The revival of the traditions of Orthodox bell-ringing began in Minsk as early as 1998 when bell-ringing courses opened in the parish of the Icon of the Theotokos “The Joy of All Who Sorrow”.
In January 2000, with the blessing of Metropolitan Philaret (Vakhromeev), the former Patriarchal Exarch of All Belarus, the courses were transformed into a school of bell-ringing. Since May 2015 it has been one of the departments of the Minsk School of Theology.
Since March 2003, Bogdan Berezkin, a professional musician, a Master of Arts, a graduate of the Minsk State Academy of Music, has been the director of the Minsk school of bellringers. Over the past twenty years of his teaching activity 440 graduates have developed bell-ringing skills. On average forty students undergo training at this department.
We have talked with Bogdan Vladimirovich about bells, the meaning of bell ringing, bellringers and how people become one.
—I happened to read a lot of material which attributes many supernatural, magical properties to the ringing of bells. Doesn’t the ringing of bells have a purely applied function—to announce that a service is beginning or going on?
—You are talking about “occult” materials (laughs). Yes, to put it into the secular language, ringing bells are surrounded by an air of mystery and magic. Bells possess “magical”, or, to be more correct, mystical qualities. The essence is in the meaning of ringing.
If we take such Christian philosophers as Gregory of Narek (the tenth century) and Thomas Aquinas (the thirteenth century), in those ancient times special symbols were attached to bells—the ringing of bells was believed to represent the voice of God, and the bell, figuratively speaking, was considered to be an audible icon and the speaking Lord. When students enroll in our department, we tell them about this at our first lessons on the theory of bell-ringing.
The mystery of bell-ringing is in the fact that no one sees the bell, but any ear hears its sound amid the city noise. Even if the ear doesn’t hear it, something inside you will stir from this sound.
—It’s probably because this sound is clearly associated with the following: there is a church somewhere in the distance and the sound comes from there.
—Yeah. “Bam!”—and you automatically think: “a church”. And a chain reaction occurs: if there is a church, something must be happening there. And someone may think: “Oh, I haven’t been to church for ages. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to drop in.”
Fr. Igor Korostelev, rector of the Church of the Icon “The Joy of All Who Sorrow” in Minsk, where the revival of bell-ringing in Belarus began, would recount a story. There used to be a small pond on the waste ground where there is now a megamarket near the church. And a woman went there to drown herself. But at the last minute she heard the bell that was calling worshippers for a service. The woman decided to go to church for the last time, light a candle and then drown herself…
—Is that right?
—That woman is still alive and works in church. The Lord speaks with everybody in their own language. Some come to church through singing, others through music; others come to work as guards or janitors or just because they need money. And thus they integrate into Church life. And God speaks with some through the ringing of bells.
—How did your career as a bellringer start? How did you choose it?
—Let’s start from afar. Bells were the only instrument that I didn’t try playing. Music is our family skill on my father’s line. He is a self-taught accordion player. He is now seventy-three. His elder brother, who served at the Ministry of Energy in the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic, played even better. My grandfather played the Russian khromka [a type of a Russian unisonoric diatonic button accordion.—Trans.], and my great-grandfather played the violin. In effect, four generations before me were musicians, though none could play from sheet music. I am the first “spoiled” musician because I was sent to a music school.
—You said you were “sent” there. So you didn’t like music?
—I would make progress with a smile on my face, without efforts. I graduated from an accordion school, then a bayan [a type of chromatic button accordion.—Trans.] school, then a special school of music, and, finally, the Academy of Music, and obtained a post-graduate degree there. It’s about seventeen years of professional music training in total.
Many things took place in my life thanks to my spouse—in every respect. When I was a post-graduate student, my wife was already a member of the sisterhood of the parish in honor of the Icon “The Joy of All Who Sorrow”. It was through her and our oldest son who began to go to church that my integration into church life took place. It was my wife who helped me enroll in the school of bellringers. Before that I couldn’t have imagined that I would ever try bell-ringing! I went to learn bell-ringing as a fifth-year student of the Academy of Music in 2000. I was one of its first students.
My wife’s first profession is musicology, and the second is art history. In addition, she is a bellringer like me. She is the one who has helped me a great deal and supported me in every possible way.
—So you like-minded persons and you heard the voice of God through your wife…
—You could put it that way (smiles).
—And how did you become the director of the school of bellringers?
—To put it into secular language, it was by coincidence. When the previous director, Alexander Malinovsky, was leaving the city forever, he suggested me before his departure: “Have a try.” But then we were busy with other things—our son had died in a car accident, my wife had serious injuries and we were on sick leave for eight months. But I decided to try… After that Metropolitan Philaret blessed me and appointed me as its principal. First I ran a school, and now I run a whole department of bellringers at the School of Theology.
