Sacred Sound and Sacred Substance: Church Bells and the Auditory Culture of Russian Villages during the Bolshevik Velikii Perelom

Blow the trumpet in Zion, declare a holy fast, call a sacred assembly. Gather the people, consecrate the assembly … Let them say, “Spare your people, O LORD. Do not make your inheritance an object of scorn, a byword among the nations. Why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?'”
Joel 2:15–17[1]
In iron there is a summons
Ringing and dreadful,
Cast-iron movement of the masses;
To the accompaniment of metallic peals
It seethed, rose up in rebellion,
And began to sparkle in a maelstrom of eyes.
Mikhail Gerasimov, “Canticle of Iron,”1917[2]

A small group of Bolshevik activists from the Bol’she-Polianskii district (raion) Communist Party Committee arrived in the village of Novoe Pokrovskoe in the Russian Central Black Earth Region on January 17, 1930.[3] They had come for the church bells. Someone from among the village faithful spotted their approach and managed to climb the bell tower before it was too late. The bells loudly sounded the alarm during the ensuing scuffle between parishioners and activists. More and more villagers rushed to the scene in response to the tocsin, shouting their indignation not only at the plan to remove the bells, but also at the recently imposed collective farm (kolkhoz). Once the crowd reached menacing proportions and threatened the activists with physical, even mortal, harm, they wisely fled. Having won the battle, villagers then organized themselves to guard the church should the defeated activists return for another attempt at the bells. Indeed, a second attempt was made only a few days later, except this time officials from higher up the Bolshevik hierarchy arrived, hoping that a more authoritative delegation would force the village’s acquiescence. Nevertheless, this delegation faced yet another angry crowd, hastily assembled at the sound of the tocsin. The crowd’s list of complaints against Bolshevik policies now expanded beyond the bells’ confiscation and the establishment of the collective farm to include the excessive “insurance” payments required by the regime for the church as well as the arrest of the local parish priest.[4]

In many respects, the conflict in Novoe Pokrovskoe mirrors episodes in other locales that experienced cultural upheaval under modernizing regimes. Following the French revolutionary precedent, political conflicts in such places inevitably coalesced around religious beliefs and practices, which were viewed by the modernizers as obstacles to rationality and progress and by believers as a primary means for understanding and responding to the modernizers’ assault. In recent years, a rich body of literature has brought the religious aspects of the modernizing project much more into the historical foreground. Thanks to such work, we are able to take the religious commitments of historical actors more seriously in order to show how they were challenged, changed, or reinforced under the pressures of new social realities. In many cases, participants seized on symbols that encapsulated the substance and stakes of the religio-political conflict—crucifixes in Nazi Germany, statues of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in the Second Spanish Republic, clerics in revolutionary Mexico, to name just a few. These and other analogues all have their own sets of particularities within the more universal context of militant modernity.[5]

Yet, while much light has been shed on so many of these cases, the symbol at the heart of the conflict in Novoe Pokrovskoe remains elusive. Confiscating church bells would seem to be a small, even tangential part of the Bolsheviks’ broader ambition to bring the Russian countryside into the new socialist age. While the regime’s Velikii Perelom or “Great Turn” of 1928–1932 nominally advanced along two economic tracks—rapid urban industrialization and the forced collectivization of agriculture—”building socialism” certainly entailed much more than mere economic change. It necessarily constituted a war of cultures. Indeed, Bolshevik activists self-consciously viewed themselves as the vanguard of a militantly modern New Way of Life (novyi byt) at mortal odds with an Old Way of Life (staryi byt).[6] Although some otherwise excellent works have recently and thoughtfully highlighted religion’s key role in this war, they focus mostly on the church, the clergy, or the icon as the principal symbols of contention, giving only brief attention to church bells.[7] However, more than has been assumed, these ancient instruments were important to the history of the Perelom as a comprehensive revolution of the senses.

To be sure, much of the explanation for the sparse treatment of bells and their sounds in contexts like the Perelom lies in the nature of the subject itself. Unlike other ecclesiastical arts, the auditory culture of the church bell has nearly disappeared from modern hearing. As Alain Corbin explains, the peals of bells that have

become for us the sound of another time, were listened to, and evaluated according to a system of affects that is now lost to us. They bear witness to a different way of being inscribed in time and space, and of experiencing time and space.[8]

His emphasis on the act of listening locates our difficulty precisely. Bell ringing and other sounds, as historical artifacts, remained extremely ephemeral at least until the advent of recording technologies. Not only did they disappear within seconds of their production, but their meanings often vanished with them. Moreover, our own cultural situation is marked by a burgeoning variety of sounds that vie for our attention and perhaps more so by the relatively new ascendancy of mass-produced print media. It is difficult to comprehend from such a vantage point the degree to which people have, in ages past and in many parts of the world even today, depended on distinct aural signs to decipher the meaning of their lives.[9]

Thus cultural upheavals sponsored by aggressive, and sometimes even moderate, modernizing regimes must have had important, if neglected, auditory aspects. This essay aims to reveal more about the auditory components of the Russian Velikii Perelom. It first explains what church bells and their aural signs meant for Russian villagers and the activists who brought the Bolshevik Revolution to the countryside. Namely, this centers on the regime’s attempt to establish its own authority over and against that of a traditional way of life sustained by religion in general and church bells in particular. Next, it examines how the significance of bells typically played out in moments of conflict between villagers and Bolshevik agents. It then explores how the regime responded to traditional auditory culture and to the physical artifact of the bell itself. Finally, it offers an evaluation of the bell’s overall importance in rural politics during the Perelom.

Until the Bolshevik Revolution nearly succeeded at consigning bells and bell ringing to oblivion, they constituted a uniquely shared patrimony and experience for Russian villages. Bells served as the authoritative voice of the village’s Old Way of Life because of their sacrality and their functional monopoly over sounds heard by everyone in the village. They thereby contributed to and reinforced social cohesion and identity. More specifically, their authority grew out of a complex matrix of three interrelated elements of village life: its liturgy, its defense, and its system of symbolic representation.[10] It is important to note that none of these elements can be reduced to either a spiritual or a mundane dimension. Instead, they effectively demonstrate that the sacred-secular dichotomy remained largely irrelevant to rural Russians. Indeed, from the Bolshevik point of view, the Old Way of Life’s “confusion” of sacred and secular lay at the very heart of what needed to change during the Perelom.[11]

For Russian villagers, bells were, most obviously, instruments of religious power and authority. During the ceremony by which a Russian church bell is consecrated, for example, a bishop or priest sprinkles the instrument with holy water and recites several relevant Psalms. He then reads from the Old Testament book of Numbers:

The LORD said to Moses: “Make two trumpets of hammered silver, and use them for calling the community together … When you go into battle in your own land against an enemy who is oppressing you, sound a blast on the trumpets. Then you will be remembered by the LORD your God and rescued from your enemies. Also at your times of rejoicing—your appointed feasts and New Moon festivals—you are to sound the trumpets over your burnt offerings and fellowship offerings, and they will be a memorial for you before your God. I am the LORD your God.”[12]

This passage, in the context of a bell’s liturgical consecration, implies a direct analogy between biblical trumpet and church bell. It thereby yields several insights into the instrument’s sacred functions.

The text assigns the bell the unique task of aurally marking the community’s worship and movement through liturgical time—the auditory complement to the church’s visual focus of prayer. Bells regularly called the far-flung faithful together for communal prayer at the church, thereby exercising authority even over parishioners’ physical movements.[13] Those unable to obey the summons could, nonetheless, participate from afar in their community’s worship since the bells effectively extended the walls of the church as far as their peals could be heard.[14] For those actually present at the church, bells uniquely expressed and embellished their corporate worship. Over a lifetime of liturgies and processions, intimate associations would form between villagers’ individual spiritual lives, the life of their community, and the cherished tones of their church bells.[15] These tones were no mere background music, however. They gave shape and rhythm to the village’s experience of time. In addition to announcing the weekly services, bells marked the annual cycle of liturgical seasons and signaled life’s most important watersheds through subtle variations in their chiming patterns.[16]

Yet, before entrusting it with the task of marking the community’s liturgy, the passage from the book of Numbers designates the bell as a sign and means of divine protection. While bells called the community to worship, they also called it to battle against an invading enemy, and promised that God himself would fight and prevail.[17] A plethora of enemies threatened the spiritual and physical well-being of Russian villagers, and bells afforded some form of defense against most of them. Although church authorities often discouraged such beliefs, for centuries pious Christians held the peals of bells to be capable—through sheer physical power as well as inherent thaumaturgical properties—of cleansing the air of demons, pestilence, and storms.[18]

In addition, earthbound emergencies like fire, flood, or an impending military attack required an efficient means of communicating alarm within a village.[19] In these moments, a bell’s logically prior authority to convoke sacred assemblies allowed it to serve the more utilitarian end of organizing a community’s defense, which returns us to the original, historical meaning of the consecration text from Numbers. Before assigning the trumpet its liturgical tasks, God instructs Moses to use it to muster Israel’s defenses against invaders.[20] As we shall see, church bells dramatically continued to fulfill this function for Russian villagers as they faced invaders bent on destroying their traditional identity and way of life during the Perelom.

The Numbers passage also implies that the sacred instrument proclaims the word and will of God. Drawing on the many biblical images of trumpets as heralds of past, present, and future salvation, Russian Orthodoxy has uniquely endowed bells with prophetic power.[21] According to a theory adumbrated as early as the fourth century by the Eastern Church Father St. John Chrysostom, bells unite the church on earth with the host of heaven in prayer that transcends time and place.[22] In other words, bells bring eschatological reality to bear on the present moment. “In Russia our motherland,” wrote a nineteenth-century cleric named Leonid, bell ringing

has its own significance and deep meaning, even an acoustical one between our time and the more distant—the past and future … the clamor and harmonious ringing of bells is a proclamation of the Gospel, its exultation to the ends of the universe, and reminds us of the angel’s trumpet on the final day.[23]

Notice his emphasis on the ability of the peals to suffuse both time and space with the Gospel. By evoking the angel’s apocalyptic proclamation, this cleric suggested that bell ringing might even be construed as the voice of God himself.[24]

All these religious ascriptions enabled the bell to define and even embody the village in ways that few other objects could. Bells delineated the territorial boundaries of a community through sounds that radiated outward from the church. Hearing them meant that you belonged to the community. Not hearing them precluded you from easily knowing about, much less participating in, communal life. Moreover, apropos of their place in worship and prayer, bells produced the voice of the community as a whole even while they constituted the voice of God.[25]

Even before it aurally sacralized territory or solemnized worship, however, a bell uniquely represented the community it would eventually serve. Villages sometimes, for example, acquired bells in order to commemorate decisive events in their history.[26] They might memorialize these events by inscribing relevant images and texts on the bell during its casting. The casting itself, a process as solemn and prayerful as the subsequent consecration rite, also symbolized the community.[27] In the days before industrial production, bells were traditionally cast on site by itinerant artisans. The entire village normally participated in this momentous event by showing the bell founder great hospitality and furnishing him with labor and supplies. Metal, the most important ingredient, of course, came from the villagers themselves in the form of old pots, mugs, and other scraps. Melting these contributions together made the bell a tangible, if mysterious, embodiment of the village.[28]

