A Bell That Never Tolled

The Tsar Bell, Moscow, photographed by an anonymous photographer in the 1860s

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There are two memorable dates the Russian capital celebrates in July and both are linked to historical sites of the Moscow Kremlin. These are: the 525th anniversary of the Taininskaya tower foundation and 280 years since Empress Anna Ioanovna ordered the casting of a large bell for the Uspenskaya (Assumption) Belfry.

To a great extent, the Moscow Kremlin acquired its present-day image back in the second half of the 15th century after it went through reconstruction recovery. The work began with the erection of the Taininskaya (Secret) tower - the most important facility in the Kremlin’s river side defense system. It got its name due to a secret well and an underground passage to the Moscow River. As compared to other towers of the Moscow Kremlin, the Taininskaya tower is rather modest in appearance and is not included in the tour of the Red Square. As for the Great Uspensky Bell, also known as the Tsar Bell, it has long become one of the Kremlin’s main attractions.

Russia’s first giant bells were casted in the 16th century, but for a variety of reasons they started to break one by one. The same happened to the famous Tsar Bell’s immediate precursor. After this, in 1730, Empress Anna Ioanovna issued a decree on casting a new giant bell which became the world’s largest, says Director of the Moscow Bell Center Victor Sharikov.

As an ambitious woman, Anna Ioanovna intended to beat the record of her grandfather Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich and nearly succeeded. In 1737, when Moscow suffered from a devastating fire, the 204-ton bell sustained major damage after wooden constructions over the pit it was hanging above caught fire and collapsed. People began pouring cold water on the bell so that burning logs did not melt it. All this caused numerous cracks on the giant’s surface and when the bell was lifted, a piece weighting 11.5 tons fell off. Everyone then forgot about its existence until Nicolas I ordered placing the bell on a pedestal next to Ivan the Great Bell Tower in 1834. It is still standing there, with 11 cracks and a broken piece.

Numerous disputes emerged whether it is possible to repair the bell, Victor Sharikov says. It may be news to many people that the first reconstruction project was proposed in 1885, providing for the use of the recently appeared thermal bonding. The Tsar then said that without a guaranteed 100 percent success, the project was not worth wasting time on. The bell was decided to become just a symbol of Russia’s unexcelled casting art. Now, there is a problem of preserving the world’s largest bell in a proper state, especially in light of the increasing number of cracks on its surface. Someone even suggested recasting the giant or making another one. Both proposals were met with objections, since the bell is part of our country’s cultural heritage, and if recasted, it will sound very low. This generated a legend among bell-ringers in Russia - if tolling the recasted Tsar Bell, all living creatures will fall dead. Ultra-low frequency sounds are close to resonant frequencies of the heart, liver and lungs, which may have destructive effects on a human organism. According to another legend, the Tsar Bell chime will announce doomsday, Victor Sharikov said in conclusion.

So far, the giant bell remains one of Moscow’s major tourist attractions and only history may determine its future.

Source: The Voice of Russia
30 July, 2010