I completed my education as a music teacher—for ten years I studied how to teach the playing of instruments. Excellent professors taught us methods of teaching and teaching skills. We had plenty of literature by wonderful experts of world renown. Besides, throughout my life I was blessed by God with teachers who taught me to give everything to my students without concealing anything.
For example, Victor Feofanovich Shimanovsky taught us “The special instrument” at the Brest Music School. I remember that they were going to reject an applicant and give him a low score. And Victor Feofanovich said: “Let me take him to my class and I will take the responsibility on my shoulders.” The young man graduated from the school with honors and then from the Academy of Music in musical composition. Now he is a composer and writes beautiful music.
That is, a teacher literally nurtures and educates his students and he must find an approach to them. The science of education is when you get totally absorbed in what you give. But there is also replenishment and exchange here. And when you can and know how to play the most complicated composition, you know how to teach this to others.
—Strictly speaking, these are different things: to learn something and to be able to pass on your skills to others. There are examples in spiritual literature, too: some ascetic elders achieved a lot in spiritual podvigs but were powerless to teach their novices the same…
—We know examples of funny incidents that occurred with some students who came to learn bell-ringing here…
—Can you share the ones that impressed you the most?
—In my first group of students there was a woman who had earlier worked by contract as a medical nurse in Libya for a year. Before graduation I asked her: “What is the main reason why you came to study here?” Obviously, the school of bellringers helped her integrate into Church life. Some people come to us with their stereotypes and clichés and in the course of their studies they come to know some basic things about Orthodoxy and begin to gradually understand the faith.
That woman replied, “I read somewhere that just before the end of the world bellringers will be the first to be killed. So I decided to suffer for Christ…”
—It sounds as if extraordinary people are coming to study at your department!
—Amazing people, from children to pensioners! As for their social strata, there are soldiers, doctors, engineers and athletes among them. That is, people I would otherwise never have met in my life…
—Is a bellringer expected to have a good ear for music?
—Not as much an ear for music as a sense of rhythm. If we take our Slavic genes, we will find that everybody has an ear for music and a sense of rhythm. As a teacher I can say that sometimes these develop in childhood and sometimes this doesn’t happen for some reasons—the parents don’t facilitate this process and so on…
We had a woman among our students who would initially say, “I have neither an ear for music nor a sense of rhythm. As a child I had a great desire to play some instrument. My parents went to a music school, invited a teacher, laid the table for him to ensure that he would take me in hand, because no one wanted to give me lessons!”
“And what did he do?”
“After giving me a couple of lessons the teacher said, ‘Let us not affect the child’s psyche!”
And till the age of fifty that woman was persuaded that she had no musical talent! I started giving her lessons and found that she picked up everything in a jiffy! As a result two months later she rang extremely well.
—So what do you need in order to become a bellringer?
—First and foremost, a strong desire. Desire means everything. Secondly, you need to feel that the abilities that we all have can be woken.
—To have faith in yourself?
—Well, yes, nobody has abolished faith and prayer.
For instance, a young lady phoned me and said in a quivery voice with an accent:
“Hello! I am calling from Poland. May I come and learn bell-ringing a little? What are your requirements? I can’t do anything!”
She got a compensatory leave and came for a week. We had an intensive course with her which resulted in a bell-ringing festival in Polatsk.
Another story. About fourteen years ago an eighteen-year-old novice monk from the Pochaev Lavra came. I listened to him: he rang excellently. I asked him:
“Why have you come here, Pasha?”
“Some monks like the way I ring, while others say, ‘Don’t go to ring! Your ringing isn’t good! Get away from the bell-tower!’”
He enumerated the peal of their bells. Here in Belarus we didn’t have such bells at that time, and neither do we have such today. They weighed ten tons! While listening to him, I saw that the meaning was very strained.
I said, “Well, let’s approach this problem from another perspective. What do you imagine while you ring?”
“An evening, bonfires, with Native Americans dancing around them… And I am ringing! Do you understand how beautiful it is, Bogdan Vladimirovich?!”
“Native Americans!!! You’d better change the image!”
And for two weeks we worked on the “artistic image” to ensure that the Lavra brethren be pleased with the “picture”.
—It appears that what’s on the bellringer’s mind also matters?
—It is very important. And when someone ascends the bell-tower in a different emotional state, the ringing changes dramatically. It would seem that low frequencies from the point of view of physics have a calming effect, whereas high frequencies have an exciting effect. When a bellringer is in a different state of mind, the bells sound differently.
We worked a little with that young man. He left, and a month later he informed me, “Thanks! Everything is fine! The brethren are pleased now!”