This symbolism was so potent in Russia that the bell eventually served “at large” as a peculiar bearer of Russian national identity long before the Bolshevik Revolution produced alternative symbols for this purpose.[29] Indeed, while many of the functions and symbolic meanings of bells discussed above are not unique to Russia, devotion to bells has been more pronounced there than in other societies— including those where Orthodox Christianity predominates—making it “the most bell-studded country in Christendom.”[30] Indeed, Russian congregations were rarely satisfied with only one or two bells. The relative importance of these instruments in Russian church culture is also indicated by the fact that they tended to be larger and their ringing louder and much more elaborate than in the West. In contrast to Protestant and Roman Catholic houses of worship, aside from the human voice, no other instrument could be heard in Russian churches.[31] Moreover, the distinctive Russian style of chiming (zvon) that developed in this context—variously described as “hypnotic” and “cacophonous”—unlike other ecclesial art forms, belonged to ordinary Russian believers as their own creation.[32]

Ringing church bells certainly served as “aural icons” or “bronze voices” of the Old Way of Life that Bolshevik activists sought to destroy during the Velikii Perelom.[33] Religious believer and Bolshevik activist alike understood bells to be a linchpin in the cultural sensibilities that the regime wanted desperately to reconfigure. It should not surprise us, then, that the instruments became hotly contested objects in the Russian village of the 1920s and 1930s. Indeed, the exceptional degree of reverence that ordinary Russians had for their bells goes far toward explaining why the Bolshevik campaign against them displayed an equally exceptional degree of intensity and zeal.[34]

For their part, Bolshevik activists felt deep resentment at the continued ringing of church bells in their midst. When the bells chimed, activists often heard this as an affront and taunt, as an article appearing in the Central Black Earth Region’s newspaper, Voronezhskaia Kommuna, in April 1929, illustrates. In the town of Belgorod, a large crowd gathered on April 6 for the consecration and inaugural ringing of a huge new church bell. Local believers had taken up a collection among themselves in order to purchase the bell for 3,500 rubles—a shockingly large sum to Bolshevik minds. The whole episode, the newspaper’s correspondent averred, proved that when local atheists remained badly organized, the “churchmen [became] insolent.”[35] At a conference on collectivization held in January 1930, one rural activist complained that he was not only extremely frustrated at the lack of class consciousness among “poor” and “middle” peasants but also resented having to suffer the “intolerable” indignity of church bells ringing in his ears even as he conducted his work. The activist subsequently bemoaned the fact that collectivization existed more as a paper fiction than as an established reality in the village.[36] In this, he echoed the Voronezhskaia Kommuna article above by suggesting that the bell produced a ringing, taunting reminder that the regime was failing to achieve its vaunted social goals in stark contrast to the local parish community’s continued existence and, sometimes, even vitality.[37]

Perhaps more than the presence in the village of the church building itself, whose symbolic threat was inherently limited by its solidity and localization, the bell infuriated Bolsheviks because they could neither avoid its chiming taunts nor be sure of the extent to which these insidious sounds actually influenced villagers’ secret thoughts and public habits. Indeed, Bolshevik complaints betray the degree to which the bell’s active authority continued to intrude into village life in tangible ways. Voronezhskaia Kommuna and other newspapers regularly published vague cries of protest that bell ringing “interfered with the work of Soviet institutions.”[38] In some instances, these institutions may have been so physically proximate to the peals that they truly were subject to the bells “power to deafen.”[39]

Most of the time, however, the issue was not so much the ostensible noise as it was the fact that bells gave temporal structure to the very liturgical seasons and holidays that the regime labored so creatively to efface and supplant.[40] Petr Karlovich Zarin, the head of the Central Black Earth Region’s League of the Militant Godless, for instance, lashed out in 1929 at the “unbridled bell ringing” that would accompany the celebration of Easter, a time in the liturgical calendar notable for extravagant peals. Antireligious activists, Zarin insisted, must do everything possible to bring this intolerable chiming to an end.[41] A central issue in the struggle over the calendar was the efficiency or rationalization of labor. Bolshevik rhetoric about religious holidays usually centered on their waste of valuable labor time—witness, for example, the campaign to remove Sundays and feast days from the calendar by switching from a seven to a five-day “uninterrupted workweek.”[42] Bolshevik activists detested bell ringing because it encouraged villagers to organize their work and leisure around a resounding proclamation of Christian liturgical time, rather than the regime’s own calendrical schemas and conceptions of time.[43]

The fact that the bell reinforced traditional, religious identity and practice over and against Bolshevik identity and practice clearly required a response from the regime. Accordingly, for example, a resolution passed on December 15, 1929 by the All-union Central Executive Committee (VTsIK) explicitly gave local authorities the power to control bell ringing. The resolution cited the struggle over the authoritative marking of time as the main motivation behind the policy:

In connection with the new distribution of labor processes within the framework of the uninterrupted work week (which raises anew the question of bell ringing for religious purposes), give the power to regulate bell ringing (in performance of religious services) to city soviets and district executive committees.[44]

This decree furnished official authority for what, in fact, had been taking place sporadically since the Revolution of 1917 and more regularly since 1928, when local activists began agitating for an all-out campaign against church bells through petition drives, resolutions, and the kinds of public complaints mentioned above.[45]

Such “grass-roots” efforts to silence, and eventually to confiscate, church bells were coordinated by several agencies in a wide variety of contexts. As the primary organization officially charged with the antireligious struggle in the prewar period, the League of the Militant Godless was not above serving as chief “rabble-rouser” in these efforts.[46] Nevertheless, as we shall see, other Bolshevik institutions eagerly took up the cause. Even school children were pressed to join the chorus of voices demanding the silence of the counterrevolutionary instruments.[47] Images of confiscated and broken church bells surrounded by smiling, triumphant citizens became standard illustrations for antireligious propaganda.[48] In still other cases, local Bolshevik authorities simply ordered a halt to the bell ringing, even in legally functioning churches. The Podgorenskii district executive committee chairman did exactly that in the days leading up to Easter of 1929. Later, though, his superiors frankly called the move a “blunder” since, having deprived villagers of their precious bell ringing on this most solemn holiday, it succeeded in triggering an Easter day riot of some 200 people in the village of Saprino.[49]

As the reference to rioting suggests, Bolsheviks had good reason to be anxious over the threat to their authority posed by church bells. While the conflict between villagers and the regime’s rural activists over collectivization became increasingly violent, activists learned that the bell was more than a reminder of the village’s older religious sensibilities or even a mechanism for perpetuating religious belief and practice. It also served villagers as a powerful political weapon against the full range of Bolshevik policies. This explains the dire warnings from the League of the Militant Godless about Easter celebrations in 1929. Taking aim at the traditional, communal expression of joy at Easter and mixing aural with visual metaphors, the League’s central council evoked an image that surely struck fear into the hearts of rural Bolshevik activists: “Behind the exultant chiming of Easter bells hides the cunning face (khitroe litso) of the enemy.”[50] Unlike other propaganda images of the enemy, this one was not entirely a figment of paranoid Bolshevik imaginations. Neverthe less, visual representations of the counterrevolutionary significance of bells tended to be embellished with exaggerated details like the use of firearms, which, on the contrary, were more a hallmark of Bolshevik rule than of peasant resistance.

Indeed, “cunning” would be a good word to describe villagers’ ingenious use of bells to convoke assemblies that directly competed with the regime’s own organizational efforts. An episode in a village in the Moscow hinterlands on December 22, 1929 clearly illustrates how the dynamic relationship between the sacred and secular enabled villagers to challenge Bolshevik political legitimacy.[51] The village soviet (sel’skii sovet) had planned for the kind of meeting that was fast becoming a ritual across the country, during which villagers would ostensibly “discuss collectivization.”[52] Despite, or rather because of, the soviet’s plans, the local parish council (tserkovnyi sovet) planned its own meeting to coincide with that of the collectivizers. Just as the collectivization meeting was to begin, bell ringing summoned parishioners to the church. Some 300 villagers obeyed the call, thereby significantly reducing the collectivizers’ intended audience. Although the archival record does not include much information about what exactly occurred at the church, the meeting there clearly included the very discussion of collectivization that the Bolsheviks had advertised as their own agenda. We can infer this from the fact that villagers returned en masse from the church assembly to the village soviet headquarters shouting their refusal to join “your collective farm.”

By itself, the mere occurrence of this rival meeting, which the reporting activist pointedly objected was “without permission,” undercut the authority of local Bolshevik agents. The regime’s activists could hardly muster an assembly of peasants, let alone sign them up for a collective farm. Adding insult to injury, the church council even challenged official authority by mimicking the regime’s own political language. To be sure, the institution of the parish council (tserkovnyi sovet) significantly predates the revolutionary appropriation of the previously neutral term council/soviet (sovet).[53] Nevertheless, because the Bolsheviks had given the term such a strong political coloring by the time of the Perelom, its usage by villagers in an ecclesiastical context must have implied an ironic correspondence with and direct challenge to Soviet authority (Sovetskaia vlast’) in general and the Bolshevik-dominated village soviet (sel’skii sovet) in particular.[54] In any case, as we have seen in this instance, such political competition was often made possible by the ingenious mechanism of bell ringing.

Episodes in the villages of Uryv and Goldaevka in Ostrogozhskii district manifested a different interplay between the sacred and secular aspects of the bell’s place in village politics. Although villagers in the district had already faced determined efforts on the part of the regime to take their grain and enlist them into a newly formed collective farm, it was not until Bolshevik officials attempted to close down the parish church and confiscate its bells that villagers responded swiftly and dramatically. Until then, they had avoided a direct confrontation over the regime’s activities, which included the investigation and arrest of those caught “hoarding” their own grain or slaughtering their own livestock. In early 1930, however, Bolshevik activists triggered an episode of violence whose basic features were repeated throughout the Russian countryside during the Perelom.[55] At the end of January, charged with closing the Church of the Dormition and removing its bells, a brigade of activists made a surprise visit to Uryv. A small group of mostly women at the church confronted the brigade. At first they beseeched the activists to spare the church and its bells. Then, after having failed at argumentation, the women resorted to ringing the bells as a summons for the whole community. In doing so, they managed to convert a limited skirmish between the brigade and a few religious believers into a full-scale battle involving the entire village.[56]

The narrative of events includes important details that bring into greater focus the complex role of bells within village power struggles. First, the women protesters in Uryv were not technically in a position to produce on their own the peals that called the community together. This responsibility and skill lay with Kirill Markovich, the parish bell ringer (zvonar’). Naturally, parishioners’ high esteem for the art of bell ringing translated into respect for the ringer, who acted as the community’s delegate in fulfilling this sacred task. Indeed, residents of Uryv believed they had an excellent bell ringer in Markovich, with whom they were so familiar that they affectionately dubbed him “Kireem-Mareem”—a clever onomatopoeic play on his name that reflected his reputation as a jokester.[57] The fact that he pulled the ropes that sent the bells’ authoritative voice resounding throughout the village lent him a certain degree of authority. As the man behind the voice calling villagers to sacred assemblies, marking the community’s movement through liturgical time, and alerting the village to communal emergencies, Markovich was naturally implicated in its sacred power.[58]

Besides the sacrality of his office, a bell ringer’s style of ringing also carried authority as it helped define the community’s identity. Bell ringing tended to be a complex and idiosyncratic system of local communication. As a result, it defined the community’s identity not only because it sacralized the community’s territory but also because the “subtle auditory rhetoric” of the chiming varied from one locale to another.[59] The fact that each bell ringer developed his own dialect meant that, not only would one have to hear his ringing to be a member of the community, one would have to be able to decipher it. Hence, when the women parishioners prompted Markovich to ring the bells against the Bolshevik activists, he alternated among peals that only his fellow villagers would recognize as mournful, warning, and celebratory.[60] The fact that church bells furnished an auditory reinforcement of the insider-outsider distinction explains further why Bolsheviks had such strong antipathy for them. Since Bolshevik activists in any given village tended to come from the cities or other regions, they must have been frustrated, to say the least, by their inability to understand aural signals to communities that they themselves claimed to lead.

