SERGIYEV POSAD, Moscow Region -- After prayers were chanted and speeches said, thousands of eyes looked up Wednesday afternoon to the glittering cupolas of the Holy Trinity St. Sergius Monastery.
A mammoth Krupp crane began slowly lifting Pervenets, the first of three giant bells that will replace those destroyed by Bolsheviks 72 years ago.
"This is good," a young monk muttered after snapping a picture. "How will it sound?"
Many superlatives were used Wednesday to describe the historical importance of the day when two bells -- the 27-ton Pervenets, or Firstborn, and the 35.5-ton Blagovestnik, or Evangelist -- were hoisted up 25 meters to the monastery's bell tower.
The bells, the largest cast in Russia in 200 years, were completed at the ZiL plant earlier this year.
Both church officials and engineers said the biggest challenge still lies ahead. The third bell, Tsar, weighing an impressive 64 tons, is to be cast and raised next year if sponsors can be found to cover its nearly $3 million price tag.
"In this we see historical justice," Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II said. "We are recreating what was barbarically destroyed. May their chimes call us all to prayer, to feats and to faith in Christ."
State Duma Deputy Alexander Gurov gave a passionate speech dotted with popular slang that sent ripples of laughter through the crowd. "The voices of the bells have to remind us that we are the descendants of Sergius of Radonezh, Dmitry Donskoi and Alexander Nevsky," he said, referring to the Russian patriotic saints. "The task of the bells is to unify our people so we can get out of the shit that we have found ourselves in."
Throughout Russian history, bells have been much more than a means to mark celebrations and serve as calls for worship. As potent symbols, bells were imprisoned and even flogged. After conquering Novgorod in 1478, Ivan III immediately confiscated the city's main bell. Peter the Great, who turned the church into a department of the state, ordered that bells be melted down and made into cannons. The Bolsheviks' destruction of church bells remains a main symbol of Soviet atheism.
Film director Andrei Tarkovsky depicted in his well-known 1966 movie "Andrei Rublyov" the raising of a bell as a symbol of Russia's spiritual resurrection after Tatar-Mongol destruction.
Sergei Demidov, the chief architect of the St. Sergius Monastery, recalled at the ceremony Wednesday how he scouted around in abandoned churches in the 1980s for bells for Moscow's Danilovsky Monastery after it was returned to the church. "At the time, we never would have dreamed that bell-making would be reborn in Russia so fast," he said.
The monastery selected the ZiL plant because it is the only bell-maker with a track record of casting heavy bells with the proper tone, monastery officials said. Together, the three large bells are to toll in G-minor: Tsar rings in G, Evangelist in B and Firstborn in D.
Final touches are being put on the first two bells' iron tongues and they are to be brought to the monastery later this month. The bells are to be rung for the first time Oct. 8, when the monastery celebrates the day of its founder, the 14th-century monk St. Sergius of Radonezh.
The price of a bell grows exponentially to its size. While the two bells raised Wednesday cost about $16 per kilogram, or about $1 million for both, the Tsar will be much more expensive. Monastery manager Hegumen Aristarch Smirnov said Tsar will cost a tsar-like $45 per kilogram, or $2.9 million.
Rosenergoatom, the state-owned nuclear power holding, picked up most of the cost of the two new bells. The monastery is looking for new sponsors for Tsar. Big donors might get their names cast on the bell alongside the names of President Vladimir Putin and the patriarch. Two Rosenergoatom presidents have their names cast on the Evangelist.
When Firstborn was raised, the patriarch, Moscow region Governor Boris Gromov, Nuclear Power Minister Alexander Rumyantsev and other prominent guests left the monastery's square for lunch. The second bell was raised two hours later.
During the break, most of the thousands of onlookers dispersed around the monastery. But one old monk remained seated on a folding chair, looking up at the belfry.
"How wonderful," said the monk, who has lived at the monastery for 45 years. "The Commies tore down the bells, and now the Lord is permitting us to lift them back up." He broke into tears.