November 01, 2004

For Whom the Bells

Seventy-five years ago, on December 6, 1929, the Soviet government issued Decree No. 118, which forbade all bell ringing in the Soviet State and commanded that all bells be removed from church bell towers and melted down to help industry. Thousands of church bells were destroyed in the 1920s and 1930s. Yet even these repressions did not wipe out Russian bell making traditions.

The Baptism of Rus’ in 988 brought bells to Russia from Byzantium. According to one report, at that time there were just two bells in Kiev. Less than 50 years later, a multitude of bells were reported to have been in use not only in Kievan churches, but in those of other major cities as well. By 1066, bells were becoming war booty in conflicts between principalities. In the 14th century, bells began to be cast in Russia.

Bells have played a rather prominent role in Russian history. They were used as a call to worship, to chime the hours, to inform people about the death of a tsar or the beginning of a war campaign. In some places, bells were rung to announce the execution of a criminal, or the death of a bishop or other notable. Other bells sounded an alarm: the approach of an enemy or a house on fire. Certain church bells were rung to herald an important announcement from the tsar or a ruling body. Different church bells rung in different ways communicated to parishioners (who could not make a church service) which part of the service was being celebrated.

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