Along with the issue of dialect, a bell ringer’s particular style of ringing was paramount during emergencies. Although he may have had aesthetic or artistic pretenses, a bell ringer had to be sure that there would be no confusion in his communication, especially when lives or property might be at stake during an emergency. At first glance, it would seem that Markovich, by mixing his peals during the confrontation at the church, acted outside this generalization. However, the residents of the village responded precisely as he had hoped they would because they interpreted his extraordinary ringing as the signal for an extraordinary event. Although villagers knew their bell ringer to be a jokester, they nevertheless could not risk dismissing his very strange alarm as mischief. Villagers not already at the church soon streamed to the site of conflict, increasing both the size and indignation of the crowd there.[61] Their response illustrates that the particular, local sound of church bells played a critical role in reinforcing communal identity and that the bell ringer occupied a place of great, if underestimated, importance in village uprisings.

The happenings in Uryv, especially the diminished echoes of Markovich’s bell ringing, soon roused several women in the nearby village of Goldaevka, where controversy also erupted over control of the bell. There, however, the struggle centered, as it did in many other villages, on who controlled the keys to the locked doors of the church.[62] Unlike Uryv’s bell ringer, who gladly obliged the parishioners’ request, Goldaevka’s sacristan flatly refused to hand over his keys. The women were not about to be deterred by this recalcitrant sacristan, however. They simply voted him out of office on the spot and appointed a more pliant replacement, who then obediently opened the church’s doors. As a result, the peals of Goldaevka’s bells soon joined those of Uryv in marking the political emergency. The sacristan’s ouster in Goldaevka illustrates quite well the fluid nature of authority and power in villages during these decisive moments of conflict.[63] Indeed, such clashes typically afforded village women unique opportunities to assert themselves politically—oftentimes with the men following their lead or, as was the case in Goldaevka, being prodded into action by the women.[64]

The role of bells during crises did not always depend so directly on their religious functions. Their authority in these volatile moments also stemmed from the psychological or emotional dynamics of the village. As noted earlier bell ringing afforded a community an efficient means of warning members of various threats to life and property.[65] The authoritative quality of the information that bells conveyed in these situations sharply contrasted with that of rumors—another mode of communication basic to peasant society. In a “universe of information dominated by the flexibility of rumor, the bell conferred the density of truth on events.”[66] In no other emergency was the “density of truth” impressed upon villagers with such spectacular results as when bells called villagers into violent, sometimes brutal, uprisings against the regime. Hence, rumors of Bolshevik plotting might seethe beneath the surface of village discourse until being authenticated by the sound of the tocsin. In contrast to rumors, bells had superior authority within a village because of their immediate ability to focus a whole complex of emotions—ranging from joy to horror and panic—during an unfolding crisis.[67] What seemed to be Markovich’s emotionally confused signals in Uryv actually contributed to the assembled crowd’s subsequent volatility. The auditory signal for such insurrections produced a nearly instant sense of solidarity by converting the inherently isolated and private emotions swirling around rumors into community-wide phenomena. By synthesizing aggregate emotions, the tocsin produced assemblies of action bent on settling conflicts over power and authority.

In the end, such challenges to Bolshevik authority, bold as they were, sooner or later resolved in the regime’s favor—typically through military force. In the case of Uryv, although the rebellion there lasted two days despite the frantic influx of party and Soviet officials to the area, the Red Army eventually forced the village into submission. Some thirty-nine families, including even a few Red Army veterans from the revolution and civil war years, received crippling fines or deportation to the country’s hinterlands as part of the subsequent dekulakization—a decisive blow to the community that made further resistance to the Bolsheviks unimaginable.[68] Yet, while such displays of Bolshevik coercive power established the party’s sway over the rural population, they also signaled the failure of Bolshevik authority to win the allegiance of the countryside by other means. The recourse to military force also cruelly belied the much celebrated union (smychka) of urban and rural populations supposedly ushered in by the Bolsheviks in 1917.

Certainly, the violent suppression of rural rebellions like the one in Uryv was not the only method available to the regime in its attack on the village’s traditional culture. We should remember that the Bolsheviks did not seek after and exercise authority for its own sake but for particular ideological ends.[69] Ultimately, village bells represented a challenge to Bolshevik authority not simply because they taunted activists as blatant manifestations of the Old Way of Life, or even because their authoritative weight could be used against the regime. The regime’s own transformative ideology required the removal of the bell from the village’s auditory landscape. Bolshevik ideology motivated two distinct modes of attack, both of which followed historical precedents. First, like their French revolutionary forebears, Bolshevik activists attempted to “alter the prevailing pattern of the culture of the senses” by desacralizing the authoritative sounds of bells and sacralizing a variety of substitutes.[70] Second, following the long-established pattern of converting bell metal to other uses in times of national crisis, Bolsheviks coveted not only the mystique of the bell’s aural authority, but also its constituent substance—its metal—for their dream of an industrialized society.[71] In both modes of attack, the regime built on the historical precedents with a unique degree of passion and diligence.[72]

In a little-explored ideological aspect of the struggle over church bells, Bolsheviks tried to supplant the illegitimate “noise” of these ancient instruments with modern sounds more in tune with their own hopes and sensibilities. While villagers cherished and obeyed the sound of their bells, the regime busied itself with the production of alternatives. In part, this meant that Bolsheviks aggressively pit a new visual culture against the old auditory one. Bell ringing, as we have seen, tended to be an inherently local and idiosyncratic affair. In contrast, Bolshevik activists emphasized printed sources of authority on the assumption that written communication was more rational, universal, and controllable than traditional, aural communication. This places Bolshevik policies well within a more general trend witnessed across Europe since the invention of the printing press, as social authority became more and more associated with printed texts and images.[73] Hence, for example, the Bolshevik campaign to “liquidate illiteracy” among the peasantry should be viewed at least in part as an attempt by the regime to establish its own signs of authority and methods of control in a society it hoped to transform radically in a modern key.[74]

Besides the visual signs of Bolshevik authority, activists also promoted a new auditory culture that inevitably drowned out the sensory primacy and sacrality of bell ringing. Since bells aurally contributed to and symbolized a communal identity and way of life outside the conceptions of the regime, activists sought new sounds that would do the same for the new Soviet identity and way of life. René Fülöp-Miller highlights, for example, Bolshevik efforts to produce music that embraced “all the noises of the mechanical age, the rhythm of the machine, the din of the great city and the factory, the whirring of driving belts, the clattering of motors, and the shrill notes of motor-horns.”[75] This industrial aesthetic produced such notable failures as “noise orchestras” played on common machinery and “factory whistle symphonies.” The factory whistle, in particular, constituted an attractive replacement for traditional bell ringing. It offered a fitting means to mark the new industrial schemas of time, work, and leisure, thereby challenging the auditory mechanism that had given communal life its temporal shape for centuries.[76] In imitation of its ancient rival, the steam whistle penetrated the surrounding territory with a deafening roar, reminding listeners that the factory had now supplanted the church as the locus of communal identity and worship.[77]

Even more important than this aesthetic of industrial noise was the new authoritative sound brought to the Russian ear by electric loudspeakers and radios. As with factory whistles, loudspeakers—first mass-produced and put to extensive use at the start of the Perelom—had the potential to rival the bells’ own “power to deafen.”[78] While loudspeakers could summon people to public assemblies, they also afforded a more precise regulation of communication since they barraged listeners with constant, detailed propaganda. In this capacity, radio had even greater potential as an auditory source of Bolshevik authority. This is especially evident in the uniquely Soviet development of the cable or “wired” radio with tuning fixed to one or two official broadcasts and a switch to control only the volume.[79] While the radio certainly offered an effective technique of control, “radiofication” (radiofikatsiia) also served powerful symbolic ends as a technological wonder rivaling any miracle attributed to religious sources.[80] On the eve of the Perelom, a magazine titled “Radio in the Village” (Radio v derevne) proclaimed hopefully, if perhaps prematurely, that “radio has firmly entered the way of life [byt] of the new village. They have grown used to radio, [and] the radio broadcast is used productively; they talk about radio with enthusiasm.”[81] For its part, the League of the Militant Godless recognized radio to be a “tribune with an audience of millions” and a great “agitational-propaganda power.” As such, the League vigorously promoted it as one of the most effective technological weapons available in the struggle against religion.[82] Newspapers thus repeatedly demanded that “religion and vodka”—to Bolshevik minds, the two were inseparably linked—be replaced by “cinema and radio.”[83]

Indeed, cinema effectively combined visual and aural communication for a mass audience and thus constituted one of the most powerful new means of establishing Bolshevik authority. Dziga Vertov, for example, having long produced silent documentary newsreels for the regime’s roaming agitational-propaganda trains, enthusiastically and brilliantly utilized sound as part of his medium and message in the early 1930s. Vertov’s Entuziazm (Ukrainfilm, 1930)—one of the first full-length Soviet documentary films—deftly weaves antireligious themes into a grandiose tribute to “socialist construction,” thereby instantiating nearly all of the phenomena discussed above.[84]Entuziazm showcases Vertov’s famous skill at the art of montage, juxtaposing, for example, close-up shots of a bright young woman listening to a radio broadcast with scenes of alcoholic destitution and religious worship. In this context, listening to a radio is portrayed as a veritable sacrament of the new socialist order.[85] The film also prominently features the plundering of a church, which it contrasts with the establishment of movie theaters and socialist culture clubs. Entuziazm is most notable, however, for being among the first productions to take full advantage of the new technique of recording sound on film. In it, Vertov experimented with the same quasi-musical arrangements of industrial noise mentioned above. He also masterfully juxtaposed the sounds of religious worship with their Bolshevik counterparts—pitting bell ringing, liturgical singing, and priestly prayers against factory whistles, symphony orchestras, and political speeches.

The Bolshevik assault on village culture necessarily involved more than challenging the auditory authority of bells, however. All the previously mentioned tactics— the countless public arguments made in speeches and newsprint, the legal suppression of ringing, and the production of competing sounds—achieved only a limited desacralization of the bells. Because they were, in themselves, such potent physical symbols, activists ultimately had to dislodge the bells from their lofty places in church towers and recast them within Bolshevik molds. During the Perelom, no other end loomed as large on the Bolshevik horizon as did industrialization. The First Five-Year Plan, then, provided a clear and urgent rationale for finally removing church bells and reconsecrating them to the regime’s own ends. Indeed, by November 1929, even central authorities were calling for the systematic requisitioning of the sacred instruments “for the needs of industrialization.”[86] Petr Zarin echoed these demands in his attack on Easter bell ringing in 1930. Although at first he advocated merely silencing them, he eventually arrived at the coup de grâce: “where the ground has been laid, [activists must] propose the removal of the bells for industrialization.”[87]

In the heady days of the Perelom, achieving the Five-Year Plan’s industrial goals called forth the kind of mass devotion to a cause rarely seen outside of wars or religious crusades. The regime fostered a cult of the machine, which had as its rural expression a hope-filled investment in tractor production as a means to drag the village into the mechanical age. Such faith in the transformative power of machines went hand-in-hand with the glorification of the material out of which the machines were built. Hence, Joseph Stalin’s famous vow in 1929 that Russia would at last become a “metallic country” suggests another crucial component of the Bolshevik cultus.[88] A pamphleteer for Magnitogorsk, the country’s preeminent new city of metal, earnestly sermonized in 1932 that

Metal is not produced for its own usage … Metal draws all industry along with it, all spheres of human life, beginning with the production of turbines, … and ending with books. Metal is the basis of modern civilization.[89]

