Wednesday 18 March 1998

RED SQUARE'S STOLEN BELL by Tatyana Titova, Keston News Service Visible to every tourist who visits Moscow's Red Square is the exquisite 17th-century Kazan Cathedral, totally destroyed by STALIN but painstakingly rebuilt in 1993.  What few realise is that this gem of Russian church architecture is now home to an item of stolen property which the Moscow Patriarchate refuses to return to its original owners,  the Old Believers. In the tower of the relatively small cathedral hangs a three-ton bell - so disproportionate that the walls had to be broken to install it. The bell's original home eight decades ago was the huge Cathedral of the Intercession in the Rogozhskaya  Commune, the Old Believers' main spiritual centre in Moscow.  Donated by the famous MOROZOV Old Believer merchant family, it was cast during the brief spell of religious freedom between TSAR NICHOLAS II'S reforms in 1905 and the Bolshevik takeover in 1917. In the 1920s the Morozov bell was seized by the Soviet regime and hauled to the Kremlin. Until the early 1990s it was housed in a building remote from both the Old Believer and the mainstream Orthodox  traditions, the Soviet Palace of Congresses.  In 1993 the Old Believers unexpectedly found it hanging in the mainstream Moscow Patriarchate's newly restored Kazan Cathedral. According to ALEKSEI RYABTSEV, assistant to Old Believer METROPOLITAN ALIMPI, the Metropolitan's repeated pleas for the bell's return have all been rudely rejected.     The bell is only one of many items of Old Believer property which have been appropriated by the Moscow Patriarchate, Ryabtsev  told Keston News Service in a 27 November interview.  He said that by December 1996 the Old Believers had become so concerned about the transfer of Old Believer icons, bells and other items to the Patriarchate that they mounted a special appeal to the Duma. They requested the passage of legislation which would require the Russian government to take greater care when transferring religious items previously stolen by the Soviet regime - or stolen by  private-sector thieves in more recent years and then recovered by the police or customs service.  The Old Believers' proposal would have required that officials first verify which religious confession was the true, original owner of such an item and then return it only to that owner.     Though the supporters of Russia's September 1997 law on church- state relations claimed to be defending all of the country's 'traditional confessions', they failed to include the provision sought by the Old Believers.  According to Ryabtsev the issue rose again at a December 1997 session of the Commission on Questions of Religious Associations under PRIME MINISTER CHERNOMYRDIN, which discussed the transfer to the Moscow Patriarchate of some 563 religious items including copper crucifixes used for the most part by Old Believers. But no specialised review took place, and  representatives of the Old Believers were even denied permission to study the items so that they could decide whether any of them should be claimed as Old Believer property. A source at the Kazan Cathedral, who asked not to be identified, confirmed in an 11 February interview with Keston that the Morozov bell had indeed originally belonged to the Old Believers. But the source said that the bell had been cast only in 1917 and had never even been rung before being confiscated by the Bolsheviks.  Ryabtsev, on the other hand, said that the bell was cast in 1912 and that it is one of a pair.  Its twin, he told Keston, was given by the Soviet regime to the Moscow Arts Theatre founded by the renowned director KONSTANTIN STANISLAVSKY.  Upon learning of the bell's existence in 1989 and reading its inscription to deceased members of the Morozov family, the theatre's then director OLEG YEFREMOV ordered its return to its original home in the Old Believers' Cathedral of the Intercession. A.V. PANKRATOV, curator of the Old Believer Metropolia's historical archives, told Keston that in 1993 Metropolitan Alimpi wrote a letter to the Orthodox PATRIARCH ALEKSI requesting that he return the other Morozov bell. Alimpi's representatives, he said, were kept waiting for four hours at the Patriarchate's headquarters in the Danilovsky Monastery before a bishop finally agreed to see them.  That bishop then simply told them that the bell had been transferred by the secular authorities and that they should address their appeal to Moscow's MAYOR YURI LUZHKOV - whose staff in turn sent the Old Believers right back to the Patriarchate.  Finally, said Pankratov, the Old Believers appealed directly to the rector of the Kazan Cathedral.  The rector also refused them. Meanwhile, said Ryabtsev, the bell's original place in the Cathedral of the Intercession remains vacant since the Old Believers are now too poor to commission a replacement. (END)