Kolokola: From Glorious Cacophony
to Sublime Euphony

It is January The mercury is hovering below zero, and in the bell tower of the Church of the Nativity of the Mother of God in Moscow, Andre Mikhailovich Dorokhin, the local zvonar', is standing, clad only in pants, a loose-fitting ski sweater, and mittens. He is about to activate the bells. He is unconcerned about his own comfort in this frigid weather. He is concerned about the bells. "You have to be careful," he says, "because in frigid weather you can break the bells unless you ring them softly."

Andre Mikhailovich is one of two bell ringers [zvonari] at the Church of the Nativity of the Mother of God. Throughout the city of Moscow there are now scores, if not hundreds, of people like him. Most bell ringers are unpaid and new to the art which they are now restoring to life, an art stretching back to the founding of Russia itself. There is nothing quite like the sound of Russian church bells anywhere else in the world. And fortunate is the person who is able to resonate to them when they strike the air over Moscow.

Yet, some of us who are "getting on in years" remember when something similar, but very much less spectacular, used to occur in the older ethnic neighborhoods of America. Church bells of all kinds pealed, tolled, clanged, boomed, tinkled, jingled, and chimed every Sunday morning and special feast day, and even on weekdays. The western-style cacophony sometimes went on virtually all day long, and seemed to be keeping everyone in touch with his particular ethnic church: Italian, Polish, Czech, Slovene, Serbian, Ukrainian, Lithuanian, and perhaps others.

The first time we visited Holy Transfiguration Monastery in Brookline, Massachusetts, we were shown around by none other than Father (now Metropolitan) Ephraim. When he showed us the bell room just off the reception area, he told us a joke about the poor little Greek bells that say (in a high pitch), "Beans and lentils! Beans and lentils!" and the rich, massive Russian bells that say (in a low pitch), "Borshch! Borshch!"

Tsar's Bell

The Tsar Kolokol in the Kremlin.
This one never had a chance to say, "Borshch!"

Moreover, every Roman Catholic church used to sound the "Angelus," commemorating the Annunciation — morning, noon, and evening every day of the year. On school days, those of us attending Roman Catholic school stood as a group to recite the Angelus prayers when the noon bell sounded — first a single bell tolling at intervals spaced for the verses of the prayers, and then two bells ringing harmoniously (in fifths) repeatedly at the end. On special feast days it took at least two adult men to manipulate all the ropes to sound every last lovely German bell in a symphony of glorious sound! From the choir loft, we could watch their dance with the ropes in the adjoining passageway, as we greened with childish envy.

In 1999 I was moved to tears to hear the cathedral bells in Strasbourg (in the Alsace region) sound exactly like the bells in the parish of my childhood. I would not be surprised to hear that the Strasbourg bells had inspired the German-born priest, who designed the parish church I once knew, to acquire similar ones.

Those charming, colorfully sonorous bell-ringing practices have mostly fallen into oblivion everywhere in America, or the old church bells have been replaced by anemic Muzac-like carillon recordings, operated by a timer, cranking out insipid hymns for the "edification" of the small neighborhood of dedicated faithful below.

The complaint of non-worshiping modern Americans and their need for early and late sleep on their "day of rest" has caused the virtual extinction of the ancient, 1000-year-old bell-ringing in the West. Town ordinances have silenced or severely limited the most insistent bells almost everywhere across the land. Where church bells still ring in our cities, towns, and countryside, they are muted, poor, anorexic shadows of their solid, weighty forbears.

In the history of bells, the Chinese seem to have been the first people to found them [cast them in a foundry]. Even in ancient China they were used to call to worship and to delight the aesthetic sense. By their craft, which reached its apex around 1122 B.C., Chinese masters fashioned elliptical temple bells with decorations cast onto their surface by the so-called "lost wax" process.

Bronze casting was also practiced in pre-Christian Europe, but died out until revived in the eighth century A.D. when the restored craft became associated with monasticism.

Russian bell-founding dates from the thirteenth century, and by the sixteenth very large bells weighing many tons were being cast. The largest bell in the world is the Tsar Kolokol [the Tsar Bell] cast in 1733–35. Unfortunately it has never been rung, because in a fall from its bell tower during its installation, a monstrous piece broke out of its side. Both the bell and its shard now rest on the ground near the Kremlin cathedrals in Moscow. (Close by is another tourist attraction, the Tsar Pushka, the cannon that has never been fired.)