Yet the evocation of the “metallic country” represented more than a simple exhortation toward increased industrial production. It also also served as an apt metaphor for the mythic “New Soviet Man”—modern, socialist, strong, and malleable under the guidance of the Bolshevik Party. As Gerasimov’s “Canticle of Iron” suggests, this New Man was to be cast in the blast furnaces and mills of Soviet industry.[90] Metal thus became an essential ingredient or sacred substance from which the most solemn Bolshevik dreams for society were to be incarnated. Acquiring metal for these dreams had, for many Bolshevik activists, the élan of a holy quest.[91]

The confiscation of bells, then, aimed precisely at these symbolic ends as much as at the pragmatic, economic ends of industrialization.[92] More specifically, besides collecting metal for industrialization, the confiscation campaigns also aimed at symbolically consolidating the new Soviet society. Many of the meetings engineered to demand the bells’ silence also passed resolutions earmarking them as contributions for industrialization.[93] As formulaic and choreographed as they were, these resolutions were themselves highly symbolic acts that ironically expanded and inverted the archaic process by which villagers had once cast their bells. Instead of individual peasants committing themselves to a local village identity, assemblies of people from ideologically significant categories—students, members of the Young Communist League (Komsomol), poor peasants, workers—voted “overwhelmingly” to hand over this inheritance of the Old Way of Life to have it, and by implication their entire society, recast in the mold of the New.[94]

The “Communist alchemy” of converting potent symbols of the old order into scrap metal for the new, was “an irony lost on neither state nor peasant.”[95] With this in mind, it should come as no surprise that the countless bells still hanging in many rural parish towers—even when silent—represented an intolerable affront to hallowed ideological principles. As the caption under one prominent photo of requisitioned church bells in Voronezhskaia Kommuna insisted, “until now these [bells] lay around as dead weight [mertvym gruzom].”[96] Of course, this affront presented an opportunity for Bolshevik activists to set things demonstratively right, which is why the confiscation campaign received such prominent attention within the propaganda media. Confiscation allowed the wasted metal trapped in the bells finally to be put to good and proper use. This transvaluation of bells from “dead weight” into meaningful weight came partly through numerous reports on their tonnage in confiscation. Typical among these, Voronezhskaia Kommuna once gushed that the “Largest bell in the USSR,” which had been requisitioned from the Troitskii-Sergeev monastery, weighed in at an astounding “4,000 poods” or more than seventy tons.[97]

An agency local to the Central Black Earth Region named Rudmetalltorg was one of the many organizations that eagerly took up this task of converting tons of bell metal into a valuable industrial resource. In doing so, it provided important aid to the League of the Militant Godless, the Young Communist League, and the party itself in their assault on the traditional culture and identity of the village.[98] After the promulgation of the twin policies of dekulakization and “wholesale collectivization” in late 1929 and early 1930, Rudmetalltorg rushed in to take advantage of the increasingly militant scene. The agency received official permission in January 1930 from the Borisoglebskii county (okrug) finance department to “survey” ostensibly “broken bells” in nearly two dozen villages of Peskovksii, Muchenskii, Mordovskii, Borisoglebskii, and Tokarevskii districts.[99] Undoubtedly, these bells were “surveyed” to prepare for their eventual confiscation in the name of industrialization. In any case, the agency had been conducting such confiscations, ideally dovetailed with collectivization, since at least the fall of 1929. A Voronezhskaia Kommuna article published on October 30, for example, described how Rudmetalltorg had timed a bell confiscation to coincide with the organization of a collective farm in Mikhailovka district.[100] Despite such high-profile successes, however, the agency was privately appealing to the Godless League for its propaganda expertise since the local populations, as we have seen, fiercely resisted the confiscation campaign. The league needed to “prepare” villagers for the requisitioning by reminding them that, while the bells were “useless (bespoleznye) to the village,” the nation desperately needed them to help alleviate severe shortages in the metal supply.[101]

As noted earlier, the League of the Militant Godless enthusiastically instigated many of the confiscations. Zarin, the League’s regional chairman, estimated the total amount of bell metal requisitioned from October 1929 through January 1930 in the Central Black Earth Region to be 678.5 tons. Totals in the region ranged from 199 tons in Eletskii county to a meager 8 tons in Staryi Oskol. Zarin lamented that these figures lagged far behind original expectations, representing “only 2.3 percent of the total.” Since “several counties have done almost nothing in this regard,” he urgently requested that the authorities extend the period during which bells could be confiscated legally.[102] Zarin’s laments notwithstanding, there are indications that the regime’s confiscation campaign actually went better than expected. Not surprisingly, the dramatic climax of the campaign coincided with the peak of the collectivization drive during the fall and winter of 1929–1930. In those few frenetic months, 1.1 million tons of bell metal had been confiscated nationwide—wildly beyond the original goal of 15,000 tons. Subsequent annual totals, while strong, were mere aftershocks of this earlier catastrophe.[103]

As it had on so many other “fronts” of the Bolshevik rural assault, the publication of Stalin’s article “Dizzy with Success” on March 2, 1930 temporarily cooled the confiscation campaign.[104] It also spurred an official reprimand of Rudmetalltorg’s leadership by the Central Black Earth Region Party Committee. The latter cited the campaign’s ostensible “illegality” and the “harm” (vrednost’) it had brought to the cause of socialism—namely by stirring up the kinds of revolts already discussed here.[105] Temporarily suspending the assault on the village after “Dizzy with Success,” however, had the unintended effect of emboldening villagers to go on a broad counteroffensive against the regime and its policies—the last moments of widespread, mass resistance to the Bolshevik regime until its demise in the early 1990s.[106]

The number, size, and intensity of what Bolsheviks themselves called “mass uprisings” (massovye vystupleniia) grew rapidly during the first few years of the Perelom and reached their peak in the spring of 1930. Official statistics, for example, show a twenty-fold increase in the number of uprisings from 1928 through 1930.[107] During the brief pause in the rural assault after “Dizzy with Success,” these uprisings put the rejection of Bolshevik policies on spectacular display. Local authorities in the village of Bol’shie Ial’chiki, for example, had already locked up the church and its bells during wholesale collectivization and dekulakization in the winter of 1929–1930. On March 23, 1930, however, someone broke into the tower and rang the bells anyway, signaling the moment for the community to revolt. Two to three hundred villagers answered the summons, demanding the return of church property, the immediate dissolution of the collective farm, the reopening of valuable communal woodlands, the freeing of those arrested as kulaks, and the return of their confiscated property.[108] A part of the crowd even broke away to evict forcibly those who occupied dekulakized property. Another group surrounded and menaced various leaders of the collective farm, Young Communist League, and soviet with sticks and clubs, specifically threatening to beat up the latter’s chairman. These officials, armed with their own weapons, managed to hold off the mob for about four hours until it dispersed. Villagers, however, vowed that they would soon resume the confrontation. Having been thwarted by firearms three days earlier, an even larger crowd gathered on March 26, surrounded a young militiaman, and demanded his revolver. Deploying yet another signal from the Bolshevik repertoire of authoritative sounds, the militiaman fired his revolver into the air, bringing several officials from the village soviet to the scene. Villagers then confronted these officials with shouts of “Down with Soviet authority (Sovvlast’)! We don’t need collective farms! Open the churches! Return the dekulakized!”[109]

Shouts like these (and worse) typically mixed with the peals of church bells to form an especially loud and noisy threat to Bolshevik authority. Lynne Viola astutely observes that “noise protests … served to confuse, disorient, and vocally disarm Soviet power, preventing it from exercising its voice of authority.” She also points out that women took the initiative—as they did in many other instances of anti-Bolshevik activity—producing “noise” that played on and reinforced the gender prejudices of Bolshevik activists, who habitually heard women’s demands as “irrational cacophony.”[110] Hence the successful political effects of this “noise” largely depended on Bolsheviks hearing it as the frightening hysteria of a mob. Nevertheless, we must not lose sight of the fact that, amid the screams, curses, and chiming bells, one could hear reasoned challenges to Bolshevik policies.[111]

Although the regime’s activists usually claimed that such uprisings had been planned and executed by kulaks, the class character of these events was far less straightforward than that. By silencing and removing church bells, Bolshevik activists understood and loudly proclaimed that they were despoiling villagers’ “symbolic capital.”[112] Of course, the latter did not need Bolshevik proclamations to realize that their community’s way of life—its traditional practices and identity—was at stake in these confiscations. Bells had been essential to the texture of village life for centuries. Villagers naturally, then, viewed their silence and confiscation as a direct assault on their community’s very existence.[113]

For their part, nearly everything that Bolshevik activists set out to accomplish only convinced villagers of the holistic nature of the regime’s various policies. As one famous adage put it, “The struggle against religion is the struggle for socialism.” The same meetings where villagers further were alternately cajoled and threatened into collectivizing their property were usually the same meetings where they were pushed to “donate” their bells or close their churches.[114] Moreover, resistance to such antireligious activity, as we have seen, typically served the Bolsheviks as the pretext for purging the village of “kulak elements.” Yet the rebellion in Bol’shie Ial’chiki, like thousands of others, stemmed not from kulak economic self-interest, but from threats to the place of church bells in village life. The regime’s antireligious assault then triggered a flood of challenges to the whole gamut of Bolshevik policies. Defending the church and its bells, it turns out, was integral to defending the village against the entire Bolshevik project.[115]

In other words, as has been true wherever and whenever radically modernizing regimes attacked traditional cultures like that of Russia’s rural population, the sacred and the secular were not easily separable in the ensuing conflict.[116] Thus, while the official statistics on the number and size of rural uprisings provide some notion as to the scale of peasant rebellion, they also present us with certain analytical difficulties. Out of the total of 13,754 disturbances reported throughout the country in 1930, for example, 54 percent were officially attributed to collectivization, 17 percent to dekulakization, and only 11 percent to church closings and bell confiscations.[117] As we have seen, however, such statistical categories clearly belie the complexity of the rural struggle for power and authority during the Velikii Perelom. Although the bell played an important role in all the episodes discussed in this essay, we cannot know for certain how they were reported in the official statistics. Was the main object of contention in these episodes really the bell itself? Not exactly, since its silence or confiscation often simply served as the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. The complexity of these episodes suggests, however, that church bells were probably central to a wider number of disturbances than these statistics allow and thus were also more important to the village’s culture of authority than the statistics imply. Here too, Bolshevik prejudices were likely at work, undercutting the significance of these troublesome heralds of the Old Way of Life.



The American Council of Teachers of Russian was the primary underwriter of this research. I especially thank Karen Bradbury of ACTR for providing excellent logistical support while I was in Russia. I am also grateful for the funding I received at various times during this project through Stanford University, including grants from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Center for Russian and East European Studies, as well as the President’s Research Opportunity, Mazour, and Weter Funds. I also wish to thank Terence Emmons, Amir Weiner, Brad Gregory, James Sheehan, Glennys Young, Daniel Orlovsky, the late Reginald Zelnik, the Berkeley-Stanford Russian and East European Dissertation Workshop, René Girard and other members of the Stanford Colloquium on Violence and the Sacred, John Burnett at Blagovest Russian Church Bells (, and the anonymous readers and editors of the AHR. Their encouraging and helpful suggestions greatly improved the quality of this essay.



Richard L. Hernandez completed his PhD at Stanford University in September 2002. His dissertation explores the essential religious contours of rural politics and society in Russia during the First Five-Year Plan. Hernandez is the author of “The Confessions of Semen Kanatchikov: A Bolshevik Memoir as Spiritual Autobiography,” Russian Review 60 (January 2001). He is currently revising his dissertation for publication.


