ARTS + FEATURES
Restoration Brings Pealing of Church Bells to
By Galina Stolyarova
SPECIAL TO THE ST. PETERSBURG TIMES
Photo by Galina Stolyarova
In Russia's past, the bell tolled to expel devils from the soul, to announce an
execution or to start off a national celebration. Today, for whom the bell tolls - or if
it tolls at all - comes down to a question of money.
When the Godless Society roused itself to its greatest anti-religion
campaign ever - under the leadership of Stalin in the late 1920s - church-goers stood
their ground, armed with sticks and pitchforks, to defend their bells from local
communists and Komsomols who were ordered to melt them down for scrap metal.
Despite the will of the believers to defend their fortress, the bells were silenced and
transformed into items more useful to the Soviet leadership. And the churches themselves
were turned into granaries, bakeries, lunchrooms, nurseries, libraries and - in the case
of the Kazan cathedral on Nevsky Prospect - a museum of atheism.
Now, restoring these bells comes down to a matter of financing, and most cathedrals are
finding the challenge impossible without outside support.
In recent years, campanology, or the art of bell ringing, has been making its way back
to Russia. Only last year, the Kazan cathedral received a 1,200-kilogram bell made by
specialists from Baltiisky mill - the first bell to return home after the cathedral was
turned into the Museum of Atheism in 1932.
Of course, churches need sponsors to get their bells back. "It took us about two
months to make the bell for Kazan cathedral, but not everything depends on us," said
a worker from Baltiisky mill. "Until the government or some company sponsors it, the
Kazan cathedral's bells are only a distant dream - they wouldn't be able to afford it
The Peter and Paul Fortress cathedral was more fortunate. The cathedral - famous for
its tradition of hosting exquisite concerts featuring the carillon, a set of harmonizing
bells - has the financial support of foreigners to keep its bells chiming. The first
carillon, installed during the reign of Peter the Great, was destroyed by the fire of
1756. Empress Elizabeth Petrovna ordered a replacement from Holland, and from that time,
daily concerts pleased audiences until 1850, when the old carillon was finally removed.
In 2000, thanks to the Belgian government, cultural foundations and private donations
by Belgian citizens, the full 51-bell carillon will finally be returned to its perch atop
the fortress church. The first bell of the carillon was installed last fall.
"The revival of the ancient musical traditions of the Peter and Paul cathedral
will make St. Petersburg even more magnificent, and we are happy to help it," said
musician Jo Haazen, director of the Royal Carillon School in Mechelen, Belgium, who
initiated the project and brought the first bell to St. Petersburg.
Russia's most enthusiastic bell-ringers have even formed a national campanology
association, financed by the Russian Cultural Foundation and including members from
Moscow, St. Petersburg, Sama ra, Yaroslavl, Krasnoyarsk, Yelabuga, Krasnodar and many
The St. Petersburg branch of the organization, presided over by Kunstkamera museum
chief researcher Sergei Starostenkov, is composed of over 30 bell-ringers from city
churches and cathedrals as well as musicians, professors and students. In 1994,
Starostenkov organized the "Week of Campanology" festival, where bell-ringers
from over a dozen Russian towns held concerts throughout the city.
On the opening and closing days of the "Stars of the White Nights" 1999
Mariinsky theater festival, Mariinsky Symphony orchestra percussionist Mikhail Peskov -
who also looks after the theater's two sets of bells - organized concerts involving his
bell-ringing colleagues from Vladimirsky and Peter and Paul cathedrals. Remarkably enough,
Peskov himself owns the city's largest private bell collection, with over 40 items,
including such rarities as a 19th-century ship bell from Helsinki and an 1806 bell from
"I purchased my first bell when I was 15 from a store on Sadovaya Ulitsa,"
Peskov recalled. "It was quite small, but the largest one, which I brought from
Cherepovets, weighs 1,200 kilograms."
Peskov, who has been working for the Mariinsky Symphony for over 20 years, said that
the theater's belfry - though hidden a bit behind the scenes - is a sight worth seeing. At
the top of a narrow wooden ladder leading to the belfry hang nine massive bells, dating
back to 1824, taken from the Gruzino estate cathedral of Count Arakcheyev, which was
destroyed during Stalin's industrialization process in the 1930s.
This collection, along with another set consisting of 13 Italian bells from 1896, are
put to constant use by the city's leading opera and ballet company. Their ancient chiming
can be heard in various operas - Mussorsky's "Khovanshchina," Tchaikovsky's
"The Queen of Spades," Borodin's "Prince Igor," Rimsky-Korsakov's
"The Maid of Pskov" and "The Tale of Tsar Saltan" and ballets -
Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet" and Assafiev's "The Fountain of
"When going on tour we pack the bells and take them with us, except of course for
the most precious antique ones," Peskov said.
As for the future of the city's precious bells, Peskov admits that government financing
is lacking. "We can barely afford anything," he said, adding that even the cost
of attending this month's campanology conference in Yaroslavl will be difficult.
But for the enthusiasts there is always the hope that one day the ringing of the bells
will return to the city streets and the tradition will be restored. Peskov himself also
has a more modest dream of producing the first compact disc featuring the "marvelous
tintinnabulation of the Mariinsky's unique bells."