A Severe Punishment

Bells in centuries past were often treated as humans themselves—they were baptized, named, and described as having “voices.” In this case from Imperial Russia, a bell was punished for centuries for its alleged crime.*

It’s 1591 and Boris Godunov is keen on taking the throne of Russia. Tsar Fedor is considered weak in mind and body, so the brother-in-law Godunov knows he won’t have to wait long for him to die (no need to get entangled in a messy murder or coup! Bonus for Godunov.). The next heir to the throne is the boy Tsarevich Dmitri, so Godunov packs him and his mother off to Uglich, where they can stay far away from the political center of Moscow and remain closely monitored by an associate of Godunov, Mikhail Bitiagovski.

One bright opportunistic afternoon, Dmitri was playing a game with his friends in which a knife is thrown at a target (alternate form of Russian Roulette, perhaps?). The bell in the cathedral’s bell tower above suddenly began ringing the alarm, calling all the townspeople to the center. They came expecting a fire, but instead they found the young Dmitri dead, stabbed in the neck with a knife.

The townspeople were outraged and sought justice in their own hands. They assumed Bitiagovski, as an agent of Godunov, was behind Dmitri’s death. The mob lynched both Bitiagovski and his son, and twelve other people died in the mayhem.

Godunov couldn’t stand for this strong statement against his authority. The majority of the townspeople were executed, incarcerated, or exiled to western Siberia. The bell was also punished. First it was lowered from the cathedral tower and flogged one hundred twenty times, then its clapper was removed and part of its cannon (as its “ear”) was cut off. Finally, it too was exiled to Siberia and was dragged across the country for a full year to its final destination of Tobol’sk.

The bell remained there for three centuries. Yikes. That’s some stiff punishment. While there, it did serve its ringing function as a bell in different churches. In 1849 citizens of Uglich rallied to get their bell back, arguing that it had served out its sentence long enough. The mayor of Tobol’sk countered that since the bell had been exiled for life, it hadn’t served out its full sentence. The Uglich citizens took their case to the courts and finally their request was upheld in 1888, and the bell arrived back to its home four years later. It’s now on display at the Church of St. Demetrius. With a fixed ear.

Dmitri bell
Uglich bell

* Info taken from Edward V. Williams, The Bells of Russia: History and Technology (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), 47-50.

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