What do bells foretell for Russians?

Orthodox priest ringing the Bolshoi Bell, aka the Everyday Bell (the largest of the so-called Harvard Bells, the Big One) on top of the Church of St. Simeon Stylites at Moscow's Svyato-Danilov Monastery.

Orthodox priest ringing the Bolshoi Bell, aka the Everyday Bell (the largest of the so-called Harvard Bells, the Big One) on top of the Church of St. Simeon Stylites at Moscow's Svyato-Danilov Monastery.

Grigory Sysoyev/TASS
Bells have a special meaning in the lives of Russians. We take a look at why Russians freeze in midstride when they hear bells.

Andrei Tarkovsky’s film ‘Andrei Rublev,’ ranked by the authoritative Sight & Sound magazine as one of the best films in the history of cinema, is about the eponymous painter of mediaeval Russia. A scene in the movie by the iconic director shows Russian boyars and common folk frozen in tense expectation: will the new, freshly cast bell ring or not?

The same thing happens to Russians on the other side of the screen. So why do Russians today still freeze in midstride upon hearing the bells toll?

Birth and death

The amazing effect of the bell on a human being has been known long before our times. Konstanin Mishurovsky, historian and bell-ringer at the Moscow Kremlin and the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, says the reason is simple: the bell combines two opposing qualities - the strike and the prolonged singing.

"People who hear the bell are mesmerized by the unexpectedness of the sound and by the depth and complexity of that which follows. It is like awakening after sleep: the person is asleep and then suddenly opens his eyes, and the whole world starts revolving around him, leading its life as usual. It is the moment of life beginning. That is why the bell has such an important edifying effect, why bells are so fundamental in Christianity," explained Mishurovsky.

It is possible that this is just a Russian theory. In Europe initially, bells were used as signals: they announced the beginning or end of the workday, fires and epidemics and the beginning of services in temples.

Bells were primarily "aural icons" in Old Rus,' the American bell expert Edward Williams said in his work, ‘The Bells of Russia’, even though they maintained their function as signals. Bells invite people to church, accompany the service, the processions; they are sounded when a person is born or buried. The bell is the voice of God, the human prayer and an allegory of human life (for example, in the funeral toll the succession of bells ringing symbolizes a person's life, the bells ringing simultaneously symbolize the death of his body and the festive peal symbolizes the resurrection of his soul).

One Man No Man

Being a part of the Orthodox service, the bell became the quintessence of "Sobornost" or Catholicity; a concept that Lev Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky often wrote about, a concept that is instilled in the depths of the Russian character. It was impossible to live apart in the village; everything was done together. ‘Sobornost’ manifests itself in each stage of the bell's life. It is created to call people to church, unite them during the service and sort of protect them temporarily from everything secular.

The act of creation of a bell took dozens of specialists who worked together. They cast it together, they prayed together at the services, they attended funerals together. They even tolled the bells together.

This is what music scholar Stepan Smolensky wrote in the 19th century: "…here is the first strike, unusually soft, not loud… It signals to all of Moscow. In 5-6 seconds all the forty bells are pealing… They are ringing with an extraordinary power of sound. It is a power that absorbs everything… The sound is deafening, imperious, a real celebration!..Such music can be heard only in Russia."

 The Russian toll

Indeed, the sound of the Russian bell toll is extremely different from any other. In Europe, the sound of the bell is usually tuned, purified until reaching a clear tone, as with a musical instrument. In Russia the individuality of each bell has been preserved, as well as the complexity of the sound.

Together with the specific requirements of the church canon, this ringing particularity resulted in a special Russian festive peal in the 18th and 19th centuries. It is a combination of pulsating strikes of the big bell called the evangelist and a musical pattern of the small and middle bells.

"Just imagine that there is a procession and I am accompanying it with a festive peal," said Mishurovsky. "How do I know how long it will last? Will they walk quickly or slowly? But when the procession stops by the cathedral I must immediately stop the peal. That is why it must be beautiful at any given second, regardless of whether I ring the bell for 15 seconds or for half an hour. It is like a ribbon with an ornament. I can sew a short segment or a long one. I'll cut wherever is necessary."

There are no ideal collections of bells. Even the "purest" Rostov belfry has one bell that does not fit in with the rest. But experienced bell-ringers are capable of producing a beautiful festive peal even on these conditions.

It is like flavouring. The peal is always different. The bell-ringer never repeats himself.


All rights reserved by Rossiyskaya Gazeta.

We've got more than 2 million followers on Facebook. Join them!

This website uses cookies. Click here to find out more.

Accept cookies