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Vcem privet! (Hello, all!)
My name is Isabelle DeSisto, and I’m a rising junior in Mather House. While I may not be an official part of Lowell House, I’m happy to have been adopted into the community as part of the Lowell Bell Ringers. I got my first taste of Russian bell ringing during my freshman year at Harvard, when I attended a few Sunday bell ringing sessions in the Lowell bell tower. Though I wasn’t able to officially join the group that year, I decided to devote more time to bell ringing my sophomore year.
I became interested in the history of the bells and our exchange program mostly as a result of my love of the Russian language and interest in the history and politics of the post-Soviet space. But since then I’ve grown to love bell ringing too. Since the tower was closed this year, I’m excited to get the chance to practice on some large church bells here in Russia.
Anyway, my job isn’t to ramble on about myself! I’m here to tell you about Day 2 of our 2018 adventure in Russia.
Monday started out with a leisurely breakfast in our hotel — the Danilovskaya Hotel, which is attached to the monastery complex. Father Roman–our generous host and bell ringer extraordinaire–explained that in the past the hotel was used to house visiting priests and other religious figures. Now it’s undergoing a major reconstruction. The outside is covered in scaffolding, but the inside is quite grandiose, with chandeliers decorating the ceilings, portraits of old Russian Orthodox patriarchs dotting the walls, and icons hanging in every corner.
Our first item on the day’s agenda was a tour of the Danilov Monastery. Father Roman took us all over the campus, explaining the history of each building in details. The Danilov Monastery was built in the 13th century, making it the oldest monastery in Moscow. According to Father Roman, it was one of the last monasteries to be closed down by the Soviet authorities after the Russian Revolution, thanks to particularly strong-willed church leadership. Eventually, though, it closed its doors; for most of the Soviet period, it functioned as a youth detention center and an orphanage for the children of purged Soviet dissidents. Then in 1983, the patriarchy convinced Soviet authorities to return the monastery, after which time it became the official headquarters of the Russian Orthodox Church. This decision came just in time for the Danilov Monastery to be officially restored in 1988 for the occasion of the 1000th anniversary of Christianity in Russia. Nowadays, the Danilov Monastery is both a site of pilgrimage and worship, and also the home of the Russian patriarch, who has his office here.
After our tour, we had the opportunity to have tea with Father Alexei — the Father Superior who is in charge of the Danilov Monastery. Father Alexei regaled us with stories from his four trips to the United States (including a fateful journey to Alaska), and jokingly warned us to watch out for Russian bears roaming the streets of Moscow. He was interested to hear about our impressions of Moscow, and fondly remembered when the Danilov bells were first returned to the monastery after around 70 years at Harvard. We found it interesting to flip through his official guest book, where we saw the signatures of Ronald and Nancy Reagan, and famous NHL player Alexander Ovechkin, among others.
Next, Father Roman led us up to the bell tower, where we got the chance to take a look at the famed Danilov bells. (A quick historical recap: An American plumbing magnate rescued the bells from the monastery during the Soviet period, at a time when many church bells were being disassembled and melted down for scrap metal. Then he brought them to Harvard, where they lived in Lowell House for over half a century. In 2008, after many years of negotiations, they were returned to the Danilov Monastery.)
By that point, we were getting hungry, so we decided to have lunch in the monastery cafeteria. Though Father Roman said that the lunch was quite modest, we all thought it was delicious. A few of us tried a fish jello called “zalivnoye,” which is meant to be smothered in ultra-bitter horseradish sauce.
During the early afternoon, we got out of the monastery to explore Moscow. First, Father Roman took us to the Novospasskiy Monastery, where we were able to climb up the bell tower and enjoy a bird’s-eye view of the city. One of the coolest parts about the Novospasskiy bell tower was a recently-installed 16-tonne bell, which hangs imposingly in the middle of the tower. Father Roman seems to have had a hand in just about every bell tower in the city, which means that he has special access to a lot of them. A quick call from him opens all doors!
My favorite part of the afternoon was a short boat cruise that we took along the Moscow River. We got on the river boat on a dock down the street from the Novospasskiy Monastery, and then meandered leisurely for an hour or so past a myriad of historical buildings and cultural sites, including the gargantuan Peter the Great statue and the bustling Gorky Park. We disembarked near the park, and made our way back to the monastery by tram, just in time for the evening church service.
Back at the Danilov Monastery, we were introduced to Gleb, a local high school student and bell ringing prodigy. Gleb explained to us that he’s been ringing church bells since he was ten years old. And, let me tell you, it shows. The four of us (Jessica, Peter, Gleb and I) crowded into a small room below the bell tower, where Father Roman’s colleagues had installed a small set of practice bells, similar to what we used in the basement of Prescott Street this past semester. There, Gleb patiently trained us on some of the basic bell ringing skills. I felt quite shaky at the beginning, but by the end of the session I could feel myself getting the hang of it. I definitely need more practice, but each day it gets a bit easier.
Our practice got cut short around 7:15pm, when we all scrambled up to the bell tower to ring a short peal for the festival service that was going on in the cathedral below. The peal started out quite simply, with the four of us ringing ringing each bell in succession, and then all of them at once. Then it got more complicated. At that point, Gleb took over, deftly managing three different sets of bells at the same time: one with each hand, and one with his foot.
After the service, we sat down for another dinner in the monastery cafeteria with Gleb and Father Roman. Dinner featured a lot of sour cream and eggs, probably because the following day was the start of a two week-long fast before the Transfiguration holiday. During periods of fasting, Russian Orthodox worshippers follow a strict vegan diet.
Over the course of the day, I was happy to learn that Father Roman shares my love of ice cream. Since dairy wouldn’t be allowed during the fast, we decided to capitalize on the few remaining hours in the day to get a final taste. Together we walked to a nearby supermarket and spent a while perusing the options, before settling on some classic ice cream bars. It was no JP Licks, but it would have to do.
Overall, Day 2 was quite a whirlwind. It seemed like we had fit a week’s worth of activities into just a few short hours. Needless to say, when we finally got into bed we were exhausted–but still excited to see what other adventures would await us as the week went on. (For me, that turned out to be a trip to a Russian clinic the next morning, where I was diagnosed with strep throat and prescribed antibiotics, along with a dubious spray made of oak bark and walnut extract. I’m feeling much better now; I guess we’ll never know if it was the amoxicillin or the oak bark that did the trick.)
Anyway, that’s it for today. Keep following along to read all about our travels.