1 All biblical quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Colorado Springs, 1984).
2 “V zheleze est’ zovy / Zveniashche-grozovy, / Dvizhen’e chugunnoe mass; / Pod zvony metalla / Vzburlilo, vosstalo, / Zaiskrilos’ v omutakh glaz.” From Mikhail Gerasimov, “Pesn’ o zheleze” in Proletarskie poety pervykh let sovetskoi epokhi, Z. S. Papernyi, ed. (Leningrad, 1959), 188. I thank Terence Emmons and Richard Schupbach for help in translating this poem. All translations in this essay are my own except where noted otherwise.
3 The Central Black Earth Region—arguably the Soviet Union’s most important agricultural center outside of Ukraine—was a relatively large administrative territory created in 1928 out of the former Voronezh, Tambov, Orel, and Kursk provinces in south-central Russia. Unless indicated otherwise, all places mentioned in this esay are located in the Central Black Earth Region.
4 Tsentr dokumentatsii noveishei istorii Voronezhskoi Oblasti [Center for the Documentation of the Contemporary History of the Voronezh Region] (hereafterTsDNIVO), fond 2, opis’ 1, delo 1075, list 1.
5 On the religious aspects of the French Revolution, see Suzanne Desan, Reclaiming the Sacred: Lay Religion and Popular Politics in Revolutionary France (Ithaca, N.Y., 1990). I found the following works revealing about religious conflicts under later modernizing regimes. For Germany, see Ian Kershaw, Popular Opinion and Political Dissent in the Third Reich: Bavaria 1933–1945 (Oxford, 1983) and David Blackbourn, Marpingen: Apparitions of the Virgin Mary in Bismarckian Germany (Oxford, 1993). For several works on Spain, see Mary Vincent, Catholicism in the Second Spanish Republic: Religion and Politics in Salamanca, 1930–1936 (Oxford, 1996); José M. Sánchez, The Spanish Civil War as a Religious Tragedy (Notre Dame, Ind., 1987); Bruce Lincoln, “Revolutionary Exhumations in Spain, July 1936,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 27, no. 2 (April 1985): 241–60; Frances Lannon, Privilege, Persecution, and Prophecy: The Catholic Church in Spain, 1875–1975 (Oxford, 1987); William A. Christian, Moving Crucifixes in Modern Spain (Princeton, N.J., 1992); Christian, Visionaries: The Spanish Republic and the Reign of Christ (Berkeley, Calif., 1996); and Julio de la Cueva, “Inventing Catholic Identities in Twentieth-Century Spain: The Virgin Bien-Aparecida, 1904–1910,” Catholic Historical Review 87, no. 4 (October 2001): 624–42. While literature on religio-political conflict in revolutionary Mexico is plentiful, much of it focuses only on the personalities and military aspects of the cristero rebellion. For works that explore the spiritual and symbolic aspects of modernization in Mexico, see Pamela Voekel, Alone before God: The Religious Origins of Modernity in Mexico (Durham, N.C., 2002); Alan M. Kirschner, “A Setback to Tomás Canabal’s Desire to Eliminate the Church in Mexico,” Journal of Church and State 13 (1971): 479–92; Ramón D. Chacón, “Salvador Alvarado and the Roman Catholic Church: Church-State Relations in Revolutionary Yucatán, 1914–1918,” Journal of Church and State 27 (1985): 245–66; Matthew Butler, “Keeping the Faith in Revolutionary Mexico: Clerical and Lay Resistance to Religious Persecution, East Michoacán, 1926–1929,” Americas: A Quarterly Review of Inter-American Cultural History 59, no. 1 (July 2002): 9–32; Adrian A. Bantjes, As If Jesus Walked on Earth: Cardenismo, Sonora, and the Mexican Revolution (Wilmington, Del., 1998); and Bantjes, “Idolatry and Iconoclasm in Revolutionary Mexico: The De-Christianization Campaigns, 1929–1940,” Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos 13, no. 1 (winter 1997): 87–120.
6 These phrases became stock expressions in Bolshevik political jargon during this period. See Lynne Viola, Peasant Rebels under Stalin: Collectivization and the Culture of Peasant Resistance (New York, 1996), 44 and William Husband, Godless Communists: Atheism and Society in Soviet Russia, 1917–1932 (DeKalb, Ill., 2000), 69–70.
7 Scholars who have addressed religious aspects of the Velikii Perelom include Lynne Viola, Gregory Freeze, William Husband, Sheila Fitzpatrick, and Daniel Peris. Glennys Young has written in a similar vein about the years prior to the Perelom, the New Economic Policy period. While all of their studies offer insights into the importance of bells, I hope that the present essay builds upon them sufficiently to be worthwhile. See Viola, Peasant Rebels under Stalin; Gregory Freeze, “The Stalinist Assault on the Parish, 1929–1941,” in Stalinismus vor dem zweiten Weltkrieg: Neue Wege der Forschung, Manfred Hildermeier, ed., (Munich, 1998), 209–32; Husband, Godless Communists; Sheila Fitzpatrick, Stalin’s Peasants: Resistance and Survival in the Russian Village after Collectivization (New York, 1994);Daniel Peris, Storming the Heavens: The Soviet League of the Militant Godless (Ithaca, N.Y., 1998); and Glennys Young, Power and the Sacred in Revolutionary Russia: Religious Activists in the Village (University Park, Penn., 1997). It should be noted that English-language scholarship in Western fields has also given little attention to bells. Indeed, all the works listed above pertaining to modernizing regimes in Germany, Spain, and Mexico rarely mention the instruments. Writing about France, Alain Corbin avers that while “many studies have been devoted to the thousand or so bread riots that occurred in the nineteenth century … disputes over bells have inspired no more than a handful of obscure articles.” Alain Corbin, Village Bells: Sound and Meaning in the Nineteenth-Century French Countryside, Martin Thom, trans. (New York, 1998), xx. Corbin’s own work in this regard is exceptional.
8 Corbin, Village Bells, xix. Ivan Illich eloquently writes of a personal experience along similar lines. See Ivan Illich, “The Loudspeaker on the Tower, 2001,” pp. 1–2, 9, Illich’s essay is available in electronic form from various websites, including See also Edward V. Williams, “Aural Icons of Orthodoxy: The Sonic Typology of Russian Bells,” in Christianity and the Arts in Russia, William C. Brumfield and Milos M. Velimirovich, ed., (Cambridge, 1991), 3. For a similar observation about bells in late medieval Europe, see Johan Huizinga, The Autumn of the Middle Ages, Rodney J. Payton and Ulrich Mammitzsch, trans. (Chicago, 1996), 2.
9 Corbin highlights the several challenges that modern life poses to the old bell culture in Village Bells, 298–308. The work of Walter Ong is helpful here, though it focuses specifically on the sounds of oral speech and the importance of oral tradition in the West until recent times. Ong contends, for example, “Hearing rather than sight had dominated the older noetic world in significant ways, even long after writing was deeply interiorized.” Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (London, 1995), 119. See also Ong, Orality and Literacy, 71–73.
10 The theological and anthropological significance of church bells has been well explicated elsewhere. Nevertheless, a brief summary of what the bells meant, especially to rural Russians, is necessary here as a preliminary to what follows. In this regard, I found Percival Price, Bells and Man (Oxford, 1983); Williams, “Aural Icons of Orthodoxy;” and Edward V. Williams, The Bells of Russia: History and Technology (Princeton, N.J., 1985) to be invaluable. Also helpful were Illich, “The Loudspeaker on the Tower”; Roman Lukianov, “Bells of Russia,” The Bell Tower 57 (1999): 19–24; and James Billington, The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretive History of Russian Culture (1966; New York, 1970).
11 This essay is part of a larger study of religion and rural politics under the Bolsheviks. See Richard L. Hernandez, “Religious Politics and Political Religion: Rhetoric and Symbol in the Russian Village during the ‘Velikii Perelom,’ 1928–1932” (PhD dissertation, Stanford University, 2002).
12 Numbers 10: 1–10. For the Russian Orthodox rite of blessing or consecrating a church bell (chin blagoslovleniia kampana), see The Great Book of Needs: Expanded and Supplemented, trans. from Church Slavonic with notes by St. Tikhon’s Monastery, vol. 2, The Sanctification of the Temple and Other Ecclesiastical and Liturgical Blessings (South Canaan, Penn., 1998), 183–92. This rite has remained substantially unchanged since at least the nineteenth century. See Williams, Bells of Russia, 124–25.
13 See Price, Bells and Man, 80–83; Williams, “Aural Icons,” 5; and Corbin, Village Bells, 119. The Islamic call to prayer essentially mirrors this function. Like the original function of bells in Christian monasteries (see Price, Bells and Man, 116–19), the Muslim call summons the faithful to prayer at several appointed times during the day. Mohammed, in fact, considered several means of calling Muslims to worship—including the primitive bells of Christians. In the end, he decided that only the human voice was worthy of such an exalted task. Christian bell ringing was thenceforth generally suppressed under Islamic rulers as an obvious rival to the muezzin. See Price, Bells and Man, 65, 83; Williams, Bells of Russia, 11; and Illich, “The Loudspeaker on the Tower,” 5, 8–9.
14 Lukianov, “Bells of Russia,” 21. “The Christian bell welds people into a fraternity of prayer … as far as the bell can be heard and felt it incorporates those who listen into a common acoustic space.” Illich, “The Loudspeaker on the Tower,” 7.
15 Lukianov suggests that for those “who made an effort to live their daily lives in accordance with God’s commandments, the call to prayer was a welcome relief from the harsh realities of daily existence. Bells called people to another world, the heavenly world of beauty in the churches. The churches for them were heaven on earth, places where salvation was being taught, where sins were being forgiven and one was sanctified.” Lukianov, “Bells of Russia,” 21. See also Billington, The Icon and the Axe, 38–39.
16 It is important to note that, up to the time of Perelom, rural communities in Russia continued to organize their lives mainly around the annual agricultural and liturgical cycles marked by bell ringing. They were far less interested in the chronological precision offered by clocks—devices increasingly emblematic of urban modernity and industrial labor patterns. For more on the transition from rural and religious time keeping toward the modern organization of time, see E. P. Thompson, “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism,” Past and Present, no. 38 (December 1967): 56–97.
17 See also Nehemiah 4:20: “Wherever you hear the sound of the trumpet, join us there. Our God will fight for us!”
18 Small hand-held bells and those sewn into clothing as amulets commonly featured among non-Christian religions long before Christians adopted much larger versions for use in their churches. As a result, several centuries before metal bells became hallmarks of Christianity, the fourth-century Church Father St. John Chrysostom preached against the idea that they have magical or spiritual powers as a superstitious holdover from paganism. His exhortation notwithstanding, the Russian Orthodox Church has preserved the notion, even while christianizing and stripping it of pagan overtones. See Price, Bells and Man, 78–79, 100, 124–29; Illich, “The Loudspeaker on the Tower,” 4; and Billington, The Icon and the Axe, 39. For a contemporary Russian assertion that bell ringing acts against disease, see Tatiana Kharlamova, “Kolokol’nyi zvon lechit depressiiu: v kakom ukhe zvenit,” Zdorov’e: Semeinyi nauchno-populiarnyi zhurnal 11 (2001). While it is not surprising to find analogous beliefs among French Catholics in the revolutionary and postrevolutionary years (see Desan, Reclaiming the Sacred, 38, and Corbin, Village Bells, 101–02), belief in the physical power of bell ringing to dispel storms and disease ironically persisted even among such Enlightenment luminaries as Francis Bacon and René Descartes. See Price, Bells and Man, 129.
