Lowell House Society of Russian Bell Ringers

Lowell House Society of Russian Bell Ringers

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While Lowell House students have traditionally called our largest bell “Mother Earth,” it turns out someone just made that up. At the Danilov Monastery, the bell is called “Bolshoi,” which simply translates to Big. Weighing 13 tonnes, it is indeed big.

Bolshoi is rung only on special occasions like festivals or feasts. Peter and Jessica were able to ring Bolshoi a few times!


September 3, 2018

We didn’t even know you could ring bells like that.

Oleg composed this peal himself and was inspired by Slavonic folklore music.

Oleg’s Composition

September 3, 2018

Father Roman plays in a smaller bell tower at Rostov.

“It’s like he’s conjuring something.” – Evan

Father Roman’s Hands at Rostov

September 2, 2018

August 23 (Day 12): Saying Thanks and Goodbye

August 27, 2018

Hello! It’s Jessica, and I’m writing from my home in New Orleans, Louisiana, USA. On Thursday, the Lowell Bell Ringers departed from St. Petersburg. This trip has been wild – from Moscow, to Kizhi, and to St. Petersburg.

Our group made it to Kizhi, the furthest north any group of Lowell Bell Ringers has gone. It’s been full of adventures – from riding a small motorboat with six people plus luggage during a rainstorm to being picked up in a forest service van (but as Gleb would say, “It’s Russia. It’s normal.”). The adventures continued inside belfries, too – climbing ladders and staircases, ringing bells that were big (13 tonnes) and not-so-big, and absorbing the breathtaking view from the tops of the bell towers. It’s been truly incredible, and I had the time of my life.

Here is a map of some of the places we visited:

This trip has brought me so much more appreciation about the importance of the bells. Seeing the  churchgoers, the well-connected network of bell ringers, and the chapels in isolated villages of Kizhi, I have a better understanding of how these bells unite people. The bells – the “voices of God” in the Orthodox religion – have even brought some random Harvard kids to make friends all the way in Russia. Truly bringing people together.

The bells bring us together in Lowell House, too. Despite our own bell tower being closed for another year, I hope we can spread this appreciation for the bells in Lowell House even more. We have some work to do to fix the ropes on our practice set, but I am looking forward to practicing in the basement of 20 Prescott again. This year, we’ll hopefully teach more students, so we can carry on this legacy as we move into a newly renovated Lowell House, which will have an elevator that goes straight to the top of the bell tower instead of a breathless climb up the staircase.


I am immensely grateful for everyone for has played a part in this trip, so here is a long list of thanks:

First, to Otets (Father) Roman – thank you for being so wonderfully kind, generous, patient, and willing to bring around a random group of bell ringers from Lowell House all across Russia. We enjoyed our time with you and had so much fun; we truly appreciate all the work that went into planning and leading our trip, teaching us how to play traditional Russian peals, and letting us experience so much of Russia. To the Danilov Monastery, thank you for the initiating the exchange of the bells that Lowell House so dearly loved (and still love). To Gleb – thanks for helping us improve our techniques and for your company. We will miss everyone at the Danilov dearly.

Next, thank you to the bell ringers who took time out of their lives to show us their beloved belfries, help us understand how important these traditions are, or even pause to have tea with us. Words cannot express how grateful I am for your help, and I appreciated our time together more than you could ever know. Hearing why these bell ringers became connected to the Russian Orthodox religion and how bell ringing has helped them has given me greater appreciation for the art of bell ringing and for other traditions as well.

In addition, I want to thank Lowell House (thanks Diana and Beth!) for making this trip possible – from funding this trip in 2018, to way back in 2003 when the first meetings with the Danilov Monastery were established. To my companions from Lowell House – Peter, Evan, and Daniel – and our Matherite adoptee Isabelle, thanks for your flexibility, excitement for bell ringing, and commitment to keeping the tradition alive as Lowell continues one more year in construction. More importantly, thanks for the laughs – if I weren’t grinning ear to ear because I was marveling at the sights and sounds, I was definitely laughing about our friendly banter or about our boat possibly capsizing in Lake Onega.

