Ringing in an old tradition

Voronezh is one of the Russian cities where the bell production has been brought back since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Source: Grigory Kubatian

Voronezh is one of the Russian cities where the bell production has been brought back since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Source: Grigory Kubatian

Although their sound used to be heard throughout the Russian countryside, church bells fell silent during the Soviet era. Now the classic ringing is being brought back to life.

Voronezh is one of the Russian cities where the bell production has been brought back since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Source: Grigory Kubatian

Church bells have always had a special significance in Russia. Their sounds alerted Russians to important events ranging from festivals to the outbreak of fires. When the Bolsheviks began destroying church bells after the revolutions of 1917, they were not only committing an act of vandalism, but a deed full of gloomy, prophetic importance. Russia lost its voice and hearing for a long time thereafter.

During the rise and fall of the Soviet Union, Russian bells were silent; they were cracked, cut down and sent abroad, relegated to forgotten churches in distant corners. Up until the October Revolution, the volume of bells cast in Russia had been as much as 2,000 tons annually.  Today bell production in Russia is enjoying somewhat of a renaissance. One of the cities where this ancient art is being brought back to life is Voronezh. In 1989, local entrepreneur Valery Anisimov opened his own foundry outside the city and has since then cast more than 20,000 bells.

Anisimov, 55, named his foundry Vera (Faith), after his wife and in honor of the Christian virtue. He keeps his long dark hair tied back in a knot on the nape of his neck, in the manner of a monk; his beard is flecked with grey. He crosses himself each time he passes a church — and in Voronezh there are many. His speech is calm, yet forceful. He uses many Church Slavonic expressions, which is not surprising as his foundry’s principal client is the Russian Orthodox Church.

We are on our way to Shilovo, the village near Voronezh where Anisimov established his factory. There, he has several workshops, an administrative office, furnaces for melting bronze, metal molds, a Caterpillar construction vehicle and a huge bridge crane covered in rust, slowly creaking along its tracks. Everything looks as if it were out of the final scene of a Hollywood blockbuster.

“What was here before?” I asked Anisimov.

“It was sand. All of this I built,” he answered.

In the middle of the factory yard there is an enormous bronze bell weighing 36,000 pounds — roughly the equivalent of four full 15-passenger vans. Workmen are swarming around the enormous bronze dome like bees around a piece of honey; they are hammering, scraping, and polishing.

“In olden times they would spend up to six months finishing an ornamental bell, making it absolutely perfect. We need to do all that in one day,” said Anisimov.

Although he may come off as angry with his customers for giving him so little time to finish projects, he’s in fact proud. He knows that his brigade of workmen can manage to get everything completed in one day. Due to the sandblaster now in use, the entire space around the bell is covered with a sandy film; if there were just a little more, this part of the factory would look like a beach. However, it would be a beach where no one had time to relax.

We go upstairs to Anisimov’s office. The walls are hung with letters of recognition from the government and church “for painstaking labor,” photographs with the late Patriarch Alexei II (Rigider) and a pilgrim’s certificate from the Holy Land. Near the door and segregated from the rest hangs a state patent dated June 28th, 1991 for the industrial model of “the upper part of a bell,” one of the last patents to be awarded to anyone in the Soviet Union. Not too long ago Anisimov built a new workshop. He plans to expand his business and not only cast bells, but also propellers for ocean-going ships. A Lego model of his future production stands on the windowsill.

“Did you notice the old railway cistern in the yard?” he asked. “We’re going to use it as a furnace. We’ll cast both propellers and the biggest bells. The Vietnamese, for example, want to order a 250-ton bell. It will be the biggest bell in the world.”

For Anisimov, the first years of his business were the hardest. He had to begin almost from scratch. He had started with no experience and no knowledge. He taught himself the skills necessary to make bells from a book published in the early 20th century, which he stumbled upon in Moscow’s Lenin State Library. Today his bell production could be considered high-tech. The model for each new bell is calculated on a computer and the icons drawn by artists in wax are scanned and put into a database, after which a laser machine tool engraves them in the size required onto the prepared surface.

Anisimov says that the bell business is not so much profitable as it is “good for the soul.” In order to go on working, he has to keep costs down. He doesn’t buy the expensive Western equipment that would make him a slave to the banks. Instead, he builds similar equipment himself out of old Soviet junk and pushes to make that equipment work as well as its Western counterpart.

“I have to do everything with a tenth of the amount of money that is typically required. For example, to load a super-heavy bell onto a truck you need to hire a Liebherr crane from the city at a cost of 650,000 rubles ($21,000) a day. Or, you can hire five tractor drivers for 1,000 rubles ($40) apiece. In winter, we use sleds; we sprinkle the road with snow, haul the bells to the Don [river], load them onto a barge and send them to the nearest port. If I have a lot of large loads, I then buy a whole barge and resell it later in Novorossiysk.

“The Church has never paid for its bells,” Anisimov continued. “Those bells are paid for by ‘new Russians’ and other ‘sponsors.’ Meanwhile, middlemen manage the money: one foundation, another foundation, the Ministry of Culture all act as trustees.”

Famous people — deputies, senators, governors — all want to “lend assistance” in casting bells and have their name stamped onto the bell’s bronze surface. That’s hardly surprising. After all, if there were named bells under the Russian tsars, why shouldn’t there be named bells under the current Russian government? Let their descendants be considered patrons of the arts and philanthropists. Having one’s name on a church bell is not like having one’s name on a campaign poster or being interviewed on TV, it’s practically a direct route to eternity, closer to God!

“With these inscriptions there are constant problems,” said Anisimov. “Our customers don’t always know what they want. Sometimes they call us and say: ‘Do it over.’ In the end, the patriarch must always approve the bell’s design. We had an order for some ornamental bells for a monastery; the icons to be used were Orthodox, but right next to them were two very small icons: one of Putin, the other of the patriarch. Now if I cast that bell according to the customer’s wishes, how do I know that the patriarch will approve it, that the patriarch will approve Putin being on the same bell?”

Russian bells are heavier than European ones, and Russian bell ringers do not swing the whole bell, only the clapper, since if you swing a giant bronze bell with too much force, the belfry could collapse. The more massive the bell, the lower its tone and the farther its sound carries. Although it would be almost impossible to cast a bell heavy enough to be heard over the drone of traffic in Russia’s major cities, as long as companies like Vera exist, there is hope that at least in the monasteries and small towns of Russia the pleasing sound of church bells ringing will continue to bring happiness to those who can hear them.

All rights reserved by Rossiyskaya Gazeta.

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