpected journey of the Harvard bells

harvard6Photo: Harvard University

By Alexandra Lapkin


arvard Square, although it may seem thoroughly New England with its narrow, cobblestone alleyways and classic Ivy League red-brick buildings, has much international culture. The sound of church bells, for example, heard on Sunday mornings and after football victories. is actually made by bells that came from a Russian Orthodox monastery in Moscow.

There are 18 bells in all, divided between Lowell House and the business school’s Baker Library, with the largest weighing 13 tons and the smallest, 22 pounds. Cast between 1682 and 1907, the Danilov bells are some of the few pre-Revolutionary bells in existence in America.

In Russian culture, church bells have a mystical, human-like quality; they are given names, such as Swan and Bear, and are considered to be capable of suffering. In folklore, it is said that the sound of church bells brings sinners to repent and prevents suicides. In western European churches, the bells produce major and minor chords, but in Russia and in Harvard Square, the sound of church bells heard on a Sunday morning resonate in untuned, rhythmic, and layered peals with each chime.

The bells were brought to Cambridge by Charles R. Crane, an American philanthropist who witnessed the destruction of churches while traveling in Russia in 1930. At the time, Joseph Stalin, who had recently assumed power, banned all religious practices, including the ringing of church bells. He ordered the bells to be melted down, and the churches destroyed or put to secular use.

The Danilov Monastery in Moscow, where Crane bought Harvard’s bells, was founded in the late 13th century, and was the first Russian Orthodox church. In addition to its religious importance, the Danilov Monastery also served as a fortress against the Tatars. In 1812, it was ransacked by Napoleon’s army. By the late 1800s, the Danilov Monastery occupied a large site, with several churches, a chapel, and a cemetery for celebrated artists, musicians, and writers.

Although it survived centuries of invasions, the Danilov Monastery could not withstand the Soviet government. It shared a similar fate with many of Russia’s churches: in 1930, its archbishop and the monks were executed by the secret police, while the monastery was converted into a reformatory for juvenile delinquents. In the 1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev introduced policies that allowed for more freedoms, including freedom of religion. After having served as a reformatory for more than 50 years, the Danilov Monastery was restored in 1983 as the headquarters of the Russian Orthodoxy.

Father Roman Ugrinko, the head bell ringer at the Danilov Monastery, rang the authentic bells for the first time when he traveled to Harvard in 2003. Five years and $10 million later, the bells were returned to Russia in the fall of 2008. The Link of the Times Foundation, organized by the industrialist Viktor Vekselberg, sponsored the repatriation of the bells and the casting of replicas for Harvard.

Read more secrets of Harvard Square.