Finally, words cannot even begin to describe how grateful I am for my second opportunity to come to Russia to ring those beloved bells. I am so sad to leave Russia and all our amazing friends there; I will hold these memories close to my heart. I have no idea when I will go back to Russia, but I long to return, see the views, and hear all these bells again.


With love,

Jessica Ding

Peeling Out (a reflection)

August 26, 2018

What a trip.
To future bell ringers, and to anyone who might not understand the a-peal of bells:
The vast majority of this trip can only be experienced directly. Words can’t quite describe the strange and surreal experience of being led around Moscow by an energetic six-foot-three Russian Orthodox Hierodeacon with an inexhaustible passion for bell ringing and seemingly limitless access to every bell tower—no matter how tall or remote—in Russia.  Further, seeing Father Roman play is incredible.  The way his hands move—it’s like he is a sorcerer conjuring potions out of a cauldron, except the cauldrons are bells and the potions are peals.
At least once—once—every bell ringer should risk temporary deafness and listen to the Danilov bells without ear protection.
Hearing Mother Earth directly is something akin to hearing the voice of god.  It’s sublime: beautiful, terrifying, and possibly obliterating all at once.  You’re twenty years old, your ear drums will likely recover. Probably.

Jessica tells me that one of the thing she notices that distinguishes the original Danilov bells from the new ones at Lowell is the old ones sustain their sound for a lot longer.  Once the last peal has been struck, they just keep ringing, and ringing, and ringing for minutes upon minutes.  The new bells, they give up the ghost more quickly.  But I like to think these bells are always ringing just a little. Even when you can’t hear it.

All and all, I have to give this experience a ringing endorsement.


**No one in Russia calls Mother Earth “Mother Earth.”  They just call it “Bolshoy,” which means “Big.”  Apparently we Harvard kids made up the whole Mother Earth thing sometime later.

A Century of Graffiti

August 25, 2018

Mother Earth has a whole lot of graffiti in it!

Surely it wouldn’t be too hard to look up some of these folks in the old Lowell House directories and send them an email…

August 22 (Day 11): Saint Petersburg

August 23, 2018

The sleeper train from Petrazavodsk arrived to Saint Petersburg early in the morning. After a stop at the hotel to drop off our bags, we walked past the Peter and Paul Fortress, across the Neva River, and through St. Isaac’s Square. Then, we had a delicious breakfast where we agreed that somehow Russian kasha is so much better than oatmeal at home, and whatever is called or translated as cottage cheese seems to be something different but is really good.

Then, we returned to the Peter and Paul Fortress, Petropavlosk, where we met bell ringers to climb the tower. The Petropavlosk belfry is notable for two reasons: it houses both a carillon and traditional Russian bells, and its spire is the tallest architectural structure in Saint Petersburg. The stairs took us up past the carillon and Russian bells to the impressive clock mechanism, and still further to the clock faces looking over the city. When we finally reached the last set of windows in the spire, we stood at a height of 72 meters. This was an amazing adventure, a first even for Father Roman.


On the way down, we saw the carillon played, with a setlist that included traditional Russian folk music, a Russian bell peal adapted for carillon, and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” before the daily blast of the cannon at noon.

We learned many interesting stories about the cathedral and its tower. At the time of Catherine the Great, there was no exterior ladder to the top of the spire, but a daring peasant climbed with ropes to repair the angel on top, and he was rewarded accordingly. During World War II, the wooden beams protecting the clock weights from weather were removed from firewood. One clock face is damaged from a bullet, when Soviets fired upon the bell tower as it rang God Save the Tsar. Recent work on the spire discovered a message in a bottle from previous work in 1957, blaming the poor quality of that work on their overseers.

Downstairs, the cathedral itself is remarkable, and it is the burial place for many of the royal family, including Peter the Great. Though Tsar Nicholas II and his family were killed by the Bolsheviks in Yekaterinburg in 1918, their remains were moved to Peter and Paul Cathedral in 1998.

