The Exiled Bell of Uglich

Jun 7, 2021 0 comments

When Ivan the Terrible died in 1584, he left behind two sons, neither of whom was suitable to carry forward their father’s heirloom. One was Fyodor Ivanovich, who, growing up under the shadow of a terrible father and denied of motherly love, turned out to be shy and timid and sickly of health. He was the complete opposite of his father: a pious young man, fond of visiting churches and spending hours in prayer and contemplation. Ivan’s other son, Dmitri Ivanovich, was a three-year-old infant. Ivan did have a capable heir, his eldest son Ivan Ivanovich. But three years previously, Ivan the Terrible—in an act befitting his name—delivered a fatal blow upon the head of his son in a fit of rage and killed him. With no competent heir to the throne, Ivan the Terrible was forced to appoint Boris Godunov as the regent to Fyodor and rule on his behalf, while the three-year-old Dimitri along with his mother were sent to exile to Uglich, some 120 miles north of Moscow.

Seven years later, in 1592, Dimitri was found dead with his throat slit. Foul play was suspected, and Dimitri’s supporters summoned an insurrection by ringing the great bell of Uglich. Suspicions naturally fell on Boris Godunov and a violent riot ensued during which enraged citizens lynched fifteen of Dmitry's supposed assassins, including the local representative of the Moscow government. Godunov immediately sent troops and the riot was swiftly quelled and the rioters arrested. Even the bell was not spared.

In the Russian Orthodox faith, bells are believed to have souls and since only living creatures can have one, bells are considered alive and very much like humans. The church bell, in particular, was once considered a prominent citizen of the village. They had human-like names and parts of the bell’s body were given names after human body parts. A Russian bell had a head, a waist, a lip, a tongue, and ears.

In Russian history and culture, church bells occupy a mysteriously important position. Their tolling, Father Roman told me, has been known to bring miserly or hard-hearted people to repentance, and to dissuade would-be murderers and suicides. In “Crime and Punishment,” Raskolnikov falls into a guilt-induced fever, hearing the ringing of Sunday church bells; he gives himself away by returning to the scene of the crime and compulsively ringing the murder victim’s doorbell. In “War and Peace,” the Kremlin’s bells ring during Napoleon’s invasion, disquieting the Grande Armée. Considered in Russian folklore to be animate beings, bells exercise a profound power over humankind—a power that lay dead or dormant for most of the twentieth century.

The New Yorker, April 2009

The anthropomorphism of church bells has one drawback. Time and again church bells have been tried and punished, like human wrongdoers, for sounding at the wrong time, or for the wrong person.

Death of Tsarevich Dmitry. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

For instigating the riot, Godunov ordered Uglich’s 320-ton bell to be removed and dragged into the city square, where a blacksmith removed the bell’s clapper, which would be equivalent to tearing out the bell’s tongue. The blacksmith also cut the bell’s “ears”—small metal hooks by which the bell is hung. To get his message across, Godunov even ordered the bell to be flogged with heavy whips. It was then exiled to Siberia along with the rioters. About 60 families from Uglich spent a year dragging the immensely heavy bell to Tobolsk—a distance of 1,400 miles.

Once the bell arrived at Tobolsk, the local authorities locked it up in a cell and made an inscription on it: “The first inanimate exile from Uglich”. Years later, the bell was installed at the St. Sophia Cathedral, where it was used to mark the time and as a fire alarm.

The bell was studied and described for the first time in 1869, and in 1892, at the behest of Emperor Alexander III and to mark the 300th anniversary of the bell’s exile, the bell was pardoned. A delegation of Uglich people then took the bell back to where it belonged, to Uglich, where it has been kept ever since.

The exiled bell of Uglich. Photo:

While the tale of Uglich’s bell is indeed very odd, the death of Tsarevich Dmitri is no less peculiar. At first glance, the case appears open and shut. With Fyodor unfit to rule, the only true heir to the throne was Dmitri, and so by eliminating the kid, Godunov could ensure his progress to the throne. It was not uncommon for princes, and sometimes entire families, to meet with sudden and unnatural deaths following the death of a king. There is but one problem with this theory—Dimitry was never legally in line for the throne. Dmitry was Ivan's son from his fifth wife (or perhaps seventh), which made him illegitimate by the canon law as the Russian Orthodox Church allowed a maximum of only three marriages. By killing of Dimitry, Godunov would have gained nothing but decades of bloody chaos that his death set in motion.

This leaves us with only one possible scenario, however unlikely it might seem, that Dimitry’s death was accidental. But how did Dimitry accidentally stab himself in the throat? Because Dimitry suffered from epilepsy. Modern historians now believe that Dimitry was playing with a knife when he had an epileptic seizure, during which the tragedy occurred. Dimitry was most likely playing svaika, a knife throwing game, where the knife is held with the blade pointing towards the body. With the knife in that position, it was possible for Dimitry to inflict an wound upon himself in the throes of a grand mal seizure.

Other executed bells

The execution of Uglich’s bell was not an isolated incident. As already mentioned, bells were treated as persons in Russia and were subjected to trials and executions. Bells were often taken down from their towers after a city was captured. In 1327, after suppressing an uprising against the Mongol-Tatar tax collectors, Ivan Danilovich Kalita (1288-1340), a Muscovite Prince who used Mongols to defeat the princes of Tver, burned down the town and took possession of the bell. It was transported to Moscow and melted down.

Removal of the Novgorod veche’s bell. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The same fate befell the bell of Novgorod veche. In 1478, after Ivan III of Moscow conquered Novgorod, he ordered the veche bell removed from the belfry. The veche was the highest legislative and judicial authority of the republic, and its bell was a symbol of republican sovereignty and independence. Taking control of the city would not have been completed without the capture of the all important bell.

Similarly, when the Grand Prince Vasiliy III of Moscow (father of Ivan the Terrible) made Pskov people swear allegiance to Moscow, it relocated about 300 most important Pskov families to Moscow. But the bell was punished by having its ears cut and tongue torn out.

# Georgy Manaev, How Russians executed BELLS, Russia Beyond
# Elif Batuman, The Bells, The New Yorker


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