Prior to the 1917 Revolution, more than 1 million bronze bells rang in churches, cathedrals and monasteries throughout the Russian Empire.
After the October Revolution of 1917, church bells were especially despised by the new Bolshevik order. Bell ringing went against the party’s anti-religious campaign, and by the beginning of the 1930s all church bells had been silenced. Under Soviet law, all church buildings, as well as bells, were placed at the disposal of the Local Councils, which “based on state and public needs, used them at their own discretion.” In 1933, at a secret meeting of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee, a plan for the procurement of bell bronze was initiated. Each republic and region received a quarterly quota for their respective procurement of bell bronze. Within a few years, in a well organized campaign, nearly everything which represented Orthodox Russia was destroyed.
The closure of more than 20 specialized bell factories led to the loss of skills in this ancient craft, and the professional knowledge, handed down by many generations of Russian foundry workers, was lost. The bell manufacturers in the city of Valdai, worked longer than others, but by 1930, they ceased to exist.
Until now, no one can say even approximately how many bells have been destroyed over the past century. Some of them were lost when churches were demolished, some were destroyed intentionally, while others destroyed “for the needs of industrialization.” Even the bells cast by glorified masters for some of Russia’s oldest and most famous Orthodox places of worship did not escape this fate. They included the Ivan the Great Bell Tower (Moscow), Christ the Saviour (Moscow), and St. Isaac’s Cathedrals (Leningrad); the Solovetsky, Valaam, Simonov, Savvino-Storozhevsky monasteries; along with thousands of chapels, churches, cathedrals, and monasteries throughout the former Russian Empire. In 1929, a 1,200-pound bell was removed from the Kostroma Assumption Cathedral. In 1931, many bells of the Savior-Euthymius, Rizopolozhensky, Pokrovsky monasteries of Suzdal were sent for remelting. There were no bells left in Moscow.
The story of the destruction of the famous bells (19 bells with a total weight of 8,165 pounds) of the Trinity-Sergius Lavra was particularly tragic – they were handed over to the Rudmetalltorg (the Metal Scrap Trust in Moscow). In his diary about the events in the Trinity-Sergius Lavra, the writer M. Prishvin wrote: “I witnessed the death … the majestic bells of the Godunov era were felled – it was like a spectacle of public execution.”
Most church bells were destroyed. A small number of bells, which were of artistic value, were registered with the People’s Commissariat of Education, which disposed of them based on “state needs.” Other bells seized were sent to large construction sites of Volkhovstroy and Dneprostroy for technical needs, such as the manufacture of boilers for dining rooms! The Moscow authorities found one peculiar use of some of the Moscow bells in 1932. Bronze high reliefs cast from 100 tons of church bells were used for the construction of the Lenin Library.
To eliminate the most valuable bells, it was decided to sell them abroad. “The most appropriate way to eliminate our unique bells is to export them abroad and sell them there on a par with other luxury goods …”, wrote the ideological atheist Gidulyanov.
The bells of the Danilov Monastery were sold to Harvard University in the United States, while the unique bells of the Sretensky Monastery were sold to England. A large number of bells went to private collections.
The gateway 30-meter bell tower of the Church of Simeon Stolpnik in Moscow, was demolished on the eve of World War II, fearing it as a possible landmark for enemy air raids. Holy Russia was silenced, depriving it of a single ringing bell.
© Paul Gilbert. 30 October 2019