In the afternoon, we wished Father Roman farewell as he returned to Moscow. We were kindly welcomed for lunch by Evan’s host mother from his time in Saint Petersburg nearly ten years ago. Then we wandered the city, seeing the Kazan Cathedral, Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood (its colorful domes unfortunately under restoration), and Nevsky Prospekt. We celebrated an amazing trip with Georgian food for dinner and a visit to the chocolate shop.


Dan: “I’m putting this at a 5-10% chance of us capsizing.” Evan: “Otets (Father), now would be a good time for a prayer.”

August 23, 2018

The ferry from the island to the mainland couldn’t handle the storm and the waves in the lake… But the little motorboat could.

August 20 (Day 9): Kizhi, Bells, and Boats

August 23, 2018

Hello! Our destination today was an island called Kizhi; it is located in Lake Onega, a freshwater lake in northern Russia. It took us quite a lot of traveling to get here. First, we took an overnight sleeper train from Moscow to Petrozavodsk (I can’t speak Russian and didn’t know what was going on, but the strangers in my compartment were very nice and helpful). Next, from Petrozavodsk, after stopping for breakfast, we took a hydrofoil boat to the island of Kizhi.

Kizhi is an idyllic place, and Dan exclaimed that this was “untouched paradise!” The people who live in the villages are only here for the summer. The open-air museum of Kizhi also has buildings that were moved from other villages to conserve the culture.


Here we met Igor and Elena, who both work for Kizhi museum. Igor is the bellringer for the museum; they call him the “Spirit of Kizhi.” Elena served as our guide as we went on a tour of several chapels among the islands, which she called a “chapel necklace.”

From the island of Kizhi, we had a connecting boat that would take us to another island. The first chapel we went to was on a different island from Kizhi. Elena explained that this chapel was built in as a domestic structure – maybe a barn – in another village, but it was converted to a chapel in 1911 and later moved to its current location for the museum. Chapels are different from churches because they do not have altars. They are the centers of the villages here, as they unite a village – pray together and meet your neighbors.

“How many houses make a village?” Evan jokingly asked.

“Technically two,” Elena answered. The chapel to house ratio was quite high.


We ascended the wooden bell tower and began to ring the bells with Igor and Father Roman. These bells were modern and cast only last year; Father Roman was consulted and helped to install them.  We then watched and listened to Igor ring the bells. In northern Russia, the style of ringing is different from what we have learned. Instead of shaking a set of ropes to ring the trill bells, Igor uses a smooth, circular hand motion to ring the bells, which are tied like the melody bells.

(I will insert videos when I get faster internet)



We took our boat and returned to Kizhi. The next chapel we went to was built in 1860. This chapel has a balcony. It was originally a house, and balconies were quite fashionable for houses at the time of construction. Elena explained that a saying here is something along the lines of, “A house without a balcony is like a man without a beard.” So apparently it was vital for completion.

Then, we went to another chapel built in the 18th century. This was in a relatively large village (probably about eight houses) whose name translates to Sparrows.

We visited our last chapel in the fourth village. In these larger villages of the third and fourth chapels, we began to have audiences – a family with four little daughters who came up to the bell tower, a local dog, and a tour group.

After visiting our fourth chapel of the day, we passed by the church of Kizhi. This structure is extremely impressive and boasts 22 wooden cupulas. Even under renovations, the church is beautiful.


In the evening, we returned from the island to our hotel on the coast of the lake by a literal motor boat. We loaded all our luggage into this boat, donned our life jackets, and zoomed across the lake.

Once we arrived at the hotel, we had a delicious dinner consisting of fish, potatoes, grilled vegetables, bread, tomato and cucumber salad, and apple cake.

Our last thing on the agenda for the day was the Russian banya, or sauna. In Russian tradition, people sit in the extremely hot sauna, hit each other with bushels of branches, then either cool off with a cold shower, bucket of water, or by jumping in the lake. We spent a few rounds in the heat of the banya and then cooling off. Russians really enjoy the banya and say it’s really good for you, but I was mildly suffering in the heat.


Overall, I really enjoyed the villages of Kizhi. The scenery was incredible, and except for the twinkling sounds of our bells, the villages were silent. All we could hear was the water of Lake Onega lapping up against the dock and the breeze rustling the tall grasses and trees. Beautiful sights, sounds, and peace.