19 See Lukianov, “Bells of Russia,” 21 and Corbin, Village Bells, x, 193–94, 201.
20 Numbers 10:1–28 is directly relevant to the organization of ancient Israel as a “fighting force.” See Baruch A. Levine, Numbers 1–20: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, vol. 4a of The Anchor Bible, William Foxwell Albright and David Noel Freedman, eds. (New York, 1993), 303.
21 See Williams, “Aural Icons,” 4–5. For several other biblical images of the prophetic trumpet, see Exodus 19:16–20:18; Leviticus 23:24, 25:9; Ezekiel 33; Matthew 24:29–31; 1 Corinthians 5:51–52; 1 Thessalonians 4:16; and Revelation 8–11. The bell’s lineage may also reach back to biblical cymbals. See Psalm 150:5, for instance. Lukianov, “Bells of Russia,” 19.
22 Corbin, 102. To be sure, Chrysostom had in mind not metal bells, which he railed against as pagan, but the resonant planks of wood known as semantrons. These primitive “bells” co-existed on an equal basis with true bells in Russian church culture as late as the seventeenth century and still serve certain functions in monastic life today. See Price, Bells and Man, 80–83, 103–106 and Williams, Bells of Russia, 10–17. My thanks to John Burnett for bringing the continued use of the semantron to my attention.
23 Pis’ma sviatogortsa k druz’iam o Sviatoi Gore athonskoi, pt. 2 (St. Petersburg, 1850), 78–80 as cited in Williams, “Aural Icons,” 5. A slightly different translation is cited in Billington, The Icon and the Axe, 39.
24 See Price, Bells and Man, 127. Williams finds the beginning of such apocalyptic overtones in Russia as far back as the eleventh century. Williams, “Aural Icons,” 5–6. Other examples include seventeenth and eighteenth-century Old Believer sectarians utilizing church bells to signal their apocalyptic self-immolation as the tsar’s “legions of Antichrist” approached to suppress their religion. Billington, The Icon and the Axe, 40.
25 Price avers that this was not a contradiction but rather a logical outworking of the bell’s theology. See Price, Bells and Man, 127.
26 The same memorializing task was also taken up in Russian iconography and chapel building. See Vera Shevzov, “Miracle-Working Icons, Laity, and Authority in the Russian Orthodox Church, 1861–1917,” Russian Review 58, no. 1 (January 1999): 26–48 and Shevzov, “Chapels and the Ecclesial World of Prerevolutionary Russian Peasants,” Slavic Review, 55 no. 3 (Autumn 1996): 585–613.
27 Maurice Baring provides a vivid eyewitness account of a solemn bell casting in an early twentieth-century Russian village. See Baring, Russian Essays and Stories (London, 1908), 80–88. Another illustration, albeit in a medieval setting, can be found in Andrei Tarkovsky’s classic film Andrei Rublev (Mosfilm Studio, 1966). “Because no amount of earthly effort assured success in the founding of a bell, prayer, invocations, and benedictions traditionally preceded the moment when the metal began to flow into the mold. These prayers placed the casting results in the hands of God.” In some instances, industrial foundries continued these practices. Williams, Bells of Russia, 119–21. See also Billington, The Icon and the Axe, 39. Regarding Russian bell inscriptions, see Williams, Bells of Russia, 105–13.
28 See Price, Bells and Man, 213–16 and Corbin, Village Bells, 80–93. Of course, the advent of industrial bell production fairly well destroyed the older communal practice of casting bells. Even in the age of mass production, however, Russian villagers often took a keen interest in the selection, purchase, and tuning of their bells. See Lukianov, “Bells of Russia,” 23.
29 See Williams, Bells of Russia, 173–76 and Richard S. Wortman, Scenarios of Power: Myth and Ceremony in Russian Monarchy, vol. 2, From Alexander II to the Abdication of Nicholas II (Princeton, N.J., 2000), 80–91. Many Russian literary and political figures of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries valued the bell as a symbol of the “democratic” and free cities of medieval Russia. The bells in these cities summoned, and thus came to symbolize, the city assembly (veche). The most famous case involved the ancient city of Novgorod, whose assembly bell Moscow silenced and confiscated in 1478. See Williams, Bells of Russia, 41–42. Thus, Alexander Herzen, one of the greatest figures of Russia’s pre-1917 revolutionary tradition, named his famous illegal journal “The Bell” (Kolokol) in 1857. Less than twenty years later, another member of Russia’s revolutionary pantheon, Petr Tkachev, took a much more militant tone in publishing a journal called “The Alarm Bell” (Nabat). Billington, The Icon and the Axe, 41–42.
30 Illich, “The Loudspeaker on the Tower,” 9. One of the primary reasons for the relative neglect of bells in Orthodox lands outside of Russia is that most of these lay under non-Christian, mainly Islamic rule during the period when ecclesiastical bell culture developed and spread elsewhere. Christians under Islamic rulers were generally forbidden to offer any sound that competed with the call of the muezzin or had the potential to inspire Christians to revolt. For the details of this and other factors contributing to Russia’s unique devotion to bells, see Price, Bells and Man, 95–106, 190–98.
31 See Price, Bells and Man, 88, 106, 190–98; Billington, The Icon and the Axe, 38–39; and Williams, Bells of Russia, 52. There are also aspects of the place of church bells in the West that do not transfer well into the Russian context. In Roman Catholic Europe, for instance, the church bell daily called villagers to pray the Angelus wherever they stood at particular times of the day. This daily ritual is without analogy in Russia. See Williams, Bells of Russia, 128–40 and Billington, The Icon and the Axe, 39–40.
32 “At a little village church where one ringer plays all the bells he may be an untutored muzhik [peasant] and yet the beauty of his ringing may surpass that of a master ringer at a large city church or one associated with a palace. This is because zvon-ringing was a purely folk creation, developed and preserved by simple but sensitive people.” Price, Bells and Man, 197. See also Billington, The Icon and the Axe, 39.
33 I owe these phrases to Williams, “Aural Icons,” 3.
34 For the argument that antireligious movements mirror the character of the religious traditions they reject, see Colin Campbell, “Analysing the Rejection of Religion,” Social Compass 24, no. 2 (1977): 339–46.
35 Voronezhskaia Kommuna, April 14, 1929, 3.
36 TsDNIVO, f. 2, op. 1, d. 918, l. 25.
37 In revolutionary Mexico too, occasionally “it was not the Church that fell silent but the state, its voice drowned out by the sacred music [of bells] which proclaimed the Church’s continued survival as the local institution par excellence.” Butler, “Keeping the Faith,” 24. Indeed, it appears that state control over bell ringing in Mexico remained uneven at best in some localities. See Butler, “Keeping the Faith,” 30.
38 Voronezhskaia Kommuna, December 24, 1929, 4. For other examples, see also Voronezhskaia Kommuna, April 25, 1929, 5; Bezbozhnik u stanka, September 30, 1928 and December 23, 1929; the journal Bezbozhnik, no. 18, 1929, 16–17; and the newspaper Bezbozhnik, October 27, 1929, 3.
39 I owe this formulation to Corbin. See his Village Bells, 211. Indeed, bell ringing in Russia was famously loud. A Dutch visitor to Moscow at the turn of the sixteenth century, for instance, commented that the ringing there made it impossible to “hear one another in conversation.” Billington, The Icon and the Axe, 38. Charges of excessive noise are what motivated civic and ecclesiastical authorities to control bell ringing in Mexico City decades before the revolutionary regimes of the twentieth century took up the cause. See Anne Staples, “El abuso de las campanas en el siglo pasado,” Historia Mexicana 27 (1977): 177–93. When bell ringing in the Spanish Republic could not be suppressed on the basis of secularization, officials sometimes succeeded under legislation that prohibited “noise from private buildings.” See Vincent, Catholicism in the Second Spanish Republic, 186–87.
40 For an excellent treatment of the effort to replace religious holidays with Bolshevik equivalents during the Velikii Perelom, see Malte Rolf, “Constructing a Soviet Time: Bolshevik Festivals and Their Rivals during the First Five-Year Plan: A Study of the Central Black Earth Region,” Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 1, no. 3 (2000): 447–73.
41 TsDNIVO, f. 2, op. 1, d. 1152, l. 106. Uniquely prominent in Russian Orthodox Easter celebrations, bell ringing proclaims Christ’s resurrection and the promise that all believers will rise from the dead at the end of time. So strong is Easter week’s association with bell ringing in Russia that it has been nicknamed “Peal Week” (Zvonilnaia). See Price, Bells and Man, 115, 197; Williams, “Aural Icons,” 6; and Lukianov, “Bells of Russia,” 22. The League of the Militant Godless was the most prominent Bolshevik antireligious organization of the 1920s and 1930s. (See Peris, Storming the Heavens, for a comprehensive study of the League’s history.) The Central Black Earth Region was home to an especially fervent branch. Zarin, in particular, wrote prodigiously on antireligious topics for the central and regional press and relentlessly lobbied for vigorous dechristianization policies.
42 See Freeze, “The Stalinist Assault,” 216, and Husband, Godless Communists, 89–90, 93–94. The same concerns regarding the unwarranted interruption of work arose in nineteenth-century France as well. See Corbin, Village Bells, 119.
43 Bolshevik attempts to manage festival celebrations aimed precisely at monopolizing the social interpretation of time. See Rolf, “Constructing a Soviet Time,” 449. For the importance of time more generally in Bolshevik ideology, see Stephen E. Hanson, Time and Revolution: Marxism and the Design of Soviet Institutions (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1997).
44 Gosudarstvennyi arkhiv Rossiiskoi Federatsii [State Archive of the Russian Federation] (hereafter, GARF), f. 5263, op. 1, d. 2, l. 16, as cited in Freeze, “The Stalinist Assault,” 216.
45 For summaries of these tactics, see Freeze, “The Stalinist Assault,” 217, and Peris, Storming the Heavens, 83.
46 Peris, Storming the Heavens, 83. For examples, see Voronezhskaia Kommuna, May 29, 1929, 3 and GARF, f. 5407, op. 1, d. 44, l. 72.
47 For several examples drawn from the anti-Christmas campaign of 1930, see TsDNIVO, f. 37, op. 1, d. 252, ll. 24, 27. In these cases, the children also voted against the use of Christmas trees and in favor of converting churches into Soviet cultural institutions.
48 “Workers of many cities in the USSR carry out the decision to confiscate bells from churches!” reads the caption under one such photo. Voronezhskaia Kommuna, November 23, 1929, 1. These images effectively produced the “double disgrace” typical of iconoclasm: “exposing, first, the bankruptcy of [the faithful’s] most cherished beliefs and, second, their impotence in the face of their enemies’ assault.” Lincoln, “Revolutionary Exhumations in Spain,” 256.
49 TsDNIVO, f. 104, op. 1, d. 55, l. 43.
50 GARF, f. 5407, op. 1, d. 17, l. 98b.
51 All details about this incident are from a report dated January 8, 1930 in GARF, f. 5407, op. 1, d. 69, l. 80. Unfortunately, the source does not identify the name of the village.
52 I use the term “soviet” (sovet) here to distinguish the Bolshevik organ of state power from any other, non-state “council” (sovet). In actuality, the “discussions” held at collectivization meetings were little more than opportunities for Bolshevik activists to intimidate and harangue peasants into joining the collective farm. See Lev Kopelev, The Education of a True Believer, Gary Kern, trans. (New York, 1980), 228–36; Viola, Peasant Rebels, 146–47.
