Peal Out

Pestilence, famine, and despair returned to Russia this summer with some help from Assistant Professor of History Luis Campos. No, not the plaguelike conditions, but one sardonically nicknamed Russian bell and its 16 siblings that called Harvard home for nearly 80 years.

Campos, here with Mother Earth, the largest of the Russian bells at Harvard. Photo by Scott Indermaur

The ornate bronze bells were removed from St. Daniel Monastery in Moscow for safekeeping during Stalin’s spree of assassinating monks and melting church bells. They are a passion for Campos, a two-time Harvard alumnus and former resident of the university’s Lowell House, whose white neo-Georgian tower contained the bells.

Campos, who joined Drew’s history faculty in 2007, has been closely involved with efforts to return the rare, pre-revolution bells to Russia at the monastery’s request. In the last four years, he’s traveled there five times and documented events for his alma mater’s record. “It’s been an all-consuming thing for me for many years now,” Campos says.

The obsession started when Campos was an undergraduate biology major. “One Sunday, some kids across the hall said, ‘We’re going to ring the bells,’” Campos says. “My first attempts were just as unskillful as anyone’s, but I knew immediately this was something I was going to do every week.”

The mysterious sound of a zvon—a set of Russian bells—can take Western listeners by surprise. Campos says they’re meant to be rung rhythmically, “as acts of worship, often keyed to particular moments in the liturgy. They are not intended to be rung melodically, which explains why students complain.” That also accounts for the apocalyptic nickname— Pestilence, Famine and Despair—handed down in campus lore for one of the larger bells.

Weighing between 22 pounds and 13 tons each, the bells have made an impact on Campos far beyond their legendary reverberations: He credits them with making him a historian. “Over the years, my interest in the history of the bells grew—how the heck did they end up here, and how accurate were the stories we were telling?” says Campos. “I discovered some scrapbooks in the Lowell House archives, and reconstructing their history opened up a whole new world for me. I was always interested in history, but it was my actual first experience in doing history.”

Just after settling into his Madison apartment last year, Campos helped ensure that Harvard’s campus will not go silent, jetting off to a Russian foundry to document the casting of a gleaming new set of bells that were recently hung in the Lowell House tower.

Despite his emotional attachment to the bells, Campos is thrilled that they’re back home. Recalling the first time he heard the bells rung by a St. Daniel monk visiting Harvard, he still gets goose bumps. “It was as if time stood still,” he says. “I knew then, in a way that I had never really understood before, that this was how the bells had always been rung, and were supposed to be rung. If I had any doubts about the future home of the bells, they were erased in that instant.”

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