Lowell House Society of Russian Bell Ringers

Lowell House Society of Russian Bell Ringers

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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.

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!!

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

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

August 19, 2018

Ring My Bell

August 19, 2018

“It’s normal. It’s Russia.”—Gleb, upon pulling a door off its hinges.

August 19, 2018

August 18 (Day 7): Kremlin and Moscow Bell Towers

August 18, 2018 1 Comment

After some practice with the training set at the Danilov Monastery, we visited the Moscow Kremlin. There was a military parade with Kremlin guards on horseback, while Konstantin rang a peal from the Ivan the Great bell tower. Once Konstantin came down, he showed us around Cathedral Square inside the Kremlin, where tsars attended services and celebrated weddings. We also saw the Tsar bell, a 200 ton bell cast in the 18th century. Because of its immense size, it was damaged by cold cracks and the casting was unsuccessful. Before the bell was ever rung, it broke, and the broken piece alone weighs 11 tons. That leaves the largest bell ever used as the previous Tsar bell at around 170 tons. Because of the embarrassment of the failed project, the damage was attributed to a fire several years later, and the broken bell was not presented until about a hundred years later. We also saw the Tsar cannon, similarly huge and never used. Right outside the Kremlin are Saint Basil’s Cathedral and Red Square.





We visited bell towers at the Zaikonospassky Monastery and Kazan Cathedral. We got to ring at Kazan Cathedral right on Red Square, close enough that Father Roman announced as we climbed the tower, “Let’s call Putin.”

Then we visited Oleg, another bell ringer whom we met at tea earlier this week. He is the bell ringer at a church that ministers to the Chinese community, situated right on the Moscow River. The bell tower has views towards the Peter the Great statue and Christ the Savior. Oleg rang a toll for several minutes for the Saturday evening service before letting us ring for a while. Then, he rang an awe-inspiring peal, hands flying across the control system that he crafted himself as he played a self-composed piece inspired by Slavonic folklore from Bulgaria written in 9/8 and 11/8 time.


We made our way back to Danilov Monastery through a park with sculpture portraits of Marx, Lenin, Stalin, and others from the Soviet period. The walk continued through Gorky Park, Moscow’s Central Park, where there was a music festival. Back at Danilov, it was the Saturday evening service, and we participated in the peal at the end of the service. Jessica and I even got to ring the biggest Bolshoi bell, which is only used for the highest church holidays, with this weekend being the Transfiguration.


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!