Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Bells of Tsar Alexander III

The Russian Orthodox Church in America is centered in San Francisco. Its influence reaches north and west toward Alaska, the historic territory of Russian America where onion-domed churches still dot the townscapes. Russians have a deep and long history in America.

In California, Sonoma County was the southernmost establishment of the Imperial Muscovites. The hub from 1812 to 1841, Fort Ross, on the coast just north of the Russian River outlet, took its name from 'Rus,' as in Russia. Cattle raised in California fed the settlements of New Archangel (Sitka) and Pavlovskaia (Kodiak). Under the governorship of Alexandr Baranov, The Russian-American Company founded settlements in California, Hawaii, and Alaska before decades of decline culminated in The Alaskan Purchase of 1867 under President Lincoln. The Russian Experiment in America was officially over but its influence remains and flows like a subterranean river beneath us, pooling in springs for thirsty arrivals who tap the old vein.

In San Francisco today, the contemporary heart of Russian Culture is in The Avenues of the Richmond District, but its historic home is around Cow Hollow, at Holy Trinity Cathedral, Green Street and Van Ness Avenue. This humble parish on the western skirt of Russian Hill is one of the oldest in the contiguous United States. It is modest from the outside and sublime inside.

A most remarkable feature are its seven glorious bells, five of them cast by the Findlansky Foundry in Moscow around 1888 and given to the parish by Tsar Alexander III as a blessing for having survived an assassination attempt. Silver in the alloy as well as unusually fine tuning give the bells a special character and tone. Few such bells survived the Russian Revolution, and may not have survived their theft in 1999 had they not been returned a few weeks later. Their presence in San Francisco is a musical treasure and a real echo of Imperial Russia. Go listen.

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Understanding settlement of the American Continent from many sources and directions helps get beyond the limiting idea of Manifest Destiny; that lock step march from East to West guided by the invisible hand of someone's own god. No.
God is far and near, welling up from within, coming at us from all directions, a silver bell, a revolution, an owl's call, an assassination and a resurrection.

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