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Harvard's Russian Bells

Back in January 2004, the New York Times reported that the Danilov Monastery in Russia wanted Harvard to return the bells which have hung in the Lowell House bell tower for about 80 years. I was one of the bell-ringers in college, and so I wrote a letter to the Times, supporting the notion that Harvard should get to keep the bells. After all, had Harvard not bought them from Charles Crane, they would have been melted down and would no longer exist.

As it stands, though, the agreement made between Harvard and the Russian Orthodox Church was for Harvard to return the bells. However, the monastery agreed to cast a brand new set of bells for Harvard, so Lowell House could still have bells in its bell tower. I saw in today's Boston Globe website the following AP report:

July 25, 2007
MOSCOW -- Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II yesterday consecrated 18 newly cast brass bells destined for Harvard University in a trade that will return the originals to Russia nearly 80 years after they were saved from Stalin's religious purges. The originals have hung for decades in the towers at Lowell House and Harvard Business School's Baker Library in Cambridge. American industrialist Charles R. Crane bought the bells from the Soviet government in 1930, saving them from being melted down in purges that left thousands of monks executed and churches and monasteries destroyed or turned into prisons and orphanages.

So how do I feel about this? Well, the old bells had character and history, but so will the new ones. As long as Lowell House has bells in its bell tower, I'm happy. I just hope I get invited back for whatever celebrations Harvard plans to inaugurate the new bells.

More information can be found at
Patriarch consecrates bells for Harvard (Boston.com)
Lowell Bells Get Russian Farewell (The Harvard Crimson)


This is a neat example of historical ownership in action. It sounds like both Harvard and the Russian Orthodox Church have handled themselves with a great deal of civility.

The preservation of historical and cultural artifacts can become a sticky issue when the previously unstable (but rightful) owners want their history back. On the one hand, academic institutions frequently sink substantial resources into the acquisition and preservation of artifacts that might otherwise be destroyed. But on the other hand, the original payment is usually not made to the legitimate owner (Crane bought the bells from the Stalinist government, who had stolen them from the church).

It's not easy for American institutions, in particular, to lend a helping hand. On top of the negative sentiment generated by our bad foreign policy, there is a long historical precedent of westerners stealing other people's heritage and not giving it back. I think everyone would agree that we want to avoid another disasterous incident like the looting of the Iraq National Museum; the hard part is figuring out how to do it without making anyone feel cheated.

Anyway, this is really just a round-about way of saying kudos to Harvard and the Church for working things out amicably. They're setting an important example for the rest of the academic community.
Very well said.

Back in 2004, I became the BBC's "go-to guy" whenever they wanted someone to speak in favor of Harvard keeping the bells. Apparently, a few people at the Danilov were not too happy with me, despite the fact that my opinion had no control. :-)
I was against the returning of the bells. While the Soviet Union did not really own the bells, the church did. It was the intent of the government to destroy the bells. Leaving the bells in place would have meant their destruction. I do not know what world wide public opinion was regarding the destruction of the churches, if the world even knew what has happening.

So many of the items in our museums were purchased in the same way. Because the government, or the lack of government was not able to protect the treasures, or was actively working toward their destruction.

I hope there will be some kind of acknowledgment of Mr. Crane's saving the bells from destruction, when the bells are returned to Russia. In this, as in many other things, I do not have the knowledge of the bells history to make a decision.
I really wanted to see Harvard keep the bells; my argument at the time was that if not for Harvard, the bells wouldn't even exist anymore for the Danilov Monastery to want back.

But in the end, I can live with the compromise created. The best part is that there's now a strong tie between the Monastery and Harvard.

I suspect the Monastery will always remember Crane and Harvard for their role in preserving the bells. At least, I hope so.
From the Boston.com article:

"The bells will be sent on the same historic path that their predecessors took," he said.

Does that mean that they will sit on Crane's beach and get rusty, then?

-John, co-clappermeister '91

As fun as that would be, I think part of the reason Harvard was willing to return the old, historic bells is because they're getting brand new ones for the tower. Plus lessons on how to ring them properly. :-)
...and what are you implying about my bell-ringing skills, then? Hmmm?



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