St. Sergius Lavra

Yesterday we sped from one town to the next to ring in the towers of many churches. We visited Father Roman’s alma mater, Saint Sergius Lavra, which is kind of like the Harvard of seminaries One chapel held the remains of Saint Sergius himself (the patron saint of Russia), and another had bells on top that you could only reach by a ladder that was precariously propped against the side of the building. I’ll get to that ladder in a bit.

Bell tower at Saint Sergius Lavra.



But first we got inside the enormous bell tower in the center of the complex. It was the tallest structure by far. This tower has the largest hung bell in Russia (72 tons, which has to be rung by 5 or 6 people), and the oldest (cast in 1420).


Harry and Todd standing on the clapper of the largest bell in Russia.
Harry and Todd standing on the clapper of the largest bell in Russia.

We saw the head bellringer ring the impressive St. Sergius Lavra peal, which involves a tricky wrist movement that allows you to ring four bells in descending order very quickly (called “the circle trill”).






Saint Sergius Lavra on Vimeo.

Smaller chapel at St. Sergius Lavra with bells only accessible by roof.
Smaller chapel at St. Sergius Lavra with bells only accessible by roof.

While this peal was being performed, Father Roman swept from the tower and a minute later we could see his miniscule form making its way to the smaller chapel across the square. He climbed up the ladder and then used a rope to walk up the roof until he got to the bell tower. At a certain point, the head bellringer stopped his peal and rang three times to signal Father Roman, who then rang his own peal and sent the signal back to our tower. It was like watching a synchronized dance between two gigantic, stationary towers.



At around 3 pm, we pulled into Rostov Velikiy (Rostov the Great), an ancient and sleepy village on the shores of steely-gray Lake Nero. Rostov boasts several churches, a recently restored and fortified kremlin, and one of the most beautiful and historically significant sets of bells in the land. The Danilov bells were of course preserved at Harvard, but the Rostov bells were intentionally spared the Bolshevik purges for their cultural cachet.


The Rostov belfry dates back in its current form to the 17th century. Its architecture is striking and unique, with a gallery of white-bricked arches displaying a row of bells.

Bells at Rostov.

The openness of the gallery design, where ringers can see each other as they ring, allowed Rostov zvonary to pioneer the coordinated, rhythmic bellringing style we use today.



We were lucky enough to see a demonstration of the traditional peals, which you can listen to a bit of by clicking below.



As you can hear, the two largest bells, many times larger than our own Mother Earth, ring out with striking synchronization. The largest bell—Sysoy—was named after the father of the Metropolitan whose seat was at Rostov.

Impressive coordination of bellringers at Rostov.
Impressive coordination of bellringers at Rostov.


The second-largest bell was rung by a very serious young man with a funny hat. The bell did not have a rope on its clapper, which required him to lean back and forth holding the cast-iron monster in a manner that demanded a great deal of skill, but also called to mind certain of the artistic stylings of one Dr. Seuss.

Ringing a Rostov bell without a clapper.
Ringing a Rostov bell without a clapper.




We weren’t allowed to ring the historical set, but through a gate and across a courtyard lay a treat: a small tower with some of the sweetest-sounding shiny-new trill bells we’ve found.



Looking out across the waves of Lake Nero, we saw a bell tower with its own story. Allegedly, in centuries past, it was illegal to build a tower taller than the Ivan the Great bell tower in the Kremlin. The tower we saw broke this rule, but when the Tsaritsa sent an inspector to verify the tower’s height, villagers built mounds of dirt around the tower’s base. This obscured its first story, creating an appearance of shortness, and the tower survived.

After a delicious snack, we piled back into the van with Igor, the other Russian bellringers in tow.

Tea, breads, and fruits at Rostov with our bellringing friends.
Tea, breads, and fruits at Rostov with our bellringing friends.

We bid goodbye to the sleepy sunlit courtyards with their lush grass, and the technical skill of the 4-man bellringing team. We were in for more sunlight on more grass in Uglich, but this town and its bell also held a darker story.




 Uglich is a quiet town on the banks of the Volga river. “Uglich” actually means “corner” in Russian, and the town happens to be positioned on the corner of this great river.


It was late afternoon when the van crawled to a stop in front of the Church of Saint Dmitri on Blood (quite a name for a tiny pink church).

Church of Saint Daniel on Blood in Uglich.
Church of Saint Daniel on Blood in Uglich.

The sun was a spectacular buttery yellow, and every so often a flock of crows (“vorona,” in Russian) swooped from one set of birch trees to the next. Their squawking black forms looked like the poppy seed crumbs we keep leaving on tables after eating Russian “crispies,” scattered as if from a hungry mouth.

Birds in Uglich.
Birds in Uglich.




Inside the church we were able to see the ancient alarm bell of Uglich, an unassuming dark bell hanging from a wooden beam. In 1591, Boris Gudonov murdered Ivan the Terrible’s youngest son, Tsarovich Dmitri in one of the Tsar estates in Uglich. Though Gudonov claimed that the young boy had a seizure and fell on his own knife, the Uglich bell was rung to alert the town to the murder. The townspeople gathered en masse and killed the killers. Enraged at the crime, they then proceeded to throw the traitorous bell from the tower, rip off a few of its ears and tear its tongue from its shoulder. They whipped the bell and then exiled it to Siberia, where it remained until the 19th century. Now it hangs, meek and abused, in the Church of Saint Dmitri on Blood.

Uglich exiled and returned bell.
Uglich exiled, abused, and returned bell.
Statue of the murdered Tsarovich Dmitri.
Statue of the murdered Tsarovich Dmitri.

Despite its terrifying tale, Father Roman pointed out that it has a very pure, beautiful sound. Mulling this incongruity over in our minds, we returned to the banks of the river. The sun was setting (or “seating itself,” as it is phrased in Russian) and it was time to bid goodbye to our bell-ringer friends. We are so thankful to have had so much time learning peals and Russian words. What a kind, talented group of people! We will dearly miss them.




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