The secrets of bell ringing at Russia's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour

Nowadays the cathedral’s belfries are directed by Igor Konovalov, who has played a big role in restoring these and other bell towers in Moscow.

Tsar Alexander I ordered the construction of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in 1812, after Napoleon had retreated from Russia. The church was meant to be a sign of gratitude to God and to the people for having protected the fatherland from foreign aggressors.

Construction continued until 1883, but the church was destroyed just a few decades later in 1931: its golden domes were perhaps too luxurious for the image that the new Soviet state wanted to project. The precious metals used in the building were considered to be more valuable for the economic and industrial development of the nation.

The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour after the demolition

The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour after the demolition
The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour after the demolition

In 1943 Stalin met with Metropolitan Sergius and allowed the election of a patriarch and the restoration of the Holy Synod, the supreme administrative governing body of the Russian Orthodox Church. However, the cathedral remained in ruins. On the order of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, in 1960 the bare foundations of the cathedral were turned into the largest open-air swimming pool in the world.

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The church was rebuilt after the fall of the Soviet Union and its bells started ringing again only in 1997.

The restauration of the bell ringing tradition

Nowadays the cathedral’s belfries are directed by Igor Konovalov, who has played a big role in restoring these and other bell towers in Moscow. The church also hosts a school, where Maxim Mironov teaches his pupils the mastery of ringing church bells.

Igor Konovalov used to listen with interest to the church bells ringing already in the 1970s, when he was still a young schoolboy. It was then that he learned that “belfries spread around the information about what is going on in the church, like big radio masts” and that “every ringing tells you exactly what is going on inside.” The main moment of bell ringing is called “Blagovest,” meaning “good news,” and tells churchgoers that the mass is just about to start.

With a hint of nostalgia, Konovalov told us about another particular message that was sent from the belfries. In prerevolutionary Moscow, after hearing 12 rings, people would stop whatever they were doing and bow to the nearest icons: the bells had just told them that the most sacred moment of the mass was taking place and that the Holy Communion was being served. “Spirituality is slowly fading away,” Konovalov says. That is why he sees his mission as directing the main Russian church’s bell ringers to commit to a revival of the religious spirit of the country.

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