53 See Gregory Freeze, The Parish Clergy in Nineteenth-century Russia: Crisis, Reform, Counter-reform (Princeton, N.J., 1983), 252–59. For the role of parish councils more generally within peasant resistance to the Bolsheviks, see Viola, Peasant Rebels, 144, and Young, Power and the Sacred, 251.
54 Although the institution of the revolutionary soviet (sovet: council) had a lineage going back to the Revolution of 1905, only with the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 would it become the basic unit of authority for a revolutionary state. In addition to playing on the term sovet, the parish council described here also borrowed from the regime’s bureaucratic language in order to lend its proceedings more legitimacy. Russian rural believers were not limited, however, to the positive co-optation of Bolshevik language. The fact that sovet means both “council” and “counsel” also allowed fortuitous Bible verses to double as damning political slogans. Members of the Fedorovtsy sect, for instance, ingeniously adorned their homes with the first verse of Psalm 1: “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel (sovet) of the wicked.” For examples, see GARF, f. 5407, op. 1, d. 60, l. 14 and John Fletcher, The Russian Orthodox Church Underground: 1917–1970 (London, 1971), 114–15. To be sure, modernizing regimes ever since the French Revolution have had to contend with the ironic co-optation of their political language. See, for example, Desan, Reclaiming the Sacred, 184.
55 Space limitations allow the examination of only a few such episodes. In addition to other incidents mentioned in this essay, relatively well documented cases can be found in the political police files of the Central Black Earth Region. Brutal revolts in the villages of Korshevo and Sukhaia Berezovka, Bobrovskii district in March 1930, for example, displayed many of the same features discussed here. See TsDNIVO, f. 9353, op. 2, d. P-10083, t. 10, l. 248.
56 The details of this episode are drawn from Petr Markovich Tereshchenko, Uryv, Zemlia Voronezhskaia: Entsiklopediia gorodov i sel (Voronezh, 1993), 80–82.
57 Tereshchenko, Uryv, 82.
58 I owe much of my understanding of the bell ringer’s importance to Corbin, Village Bells, 95, 233–34. For more on the French example, see Desan, Reclaiming the Sacred, 99–101.
59 This is especially true of bells in Russia, where the chiming is notoriously idiosyncratic. See Billington, The Icon and the Axe, 38. The phrase “subtle auditory rhetoric” comes from Corbin, Village Bells, xi.
60 Tereshchenko, Uryv, 82.
61 Tereshchenko, Uryv, 82.
62 Keys were also fought over in the village of Gvazdy, Vorontsovskii district on December 8, 1929. There, in response to an attempt by a Bolshevik activist to confiscate the keys of the church, the bell summoned a crowd of about 600 people. The crowd turned violent and beat a militiaman named Bacharov who had accompanied the party activist. TsDNIVO, f. 2, op. 1, d. 1075, l. 1. Corbin writes: “[I]f the church door was shut with a key—and it might well be the only locked one in the whole commune—it was because of the need to guard consecrated objects and, in the strict sense of the term, to protect a treasure that was a marker of a community’s identity.” Corbin, Village Bells, 243.
63 Details about the incident in Goldaevka are taken from Tereshchenko, Uryv, 83. It should be noted that sacristans sometimes took it upon themselves to ring bells, as happened during an uprising on October 12, 1930 in the village of Monino, Khlevenskii district. See TsDNIVO, f. 2, op. 1, d. 980, l. 58.
64 For a classic treatment of women’s political initiative against the regime, see Viola, Peasant Rebels, 189–204. Viola specifically points to a case wherein the women took the initiative in defending the church bell and in using it as a signal for revolt. See Viola, Peasant Rebels, 192–93.
65 Indeed, during the Perelom the bell might be maliciously silenced in order to allow disasters, especially those threatening Bolshevik institutions, to run their course. This constitutes an important example, albeit a negative one, of the bell’s authority to mobilize the community during emergencies. For an example, see TsDNIVO, f. 2, op. 1, d. 1624, l. 26.
66 Corbin, Village Bells, 169. For a discussion of rumor, especially as a mode of resistance to oppression, see James C. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (New Haven, Conn., 1990), 144–48. The Bolsheviks sometimes tried to characterize women as the naive and primary carriers of rumor. However, this characterization was likely to be a rhetorical ploy to “marginalize” and “depoliticize” rumor as merely “women’s business.” Viola, Peasant Rebels, 61. Indeed, there is little other reason to doubt that both men and women in the village spread rumors.
67 Huizinga points to this complex range of emotions in his comments about bells in late Medieval Europe. See Huizinga, The Autumn of the Middle Ages, 2. See also Corbin, Village Bells, 196.
68 Tereshchenko, Uryv, 85. “Dekulakization” or the “liquidation of the kulak as a class”—the brutal complement of collectivization—was the process whereby villages were physically purged of counterrevolutionary elements. Bolshevik rhetoric notwithstanding, the term kulak (literally: fist) did not necessarily refer to an economic status or class identity. Instead, the term “came to mean simply any muzhik [peasant] who resisted collectivization and therefore became an ‘enemy.'” Martin Malia, The Soviet Tragedy: A History of Socialism in Russia, 1917–1991 (New York, 1994) 196. See also Viola, Peasant Rebels, 29–38.
69 See Stephen Kotkin, “1991 and the Russian Revolution: Sources, Conceptual Categories, Analytical Frameworks,” Journal of Modern History 70, no. 2 (June 1998): 402. The same can be said of the Mexican regime of the 1920s and 1930s. See Bantjes, As if Jesus Walked on Earth, 15–20.
70 See Corbin, Village Bells, 3, 24. For a general treatment of the French Revolution’s place in the Russian revolutionary tradition, see Dmitry Shlapentokh, The French Revolution and the Russian Anti-democratic Tradition: A Case of False Consciousness (New Brunswick, N.J., 1997).
71 European states, including Russia, had a long history of commandeering bells for national purposes, especially wartime weapons production. Of course, the casting of bells and cannon essentially involved the same technology, which meant that one set of craftsmen tended to produce both. For the Russian example, see Billington, The Icon and the Axe, 37, 40, 185, and Williams, Bells of Russia, 131. For the French, see Corbin, Village Bells, 8.
72 In general, Bolshevik modernity, including its dechristianizing component, reflected “various elements of the modernity found outside the USSR … in alternately undeveloped, exaggerated, and familiar forms.” Kotkin, “1991 and the Russian Revolution,” 387.
73 Walter Ong’s exploration of how “print replaced the lingering hearing-dominance in the world of thought and expression” is especially relevant here. See his Orality and Literacy, 117–38. For the print-inspired loosening of local ties and identity and the shift toward larger collective loyalties, see Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge, U.K., 1993), 95–97. In the West, this process, including its modern culmination, occurred in a much less self-conscious manner than in revolutionary Russia. The centrality of visual communication for Bolshevik political ambitions is explored in Jeffrey Brooks, Thank You, Comrade Stalin! Soviet Public Culture from Revolution to Cold War (Princeton, N.J., 2000), and Victoria Bonnell, Iconography of Power: Soviet Political Posters under Lenin and Stalin (Berkeley, Calif., 1997). See also Peter Kenez, The Birth of the Propaganda State: Soviet Methods of Mass Mobilization, 1917–1929 (Cambridge, 1985), and Jeffrey Brooks, “The Breakdown in Production and Distribution of Printed Material, 1917–1927,” in Abbot Gleason, ed., Bolshevik Culture: Experiment and Order in the Russian Revolution (Bloomington, Ind., 1985), 151–74.
74 See Husband, Godless Communists, 72. A typical headline for an article on literacy in Voronezhskaia Kommuna, for example, exhorts readers to be “For Literacy, For Culture, For the New Way of Life (novyi byt)!” Voronezhskaia Kommuna, May 1, 1928, 3. For more on the Bolshevik literacy campaigns, see Charles Clark, Uprooting Otherness: The Literacy Campaign in NEP-era Russia (Selinsgrove, Penn., 2000).
75 René Fülöp-Miller, The Mind and Face of Bolshevism: An Examination of Cultural Life in Soviet Russia, rev. edn. (New York, 1965), 182. See also Billington, The Icon and the Axe, 42. Some important distinctions arise when comparing how the phenomenon of industrial noise unfolded during the earlier European Industrial Revolution and the industrialization of Russia under the Bolsheviks. In Western Europe, the new and growing mechanical din obscured and desacralized the sound of church bells more or less gradually. (See Corbin, Village Bells, 306–07.) In Russia under the Bolsheviks, by contrast, the process was more intentional and greatly sped up—industrial noises being peculiarly celebrated and magnified by the regime precisely to desacralize other sounds.
76 For Bolshevik theories regarding the aural marking of proletarian time, see also Richard Stites, Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Vision and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution (New York, 1989), 155–59 and Fülöp-Miller, The Mind and Face of Bolshevism, 183–84, 206–08. On rare occasions, local Bolshevik authorities managed to commandeer the sound of the church bell to serve their own purposes. See Fitzpatrick, Stalin’s Peasants, 142.
77 In an important memoir published during the Perelom, Semen Kanatchikov uses the factory, with its unique industrial soundscape, as a metaphor for home and temple. See Semen Kanatchikov, A Radical Worker in Tsarist Russia: The Autobiography of Semen Ivanovich Kanatchikov, Reginald E. Zelnik, ed. and trans. (Stanford, Calif., 1986), 52, 65, and Richard L. Hernandez, “The Confessions of Semen Kanatchikov: A Bolshevik Memoir as Spiritual Autobiography,” Russian Review 60, no. 1 (January 2001): 18–20. See also Fülöp-Miller, The Mind and Face of Bolshevism, 183. Again, the aural resacralization of civic or secular space under the Bolsheviks parallels analogous efforts in nineteenth-century France. See Corbin, Village Bells, 216.
78 See S. Frederick Starr, “New Communications Technologies and Civil Society,” in Science and the Soviet Social Order, Loren R. Graham, ed., (Cambridge, Mass., 1990), 28.
79 Starr points out that “as late as 1952 two out of three radio receivers in the USSR were of this type.” Starr, “New Communications Technologies,” 29.
80 Electronic technology was especially hallowed among regime enthusiasts as an emblem of “progress, of knowledge, and of society organized on a rational, scientific basis.” Katerina Clark, The Soviet Novel: History as Ritual 2d ed. (Chicago, 1985), 93.
81 Radio v derevne, December 11, 1927 (trial issue) as cited in Husband, Godless Communists, 69. (Radio v derevne began regular publication in 1928 and ended in 1931.) For other articles extolling the virtues of radio, see Voronezhskaia Kommuna, January 14, 1928, 3. See also Husband, Godless Communists, 74–75.
82 GARF, f. 5407, op. 1, d. 17, l. 14. For memos exhorting an aggressive use of radio and a report on how it figured in antireligious activism in the Central Black Earth Region, see GARF, f. 5407, op. 1, d. 90, ll. 1–101 and GARF, f. 5407, op. 1, d. 69, ll. 105, 252–53.
83 Voronezhskaia Kommuna, May 1, 1928, 3. Such enthusiasm notwithstanding, the actual exploitation of radio technology by the regime lagged far behind expectations. See Starr, “New Communications Technologies,” 29. For more on the development and political role of radio under the Bolsheviks during the Perelom, see N. D. Psurtsev, Razvitie sviazi v SSSR, 1917–1967 (Moscow, 1967), 188–92, and T. M. Goriaeva, Radio Rossii: Politicheskii kontrol’ sovetskogo radioveschchaniia v 1920–1930-kh godakh (Moscow, 2000).
