Lowell House Society of Russian Bell Ringers

Lowell House Society of Russian Bell Ringers

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Spotlight on: Russian food!

August 22, 2018


Dear readers,

I write you now from JFK airport in New York City. Yes, that’s right, I’m finally back in the United States! But that doesn’t mean that I’ve forgotten about the Lowell Bell Ringers. Au contraire! As my time zone-confused body struggles to adjust to the seven-hour difference, I decided to write a small blog post about some of the food that we’ve been eating on our Russia trip.

In general, Russian cuisine is quite a diverse mix. In general, it involves a lot of meat, dairy and potatoes. But it would be unfair to reduce it to that. I’ll give you a quick look at some of the things we ate in the past week, so you can get a sense of it.

(1) Monastery food.

Luckily for us, the Danilov Monastery has a great cafeteria, which I believe I’ve mentioned in previous posts. During most of the year, the monastery cafeteria serves up classic Russian favorites, like borscht (beet soup), solyanka (soup with pickles), pelmeni (dumplings), and the classic tomato and cucumber salad. And, of course, everything is served up with heaping helpings of smetana (sour cream), khren (horseradish), and gorchitsa (Russian mustard). The drink of choice is mors, a fruit juice made of different berries.

The major difference between monastery food and typical Russian cuisine is that no meat is served in the monastery; it’s largely replaced by fish. We had fish dumplings, fish cakes, fish soup, fried fish, and even fish jello (in Russian: zalivnoye). All were delicious. During special fasting periods, the monastery basically goes vegan. I liked all of the food, but since I’m such a picky eater I found the fasting food even more tasty. A particular favorite of mine was lentil patties with a carrot and tomato sauce on the side.



(2) Hotel food.

For breakfast each day that we were in Moscow, we ate at the Danilovskaya Hotel. They served up a continental breakfast each morning from 7:30-10am. And this wasn’t just your average cereal and stale muffins affair. I mean, come on, the Danilovskaya Hotel is a classy establishment! We were treated to a small buffet each morning, with everything from pastries and salads, to grechka (buckwheat), potato casserole, and blini (traditional Russian pancakes, similar to crepes).

Regrettably, I didn’t take any photos of our Danilovskaya breakfast, but you can see what grechka looks like from the first photo in the above series. I’m attaching a picture of some big blini I ate in St. Petersburg so you can get an idea of what they look like. The Danilovskaya Hotel blini are smaller and shaped differently, but the idea is the same… IMG_1676

(3) Restaurant food.

In a major metropolis like Moscow, you can find food from all over the world. That said, we didn’t exactly go out for Chinese food and shawarma every other night. Most of the time, we ate at restaurants which serve up traditional Russian cuisine, such as pelmeni (meat dumplings), vareniki (dumplings stuffed with either potatoes or cherries), and various meats, soups and salads. Also popular are plates of pickled vegetables. (These are a particular favorite of Evan, who’s been known to eat full heads of pickled garlic without blinking an eye.)


Shashlik (barbecue/ meat skewers) are also a widespread dish, which we ate at an outdoor cafe in Tsarytsino Park.


Once, we tried out a Georgian restaurant. Georgian food is very popular in Russia, and Father Roman loves it. We sampled all of the Georgian crowd-pleasers: khinkali (big Georgian dumplings), khachapuri (bread stuffed with cheese), and pkhali (an appetizer made of walnut and minced vegetables). And, of course, we washed it down with some delicious Georgian wine. Georgia is said to be the birthplace of wine, which remains an important part of the country’s national identity today. I visited Georgia last summer, and I can say that this restaurant was quite authentic. Father Roman pointed out that the khinkali dough was very thin, which is difficult to achieve.


(4) Tea and snacks.

Tea is another important aspect of Russian culture. Often, we would sit down with Father Roman in his office and just have a cup of tea to relax in the evening. Usually, this tea was accompanied by a plethora of snacks, including dried dates and apricots, cookies, and sushki/ bubliki (hard, donut-shaped cracker snacks; the name depends on the size and texture). Evan described in an earlier post how we sat down one night for tea with bell ringers from across Russia. At that event, we had a veritable feast of snacks, including the ones above, but with the addition of Turkish delight candies and khalva (sunflower seeds prepared in the consistency of astronaut ice cream).

We also got the chance to try many different types of teas, aside from your usual green and black. My favorites were tea with thyme, and oblepikhoviy chai (tea made of “sea buckthorn”; this is a berry we don’t have in the US, so the translation might not say much to you).