As western bells have been silenced by secularism, Russian bells were silenced for seven decades by communism, the ultimate secularism, and remained dead-silent until Mikhail Gorbachev lifted the ban on the practice of religion in 1989.

Under the Red yoke bells had been removed from church bell towers and destroyed, while many churches were converted into toilets and tie factories. The old Russian word for "bell ringer," zvonar', disappeared and appeared again in the Soviet Russian dictionary with the meaning "rumor-monger," or "gossip." After 1989, as the old bells were rediscovered and new ones founded, individual Russians began to revive the art of bell ringing. And church bells have been ringing in solemn abandon throughout Russia ever since.

Andrei Mikhailovich Dorokhin is one of the new breed of Moscow bell ringers. Because he himself suffers, unfortunately, as a "beneficiary" of communism, so to speak, he has little interest in what goes on inside the church. But he is passionately devoted to what goes on above it. Up in the bell tower of the Church of the Nativity of the Mother of God he is the æsthete par excellence, finding his peace of soul and inner satisfaction. For those below, his work is a spiritual affirmation of faith, a celebration of life and death, of nativity and resurrection. Each person gets out of it what each is able to put into it, that is, his personal response to the glorious pealing and clanging.

The bells that Dorokhin manipulates were not destroyed in the early communist frenzy. Some far-seeing souls carted them off and hid them for finding by a more fortunate generation, while the church building became a holding pen for circus lions. In 1993 the congregation, the building, and the bells rediscovered one another, and a new era of glorious bell ringing could begin.

Dorokhin says he rings his bells to the free expression of himself, to the solution of his problems, to the finding of his nobler being. It seems he is not thinking much about God — not yet, anyway. The complexity of his physical actions in controlling the ringing of fourteen copper-and-tin bells of the Church of the Nativity of the Mother of God clears his mind and strengthens his body. It is like controlling a magnificent pipe organ in a medieval cathedral before the discovery of electricity.

No need to worry about melody. The Russian bell ringer does not ring just one bell. He rings a panoply, a whole family of bells.

Andre Mikhailovich rings fourteen, each with its own distinctive name and personality, its own booming or tinkling voice, speaking straight to God on behalf of man in symphonic rhythm with its fellows. The result is not insipid melody from a carillon recording. It is pure, serious, full-throated rhythm.

On one Sunday in January Andre Mikhailovich spent about ten minutes in the bell tower building the crescendo of tintinnabulation of the fourteen bells he serves. One foot keeps time on pedals connected to two large bells. His hands and elbows pull on ropes tied to smaller ones. (The bells do not "swing," the clapper is pulled to hit them.) Andre's mouth hangs open to reduce the pressure of the sound against his eardrums. His entire body activates the ensemble as he becomes one with his bells.

He explains that the sound coming from each bell depends on many factors, like the form of the bell, the shape of its tongue, the composition of the alloy, humidity or lack of it, and the temperature of the surrounding air. When it's cold, the bell sounds better. When it's humid, the sound is muffled. Like a musician, the bell ringer can ring them loud, or he can ring them soft, at will.

Church tradition and the local priests decree the order of strikes for certain events — a monotone to call worshipers to services, from high to low down the scale to call forth a procession for a funeral, from low to high for a baptism. Within those boundaries, the bell ringer is a free spirit to improvise the number of strikes and the rhythm.

Andre Mikhailovich is by profession an economist on weekdays He is not musically inclined. Yet he felt himself drawn to this particular church which he used to pass by on his way to his studies. He soon found himself involved in spending four nights a week learning how to ring the bells at a bell museum rigged for the practice of aspiring bell ringers. After three months of practice he turned to the church and offered his services to the priest.

He says of his newer life as a bell ringer, "The next day, after ringing the bells, I knew what to do in my life." We hope and pray that Andre Mikhailovich will enter into even deeper synergy with the bells, so that he may personally experience the fuller life of spirit and truth which his beloved bells proclaim.

Inspired and partially adapted from "They Stir the Soul and Leave a Ringing in the Ears,"
by Michael Wines, Moscow Journal, January 26, 2000;
by Father John and Presbytera Valerie Bockman.

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