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Russia Journal

April 26-May 2, 1999, Vol.2, No.13

Published Every Monday in Moscow

By Whom the Bells Toll

A young nun bell ringer at one of the Moscow churches.

It's not unusual to see tourists in Moscow lingering about churches, recording the melodic ringing of their bells. For them it is not enough to just photograph Moscow's sights: to really take a bit of Moscow away with them, they find it necessary to capture the unmatched music of Russian Orthodox churches.

Pealing bells are and always have been an integral part of the Russian Orthodox tradition. Originally, churches rang their bells to summon parishioners to the Liturgy. 

But with time, the chiming of the bells outgrew the solely functional purpose it once held to become a unique craft in Russia. And as the value of the ringing has increased, so has the role of the bell-ringer. 

Church canons allow any member of the clergy to become a "staff" bell-ringer, be it a lay brother or a bishop. But the job requires stamina and dedication, so most often younger monks perform the duty. Ringers must climb to the top of bell towers, usually via steep, spiral staircases several times a day. It's draining work. 

The job of the bell-ringer, a well-respected profession, is as unusual as it is difficult. Before the Revolution, seminaries conducted numerous bell-ringing training courses. 

These days, they have been abandoned and forgotten, so the only way to master the skill is to serve as apprentice to an experienced master.

Bell ringing is still shrouded in tradition. Before beginning, a bell-ringer must be blessed by a priest who also determines each time how long the bells will chime. Usually during the week, bells will not ring for long, whereas on Easter Sunday, they sound throughout the city all day .

One need not have previous musical experience to become a bell-ringer. In fact, music history is not even beneficial. The skill of chiming is unique, independent of other instruments and the skills they require. There are no regulations for a chime melody; it is entirely up to the ringer's creativity and ability. Bell-ringers almost never repeat themselves. This is one of the beauties of the Orthodox Church's physical manifestations: despite rigid, traditional requirements for architecture and iconography, no two churches are alike, just as there are few similar chime melodies.

Once a monk has mastered the particularities of his bell tower, he will usually remain with his church for a long time. Each belfry is uniquely built, and one learns to ring a particular combination. A virtuoso bell-ringer who has spent many years playing in his own church might find himself completely at a loss at a neighboring belfry, where the number of bells and the tone of each would differ. 

Ksenia Ulianova, a 14 year-old lay sister, rings the bells in Moscow's Martha-and-Mary cloister. She has held her position for over a year has honed her skills. 

Ulianova does not like to talk about the circumstances that brought her to the convent. The sisters told us her story. After the death of both of her parents, she came all the way from Moldova to Moscow, her younger brother and sister in tow. Penniless and with nowhere to go, the children were driven to begging at the monastery's gate, where the nuns found and adopted them. Soon after, Ulianova began studying theology. Her sister lives with her in the convent and their little brother lives in a monastery nearby. 

Nuns and lay sisters are responsible for the upkeep of the convent and must often perform work that's commonly seen as men's work. Each woman chooses her duties in the convent. Ulianova chose bell-ringing.

Ulianova approaches her duties responsibly despite her youth. She is in charge of the convent's small wooden bell-tower, built last year. The belfry towers over a residential neighborhood in downtown Moscow, standing in what once was a children's playground. And even though the belfry's biggest bell is only slightly bigger than a standard bucket, the peal is heard throughout the area. But local residents don't mind it. On the contrary, they were happy to see carpenters erect the tower in the deserted yards of old Moscow.

Ulianova prays before she climbs to the top of the belfry each day. She also recites prayers to herself while she rings - which is one of the secrets of the trade. Each of the basic chime modes is accompanied by a specific prayer.

Nuns believe that bell chimes possess healing powers, able to counteract stress and depression. Ulianova confirms this as she recounts a recent experience. Having fallen seriously ill at the beginning of Lent-- with a fever, severe headache and fatigue -- it was nonetheless her duty to ring the bells for a service since no one could fill in for her. An elder nun comforted her and promised the ailment would pass as soon as she began ringing for the Liturgy. And it was true, Ulianova says, that after the ringing, her fever was completely gone.

Any medicine, however, can be unhealthy if overdosed. It is the same for bell-ringing. The professional ailment for ringers is deafness. When performing, a ringer remains in the center of a modulating ringing, which varies in force and frequency. The popular remedy, one of which the Russians call "grandfather methods," is to stuff one's ears with cotton.

Ulianova does not expect to end up with deaf ears. She does not plan to devote her life to the belfry, and hopes to study theology and music, and one day to become a choir precentor. She will not abandon her craft, however, and promises to pass her skills on to other sisters.

Copyright © 1999 The Russia Journal

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