While we were training in Moscow, the Danilov Monastery celebrated a feast of blessing honey. We often had honey with our tea, and Father Roman got us each containers to take home to the U.S.

I didn’t take a lot of photos of our tea times, but here’s one of a pot of tea I ordered in a St. Petersburg cafe. You can see a Soviet-style mug, and a plate of sushki.

IMG_1604 2

That’s it for food for now! This was just a small sample of the foods we ate while in Russia, and an even smaller sample of all Russian dishes. I hope it gave you a better idea of Russian cuisine, if you weren’t familiar before!


August 19 (Day 8): More Moscow bell towers and a farewell to the Danilov Monastery

August 21, 2018


Всем привет!

This is Isabelle again. I’m sitting here writing this blog post from the comfort of a Wi-Fi-less, outlet-less economy class car on the Moscow-St. Petersburg speed train. But–hey–at least I got a window seat! I just had the depressing experience of saying goodbye to Father Roman and the rest of the Lowell Bell Ringers at the Leningradsky Vokzal (train station). As they journey up north to continue their bell ringing odyssey, I head straight to St. Petersburg, from where I’ll fly home to Boston. I’m nothing short of crushed not to be able to continue the trip, but I had to head home early to prepare for my semester abroad, which begins in less than a week.

Luckily, my time in Moscow at the Danilov Monastery ended on a high note, leaving me with only the happiest of memories.

We started out the morning the way that the next leg of a trip usually begins: by packing our suitcases, checking out of our hotel, and bidding adieu to the large framed photograph of President Putin posing in a wheat field, which hangs in the lobby. (Unfortunately, I forgot to take a photograph of it.) After indulging in the usual delicious continental breakfast served at the Danilovskaya Hotel, we walked over to the monastery, where Father Roman was waiting for us.

Today was a special day for the Russian Orthodox Church. On this particular Sunday, people celebrate the Transfiguration, a festival which marks the day when Jesus goes up to a mountain and is lit up with divine radiance. In honor of this holiday, there was a special morning church service, which was accompanied with a special bell service. We got to participate in ringing the peals with Gleb. Like yesterday, we got to ring the Mother Earth bell. (For context: at Harvard we call our biggest bell “Mother Earth,” but we learned that here at the Danilov Monastery the bell is called Bolshoi, which translates to “big.”) Jessica and Peter shared this responsibility; I decided I needed a little more practice before taking the risk of swinging the giant clapper inside the bell. After all, I didn’t want to ruin the peal–or die.

When the peal was over, we met Father Roman down in the monastery cafeteria for an early lunch. Since today was a special holiday, the monastery was serving fish, even though we are in the middle of a two-week period of fasting. And we did get served just any old fish. We had everything from solyanka (pickle soup) made of fish, fried whitefish, smoked salmon, and grilled river sturgeon. It was quite the feast; by the end of the meal, were stuffed (as usual).

Nursing our food babies, we hopped on a tram and traveled a short distance to the Flora and Lavra Cathedral, which is located not far from the Paveletsky train station. Gleb was our tour guide this time. First he took us inside the cathedral, which is currently undergoing renovations, just like many of the places we visited. Then we went up to the bell tower, where we got to play a few short peals. When we climbed back down to the base of the tower, we had an interesting conversation with an elderly security guard, who spent a few minutes lauding the United States and complaining about the meager pension he receives in Russia. Gleb deftly got us out of what could have easily spiraled into an hour-long discussion by explaining that we were in a hurry to get to our next bell ringing appointment–which was true.

Our next appointment was in the Kolomenskoye estate/park, at the Church of the Beheading of John the Baptist (yes, you read that correctly). Unfortunately, the bell ringer in the beautiful, white 16th-century church was absent. We had a look around, but didn’t manage to go all the way up to the bell tower.


Gleb, Dan, Father Roman, Jessica, Me (Isabelle) and Peter; Evan was the photographer!

To our great fortune, though, there was another church in the park where we were able to perform a few peals. In fact, our performance in Grigorievskaya Church ended up being quite a concert. Father Roman and Gleb played a couple peals each, and all of us had a chance to ring. I’m still quite a beginner, but each time I’m up in a bell tower, I feel even more determined to train so that next time I go to Russia I have something to show for myself. Reaching the skill level of Father Roman is probably an unrealistic goal, but I definitely have a lot of room for improvement. This particular bell tower was one of my favorites that we visited in the city. Perhaps it wasn’t the most beautiful or the tallest, but the cool breeze and sunshine, combined with an attentive audience listening on the lawn below, made for a particularly pleasant atmosphere. Though I’d been to Kolomenskoye before, this gave me a totally new perspective and appreciation for the place. I can’t wait to come back.

