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

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.

A warning in the tall grasses of Kizhi.

“Watch out for the snakes,” Father Roman warns Daniel, who is tromping around in the high grass.

August 20, 2018

August 16 (Day 5): Road Trip!

August 17, 2018

Greetings! It’s Jessica again. Today we ventured outside of Moscow to visit two historical religious sites: St. Sergius Lavra and Rostov.
Our day began with breakfast at our hotel, and then we headed to the Danilov monastery to meet Father Roman and Igor, our van driver for our day trip. After an hour and a half, we arrived at St. Sergius Lavra.
St. Sergius Lavra began as a settlement founded by a man named Sergius and later became a monastery in the 14th century. It contains multiple cathedrals built during the reign of different tsars. While St. Sergius Lavra closed once communism arose, it was reopened in 1946 because Stalin realized that the Russian Orthodox religion was good for morale.
The first belfry we saw was interesting. It was a combined church and belfry, but it does not contain an internal staircase to the bells. So if anyone wants to ring, they have to climb up a ladder and scale the roof. This year, we didn’t ring the bells, but last year, Jeffery Durand ’17 successfully rang the bells with Father Roman.
Next, when we went into the main bell tower, Father Roman kept telling us, “So. Let’s go upstairs.” As we gradually ascended the 87 meter bell tower, he explained that there were 42 bells in the tower, which was erected in 1744.
Until 1930 when the Bolsheviks destroyed the bells, the largest bell was known as the Tsar Bell and weighed 65 tonnes (think about hanging that on wooden beams!). The biggest bell currently in the tower was recast in 2004 and weighs 72 tonnes. In addition, the tower contains a collection of historical bells, including the oldest bell still rung in Russia, casted in 1420. Both the sizes and longevity in the different bells were absolutely awe inspiring.
We then went into an internal room with a mechanism that automatically chimes the bells every quarter of an hour. It needs to be recharged every week by using a lever to turn the gear system.
But what goes up must come down. After we left the belfry, we went to a few of the cathedrals in the monastery, which were actually very crowded with tourists today. Next, we went into the seminary. In 1814, the Moscow Seminary moved to St. Sergius Lavra, and our very own Father Roman studied here to become a priest. We also visited the monastery’s icon collection. These archives contain the work of the students at the seminary, who copy the icons as a part of their training. To enter a monastic order, they have to study for a minimum of three years in which they must create their own icon as a project. The priests then have the option to study for another two years at the seminary – like an advanced degree in theology.


Next, after a lunch break, we traveled to Rostov in the heart of Russia. Rostov was founded in 862, and its kremlin – a fortress structure – contains many belfries and cathedrals within its walls (now a museum). We looked at various bells in its Bell Center and met with its director. We had the honor of playing in a belfry (Evan’s first time in a belfry!). These bells were casted in 1998 in Moscow with newer technology, so the sound quality of the bells were quite nice.


Following our bell ringing session, we met with Natalie, the director of Rostov. She told us only that only spending a two hours in Rostov was not nearly enough time. She joked that our short visit was like only eating the salad of a four-course meal, really not very satisfying. Father Roman explained that we have a lot to see in our time here in Russia, to which Natalie preached “Quality of travel!” over quantity. Regardless of the short period of time, we still loved Rostov.
We did see what Natalie said was the best part, which were the huge bells in the main belfry. This is a gallery style belfry, so it usually requires four to five bell ringers simultaneously playing. The biggest bell here is 33 tons, but there is a crack in the wooden beam, so it needs a lot of reinforcements…
Finally, we went to the shore of Lake Nero to take a quick walk and absorb its beauty. Ivan the Terrible ordered the construction of a tunnel underneath the lake to the island in the middle in case Rostov was besieged. (I thought it looked good for some open water swimming.)
With a stop for dinner, it was time for our four hour drive back to the Danilov in Moscow. We returned safely later at night, still talking about today’s amazing experiences. As always, we look forward to tomorrow’s adventures and the arrival of Dan, a bell ringer and tutor in Lowell House!