84 The film is also aptly known as “The Symphony of the Don River Basin” (Sinfoniya Donbassa). For brief discussions of Vertov and Entuziazm, see Ian Christie, “Making Sense of Early Soviet Sound,” in Inside the Film Factory: New Approaches to Russian and Soviet Cinema, Richard Taylor and Ian Christie, eds., (London, 1994), 183–84 and Richard Taylor, Film Propaganda: Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany, 2d rev. ed. (London, 1998), 44–45, 55, 74.
85 For evidence of faith in radio’s ability to lead inexorably to irreligion, see GARF, f. 5407, op. 1, d. 17, l. 14 and Voronezhskaia Kommuna, February 11, 1928. See also Husband, Godless Communists, 75. Not surprisingly, radio served the Bolsheviks so well as an auditory symbol of their authority that many religious believers maligned it as satanic. (See TsDNIVO, f. 2, op. 1, d. 1624, l. 25 and Husband, Godless Communists, 75.) This tendency notwithstanding, a few believers bravely attempted to co-opt the device’s growing authority by inverting its meaning as an instrument of the New Way of Life. An unnamed religious activist elaborately dressed in crosses and medals, for example, preached apocalyptic sermons against collective farms throughout Bobruiskii county in 1930. In this, he played the traditional role of wandering prophet, but with the decidedly modern twist of claiming that he had received his message from a “heavenly radio.” GARF, f. 5407, op. 1, d. 69, l. 77. For other complaints that religious organizations utilized radio for “their own purposes,” see GARF, f. 5407, op. 1, d. 44, l. 39.
86 See Freeze, “The Stalinist Assault,” 216–17.
87 TsDNIVO, f. 2, op. 1, d. 1152, l. 106.
88 Stalin, November 7, 1929, as quoted in Martin Malia, The Soviet Tragedy, 177. Kotkin notes that steel “held a kind of magic aura” for the average Bolshevik believer. The very name “Stalin”—a nom de guerre meaning “Man of Steel”—was an irresistible symbol for propagandists and industrial planners alike as they paid homage to Stal’ i Stalin (Steel and Stalin) and redundantly named metallurgical plants after him. Stephen Kotkin, Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization (Berkeley, Calif., 1995), 71.
89 A. Malenky, Magnitogorsk: The Metallurgical Combine of the Future (Moscow, 1932), 55, as quoted in Kotkin, Magnetic Mountain, 37.
90 See epigraph above. For a discussion of the “metallization of the body as a metaphor for the creation of the New Man,” see Rolf Hellebust, “Metal in the Works of Vasilii Aksenov,” Canadian Slavonic Papers 40 (1998): 92–93. For a survey of attempts by modernizing regimes to raise up a “New Man,” see the editor’s introduction in Amir Weiner, ed., Landscaping the Human Garden: Twentieth-Century Population Management in a Comparative Framework (Stanford, 2003), 1–18. For the Soviet case, see Jochen Hellbeck, “Fashioning the Stalinist Soul: The Diary of Stepan Podlubnyi (1931–1939),” Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas 44, no. 3 (1996): 344–73. For the analogous aspiration among Mexican revolutionaries, see Bantjes, As if Jesus Walked on Earth, 8–9.
91 For an extensive treatment of the “March for Metal” during Soviet industrialization, see Kotkin, Magnetic Mountain, 37–71.
92 Freeze, “The Stalinist Assault,” 217.
93 See, for example, the meetings of school children and their parents reported in TsDNIVO, f. 37, op. 1, d. 252, ll. 24, 27.
94 Here again, a comparison with the French revolutionary precedent is revealing: “The metamorphosis of bells into cannon, a symbolic fusion testifying to the resoluteness of the nation, was seen as a patriotic offering, a purification, and an act of reparation.” Corbin, Village Bells, 13.
95 Viola, Peasant Rebels, 42. See also Vladimir Aleksandrovich Kozlov, ed., Neizvestnaia Rossiia: XX vek, vol. 2 (Moscow, 1992), 344–48 for a similar process underway in 1932–1933 involving the dedication of Moscow church bells to the construction of the new state library. In this case the bells were melted down and converted into huge bronze bas reliefs of historical scientific heroes—appropriate icons for what the editors of this documentary collection ironically call a “Temple of Science.” Kozlov, Neizvestnaia Rossiia, 337. These portraits still adorn the facade of the library.
96 Voronezhskaia Kommuna, August 2, 1929, 2.
97 Voronezhskaia Kommuna, January 9, 1930, 2.
98 An early 1930 directive entitled “The tasks of the League of the Militant Godless in regions undergoing wholesale collectivization” includes the “confiscation of church bells for industrialization” on a list of urgent priorities. See GARF, f. 5407, op. 1, d. 44, l. 82. Yet, the League did not always play so direct a role in the rash of church closings and bell confiscations that occurred at the height of collectivization. There is reason to believe that the Young Communist League served as the primary instigator of much antireligious activism during the Perelom. See GARF, f. 5407, op. 1, d. 47, l. 102 and Fitzpatrick, Stalin’s Peasants, 60. Although the Young Communists certainly deserve much credit for the development, the role played by other agencies such as Rudmetalltorg in attacking the religious Old Way of Life has not yet been sufficiently explored. For another example of an ancillary organization’s participation—in this case, the “All-Russian Central Union of Agricultural Cooperatives” in Rossoshanskii county—see GARF, f. 5407, op. 1, d. 44, l. 72.
99 TsDNIVO, f. 37, op. 1, d. 252, l. 13.
100 Voronezhskaia Kommuna, October 30, 1929, 3.
101 TsDNIVO, f. 37, op. 1, d. 252, l. 13.
102 TsDNIVO, f. 37, op. 1, d. 252, ll. 55–56. The report is located in an unidentified newspaper clipping from January 30, 1930. Unfortunately, while Zarin provides statistics for a dozen counties, he does not elaborate on the meaning of his figure of “2.3 percent.”
103 Freeze, “The Stalinist Assault,” 217. Freeze offers figures of 30,000 tons in 1930–1931; 45,000 tons in 1931–1932; and 40,000 tons in 1932–1933. As another measure of the campaign’s success, Sheila Fitzpatrick cites an astonishing 90 percent of all church bells in Siberia as having been confiscated during the winter of 1930. Fitzpatrick, Stalin’s Peasants, 62.
104 In “Dizzy with Success,” Stalin brought collectivization to a strategic, short-lived standstill by sharply criticizing overly zealous collectivizers who inspired widespread animosity toward the regime and its rural project. The article first appeared in Pravda, no. 60, March 2, 1930.
105 The Regional Party Committee even went so far as to “direct the regional prosecutor … to hold responsible those guilty of such clearly illegal actions.” TsDNIVO, f. 2, op. 1, d. 788, l. 24. For similar criticisms of bell confiscations undertaken without the “appropriate” agitational and legal preparation, see GARF, f. 5407, op. 1, d. 21, l. 48; d. 47, l. 102; d. 70, l. 74; and TsDNIVO, f. 2, op. 1, d. 1075, l. 1.
106 See Viola, Peasant Rebels, 134. Martin Malia avers that after the Perelom, the Russian countryside would “never again have the will to defy Soviet power.” Malia, The Soviet Tragedy, 199. Sheila Fitzpatrick’s study of the village after collectivization and Amir Weiner’s work on the countryside in the aftermath of World War II show how reticent villagers would become—choosing passive resistance or, increasingly, acquiescence over the kinds of violent resistance witnessed during the Perelom. See Fitzpatrick, Stalin’s Peasants and Amir Weiner, Making Sense of War: The Second World War and the Fate of the Bolshevik Revolution (Princeton, N.J., 2001), 298–314. In sharp contrast, the Mexican Revolution attenuated its antireligious policies by the late 1930s in response to “a combination of Catholic militancy, official state tolerance, benevolent ambiguity from the Cárdenas government, and a generally diplomatic stance on the part of organized labor.” Bantjes, As if Jesus Walked on Earth, 78.
107 See Viola, Peasant Rebels, 136. The Central Black Earth Region, in particular, witnessed some of the largest and most numerous disturbances in the country. In 1930, for example, the region was second only to Ukraine in total number of uprisings with 1,373 and 4,098 respectively. In terms of the size of revolts, however, the Central Black Earth Region had an average of 316 participants versus Ukraine’s 298. Viola, Peasant Rebels, 138–40. For a social analysis of the general trends of collectivization and dekulakization in the Central Black Earth Region, see Pavel Vladimirovich Zagorovskii, Sotsial’no-politicheskaia istoriia tsentral’no-chernozemnoi oblasti, 1928–1934 (Voronezh, 1995), 37–79.
108 In an episode in the village of Monino, Khlevenskii district, a crowd of about 200 gathered in response to the sacristan’s bell ringing. The crowd then boldly challenged the dekulakization campaign by freeing recently arrested villagers, including the parish priest. See TsDNIVO, f. 2, op. 1, d. 980, l. 58.
109 Details of this episode are drawn from GARF, f. 5407, op. 1, d. 21, l. 49.
110 Viola, Peasant Rebels, 201. For more on Bolshevik gender biases, see Viola, Peasant Rebels, 189–203. An example of a Bolshevik activist explicitly dismissing the pro-religious political activity of women as just so much “noisemaking and screaming” can be found in GARF, f. 5407, op. 1, d. 21, ll. 45–46.
111 The major thrust of Viola’s very important argument about women in village politics is that the latter were “motivated largely by a set of rational interests.” See Viola, Peasant Rebels, 187. In light of Viola’s extensive work on the subject, the fact that women led many of the revolts discussed here is not surprising. That Russian women played dominant roles in the defense of religion in particular while Bolshevik antireligious efforts displayed certain gendered features has yet to be studied in sufficient depth, though several scholars do address the topic. See Young, Power and the Sacred, 126–29, 215–16, 265–67; John Anderson, “Out of the Kitchen, Out of the Temple: Religion, Atheism and Women in the Soviet Union,” in Religious Policy in the Soviet Union, Sabrina Petra Ramet, ed. (Cambridge, Mass., 1993), 206–207; Husband, Godless Communists, 102–10; and Peris, Storming the Heavens, 79–83. For analogous phenomena in the French and Mexican Revolutions, see Desan, Reclaiming the Sacred, 197–214 and Bantjes, As if Jesus Walked on Earth, 26–27.
112 The concept of “symbolic capital” is borrowed from Corbin, Village Bells, 210.
113 Catholics rebelling against French revolutionary authorities similarly believed that the church’s rituals and sacred articles belonged to and stood for the community as a whole. In their view, then, what was at stake in the regime’s antireligious policies was not private religious belief, but the survival of their community’s entire way of life. See Desan, Reclaiming the Sacred, 17–18, 181–82, 215.
114 Indeed, the League of the Militant Godless was as embroiled in the collectivization campaign as it was in its mandated antireligious work. For example, a brigade of antireligious activists, sent to the Central Black Earth Region in January and February of 1930, summarized its assignment in this way: “The brigade conducted antireligious work, combining it with the tasks of the day (wholesale collectivization, liquidation of the kulak, [and] collecting for the seed fund).” GARF, f. 5407, op. 1, d. 60, l. 18. See also Peris, Storming the Heavens, 111–12.
115 Most of the revolts discussed in this essay were similarly comprehensive. Before being suppressed, the bell-inspired uprisings in Uryv and Goldaevka, for instance, took no time at all to develop into a systematic attack on the symbols, officials, and policies of Bolshevik authority. See Tereshchenko, Uryv, 83–85.
116 This was certainly the case during the French Revolution. See Desan, Reclaiming the Sacred, 174, 215.
117 Viola, Peasant Rebels, 137. The remaining uprisings were attributed to conflicts over “food problems” (9 percent), the harvest (4 percent), requisitioning (3 percent), and miscellaneous (2 percent).