We barely had time to slurp down an ice cream in the park before it was time to return to the Danilov Monastery, where another holiday service was to begin. We were on the bells again at the beginning of the service, with a quick peal that wrapped up our wringing in Moscow. Then we relaxed for the next hour or so while the service went on. In Father Roman’s office there is a radio which broadcasts the service, so we could hear the singing of the choir, even though we weren’t in the Church. A few of us went down to the cathedral briefly to listen to the choir in person. I was quite tired, so I decided to stay upstairs, but Jessica, Dan, and Peter said that it was an impressive sight.

When the service was over, we returned to the cafeteria for one final meal with Father Roman. We were treated to yet another tasty dinner, with more fish concoctions: this time, we had fish pelmeni (dumplings) and fish cakes. And, of course, that was accompanied by bread, fruit juice, potatoes, pasta, and salad. HUDS, take note…

Our last little excursion of the day was to the Danilov Market, a circus/UFO-type concrete building which we had passed by many times, but had visited. Upon entering, I was expecting something akin to an open-air market or grocery store. Instead, what met my eyes was a massive, cavernous room full of charming little restaurants, cafes, and stalls selling every variety of meat and produce. The place was bustling with young people, eager to sample Chinese, French and Armenian cuisine, which consisted alongside food from Morocco and Korea. The atmosphere was busy, and the colors bright. It felt a bit like the Eataly complex in Boston’s Prudential Center–except cheaper and with more variety. The Danilovsky Market is just another example of the trendy, youthful Moscow that I saw in bits and pieces over the week. Though we spent most of our time in centuries-old church complexes and historical sites, the city’s modern side still made its presence known at every possible opportunity.

Hands (and bellies) full of sweet red currants, raspberries, and so-called donut peaches, we hurried back to our hotel. There, we collected our luggage and hailed taxis to the train station. And here I am, listening to the dulcet tones of a screaming baby in the neighboring compartment. Everything happened so fast, that I didn’t even have time to give Father Roman the Turkish delight candies I had saved for a goodbye gift. Looks like I’ll have to finish them myself…

I suppose this is a good time to make a quick summary of my time here in Moscow with the Lowell Bell Ringers. Or perhaps not a summary, but rather a final review. Overall, I had a great time on the trip. Despite being a bit under the weather for most of the week, I saw and experienced more than I ever could have expected. I won’t even begin to count the number of bell towers I visited or cucumber and tomato salads I ate. I’m incredibly grateful to have had the opportunity to participate in this exchange program. Not only was I able to get to know and benefit from the wisdom and good humor of Father Roman, but I alo feel that I was adopted in some sense into the Lowell community. I’m still a Matherite, but my allegiances are now certainly split. I also got to experience the incredible city of Moscow from a completely new perspective, which gave me a fascinating window into the history and cultural significance of the Russian Orthodox Church, and bell ringing specifically. Finally, I got to play a part in what I consider to be an outstanding example of people-to-people diplomacy and cross-cultural cooperation. At a time when relations between Russia and the United States are strained, this bell ringer exchange is important, because it shows how people can find mutual understanding regardless of a challenging political climate.

The other bell ringers have a few more days of adventure ahead of them, but this is it for me. Thank you to everyone who had a hand in making this trip a reality. I won’t soon forget it. I can’t wait until the Lowell bell tower reopens, and we can continue to develop our skills and spread our traditions with the rest of Harvard.

С благодарностью (with gratitude),


Me inside the Bolshoi bell in the Danilov Monastery bell tower. Thanks for a great trip!!

Gleb: “If someone helps me wash the mugs, we can have tea.” Isabelle (exhausted): “…someone wash me a cup.”

August 19, 2018

August 13 (Day 2): The Danilov Monastery and Exploring Moscow

August 13, 2018


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.



Welcome ~ Lowell Bells ~ 2018

August 10, 2018

Here’s where the 2018 Lowell House Bell Ringers (“bellin!“) will be updating about their trip to Russia on August 10 – August 24, 2018.  The campanology* crew this year is:

Jessica Ding ’19
Peter Hartnett ’19
Isabelle Desisto ’20
Daniel Moroz, resident tutor
Evander Price, resident tutor

(See author bios here)

The bell crew practicing with our temporary skeleton bell chassis. (Jess is behind the camera).


Another view, but this time with Jessica.