Another situation. There was an interesting group of six students. One of them came from a Ukrainian monastery; a young lady wanted to become a nun; and there was also a musician named Valery Iosifovich, aged about sixty. He said: “I am a winner of a national contest in variety singing. I read and sing in church. We have obtained bells and we need someone to ring them.” It turned out that he had retired a month before. And he had worked at a restaurant his entire life. A typical joker with musical and restaurant humor!
Afterwards one man from the group became a taxi driver, the guy from Ukraine went into schism, and the young lady married and gave birth to two children. And the gentleman from the restaurant continued to sing, read and ring in church for some ten years. He trained the parish bellringers and readers too…
Another episode. A guy and his girlfriend were walking past the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul in Minsk. The bells were ringing. The girl joked:
“You can’t ring the bells!”
“I bet I’ll learn!”
“I bet you won’t!”
And he came here to study.
—And who won the bet?
—He has been assisting in one of the Minsk churches for about fifteen years now. He was even going to enter seminary.
—What about his girlfriend?
—She too finished the school of bellringers. They got married and have two children…
In 2015, we had a two-week master class of bell-ringing in Bavaria, Germany, for representatives of the ROCOR. Some of the students were descendants of the first wave of emigres after the Revolution. The father of one of them was an officer in the General Vlasov’s Army. These too were amazing people who would share their journeys to the Church with me…
All in all, very different people are coming to study bell ringing and in different ways…
—In 2015, the school of bellringers became one of the departments of the Minsk School of Theology. Has it changed your activity in any way?
—No, everything has remained the same: the training as well as the main idea—to revive bell ringing in Belarus so that every church can sound out!
The period of training is short—just four months. Those who are musicians by nature understand easily. There are some students with an analytical memory. Those who have no musical education or skills memorize everything in a miraculous way as well!
What is our task? We are always placed in time frames: some have several months for training, others—only a couple of days. And we must manage to make the best of this period. Generally, we need to talk to everyone in the language the person is used to speaking…
—Like the Apostle Paul, who said, And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law; To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak (1 Cor. 9:20, 22).
—I will tell you how we held intensive courses in Salihorsk. The ruling hierarch blessed us to send two people willing to learn how to ring from each deanery. Twenty-eight people arrived, and I was to train them all in seven days.
On Monday, our first day, we celebrated the service of intercession. On Wednesday I already thought I was going mad because people would come and go, while I stayed at the same place amid that noise… At the end of the week, on Sunday, we had the first festival, The Salihorsk Tolls. And twenty out of twenty-eight people rang properly. What they do now is another question.
There was a professional dancer among them. Now he is about fifty-seven. He has danced since the age of six. He said to me:
“You see, I can do it with my feet but can’t do it with my hands.”
About sixteen people heard that and laughed:
“Haha! We struggle to repeat this with our hands, but he can kick!”
I showed him a rhythmic chain, but the man drummed a tap dance with his feet, and even complicated it with his variations (laughs). And he said again:
“But I can’t do it with my hands!”
The group froze:
“Please repeat it again!”
“I’ll do an encore once I’ve performed this with my hands…”
—Did that dancer beat out the rhythm on the bells?
—He did it perfectly well! He has a temperament. There is an interesting moment here: a lot depends on your temperament. All musicians study the same way but play differently. There are six to seven rhythmic figures in bell ringing, as in music, and beyond that the genius of the composer is at work, as was the case with Tchaikovsky, Mozart, Rachmaninov…
—Absolutely right. Some are sanguine personalities.
—So the style of ringing will differ according to the type of temperament.
—Absolutely! Some have one pace of life, others have another; different characters mean different manners of ringing! And your profession leaves its mark on the way you ring, too.
—Compared to the violin, the bell looks like a simple instrument. But, looking at how one takes strings into his hands, and, without straining himself, produces graceful, harmonious ringing, I understand that a beginner won’t be able to do it right away. You need to exercise. How much time is required for this?
—The training period is short, but over this time we teach bellringers a great deal. Then each of them begins to adjust to his bell-tower because all bell-towers are not identical. During training we visit all Minsk churches and make trips to other cities—Salihorsk, Slutsk, Polotsk Convent, etc.
—So you give your students an opportunity not only to visit the training bell-tower, right?
—The training bell-tower is the ABCs, the fundamentals. Bell-towers may be built according to one and the same architectural design, some thirteen by thirteen feet, others ten by ten feet. For instance, the smallest bell weighs four kilos here, but in another bell-tower it is eight kilos. The tempo of bell ringing depends on the bell weights and the distance between them.
Moreover, you need to be able to listen to the bell as to any musical instrument.
—You teach your students sensitivity, among other things?
—In ancient times, bells were treated as living things. Hence their “punishment” by lashing, cutting their ears, pulling out their clappers, and smashing. One of them was the Vitebsk Bell, which roused the city folk to revolt against the Uniat Bishop Josaphat Kuntsevich. That assembly bell was declared “guilty” [by the Polish authorities]. When the punitive forces came, they took it down, lashed it, pulled its clapper out and smashed it. From then on, it was forbidden to have such a bell in Vitebsk.
There was an incident in late medieval France when workers began to spell things out and quarters rose against quarters. Then they struck the bell… Very many people were killed. And an order was issued to cease ringing the bells in order to avoid more murder…
—It looks like the ringing of bells is a powerful tool of influence on people…
—That can lead to irreversible consequences!
—Yes! Better let bells announce the Good News!
—The bell is a church instrument, and in Belarus it so happened that the department of bellringers is engaged in the revival of church bell ringing.
When in 2004 Belarusian bellringers took part in the “Transfiguration” festival in Yaroslavl, for the first time in the history of the festival they received the Grand Prix “For Churchliness of Bell Ringing.”
And it wasn’t merely a gesture of goodwill towards a fraternal nation. The commission sat downstairs, so they couldn’t see who was going up the bell-tower to ring—they only knew the numbers of the participants. The jury’s assessment was completely objective.
—Bogdan Vladimirovich, for twenty years your life has been filled with ringing, ringing, and more ringing. Aren’t you tired of it? Doesn’t it pall on you?
—The field of my studies is quite diverse. It is not something static but creative because there are no identical bell-towers or bell pealing. My sphere of activity includes the expertise of bell-towers, work with architects, construction consultations, the selection of bells, and communication in the field with priests.
Let’s say we have a benefactor—alone or a whole family—who is going to donate a bell to a particular church.
We choose a bell to match the existing ring of bells, make the specs for requirements, agree on the inscriptions, and choose the icons. For example, in one family the husband, Nicholas, is Catholic, while the wife and children are Orthodox. St. Nicholas the Wonderworker is venerated by both the Catholics and the Orthodox. We agree on his image. Then we decide more precisely what his icon will be like.
All in all, it is constant creativity that doesn’t allow us to get stuck in a rut. Here it is necessary to show both an elementary aesthetic taste and diplomacy to ensure that everyone is satisfied. The most important thing is to choose so that the sound of the new bell shouldn’t differ from the ring but that its sound should differ significantly from the existing bells.
—Do you teach your students these subtleties too?
—Of course, I show them. And, apart from “The history of bell ringing” we have such subjects as “The architecture of the bell-tower”, “Safety techniques” or “How to equip the bell floor on a bell-tower”. But it is about experience! For me it is the whole of Belarus along with the neighboring regions (Poland, Germany, the Baltic States, Ukraine, Russia). It is impossible to master all this in four months!
—Do you admit all applicants or are there restrictions on admission?
—[The former Exarch of Belorus] Metropolitan Philaret blessed us to admit all who wish to study provided that they have a recommendation letter from their parish. It doesn’t matter if they have a musical education or not. How can you reject someone when he comes and you see that his heart is on fire?!
—440 graduates in twenty years. Are bellringers in demand today? What are the prospects of your school for the coming years and are such specialists still needed in Belarus? After all, this profession is rare…
—To be a bellringer is not a profession but a state of the soul. It is obedience and not work.
Besides, various events happen in the lives of people who are involved in bell ringing as an obedience. Their work, work schedules, family circumstances may change. Someone can get married for example and leave the bell-tower for a time.
For example, in the Church of the Icon of the Mother of God, “The Joy of All Who Sorrow,” where the Minsk School of Theology is based, there are twenty full time bellringers in case someone gets sick and isn’t able to work. Then there is an interchange, and in this way we provide the whole cycle of daily services with bellringers.
—Do you yourself often ring the bells at church?
—I ring in a classroom in a day more than any bellringer does in a cathedral in half a year! In some churches they don’t ring in a year as much as I do in a couple of days. It’s forty-four hours a week, plus work at a music school. I barely have any spare time.
—Do you have time for anything else?
—Yes, for sleeping (smiles).
—And what about your family? Your wife and children?
—This is what I cherish with all my might. If it weren’t for my family and my spouse, I wouldn’t have been able to do anything.
—What would you like to say in conclusion to all your students and graduates—so different in profession, temperament and age?
—You have now been trained and are bearers of bell-ringing culture of your parishes. Prepare your successors. In parishes there are always people who want to master this unique Christian art. Make disciples to ensure the formation of traditional ringing of your parishes. It is extremely important! One day researchers will say that such and such a bell-tower had a unique ring.
Some have disciples on the ground, others are fostering their successors. But, actually, our intake of students is still increasing. This indicates that people are interested in Orthodoxy and bell ringing. Glory be to God!