“Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee” – John Donne

It ain’t easy being a bell.

Being a Tsar is good work if you can get it. Being a Tsarevitch not so much. And while, life as the ruler of Mother Russia might not be perfect what with the assassinations, coup attempts, and looming threat of Cossacks, Mongols, or other equally unruly characters, some might say its “Gudonov”. See what I did there. A little Russian history joke for the alert reader. The trick to Tsardom is maintaining a wacky enough reputation that you get a nice nickname like “the Terrible”, signifying absolute power and a little unpredictability. Keeps the boyars on their toes. The serfs are already on their toes dodging beatings and starvation. Now, nothing says you’re a little bit crazy like the legal prosecution of inanimate objects. It’s a good touchstone when scanning the horizon for insane despots, as we are wont to do these days. The Ancient Greeks had a proud tradition of prosecuting statues (see Statutory Murder: The Trial of Theagenes of Thasos), but Russian Tsar Boris Gudonov (1551 – 1605 A.D.) stepped it up a notch in 1591, when he not only ordered the torture of a bell (the kind that rings), but also subsequently had it exiled to Siberia.

While bells may be a little noisy, they are generally held to be on the rather inoffensive side. I mean, they really just sort of sit there until they are rung, usually to call folks together or to warn of impending doom. To understand the nefarious crimes of our subject bell, we need to back up into the rise of Boris Gudonov, Tsar of All Russia from 1598-1605. Boris was probably not a pleasant individual. When your boss is Ivan the Terrible, and you’re a valued member of his secret police, odds are you’ve done some shady things. On his deathbed, Ivan appointed a regency council consisting of Godunov, Feodor Nikitich Romanov, and Vasili Shuiski to help his somewhat feeble-minded son and successor Feodor I run the country. In order to secure the succession, the council sent Ivan’s other son Dmitry Ivanovich (3 years old) and his mother, Maria Nagaya away from Moscow to a northern town called Uglich. The ten year old Dmitry died (or was murdered) in May 1591 under somewhat suspicious circumstances (a self-inflicted stab wound to the throat with a knife), which many historians attribute to the machinations of assassins employed by Gudonov.

While considered unsuited to be a Tsar, Dmitry was a pretty popular religious figure – after his death he was sainted as “Saint Pious Tsarevitch” by the Russian Orthodox Church. When Dmitry was ushered off this mortal coil, his Mother raised the suspicion that Gudonov had something to do with it, and consequently all sorts of mayhem erupted in Uglich. This sort of thing happens when you’re a Tsar, so when the locals rose up, murdered some local representatives of Moscow, and generally went all social justice, called to arms by the ringing of the Great Bell of Uglich, Gudonov opened up a can of whoop-ass and quickly quelled the rebellion.

In Russia, in 1591, after a tumult arising from the death of the Tsarevitch, who had been found fatally stabbed at Uglich, many of the inhabitants were sent to Siberia, which was now beginning to be a convict settlement, and thither also was sent the great bell of the town. The “Exile of Uglich” is said to have been first flogged and deprived of its top ring, and remained in disgrace or neglect for three hundred years afterwards (Ives, 1914, p252).

It was also observed that the great bell was deprived of its clapper, which would be the “bell” equivalent of cutting out its tongue. The flogging might have been a bit excessive, bells feeling no pain, but it seems that Gudonov had a point he wanted to get across in no uncertain terms. Tsars have been known to get a little extreme. Things didn’t end so well for the insurrectionists, either.

The great bell of that town rang the signal of insurrection. For this serious political offence the bell was sentenced to perpetual banishment in Siberia, and conveyed with other exiles to Tobolsk. After a long period of solitary confinement it was partially purged of its iniquity by conjuration and re-consecration and suspended in the tower of a church in the Siberian capital; but not until 1892 was it fully pardoned and restored to its original place in Uglich (Evans, 1906, p175).

Inanimate objects have a notoriously hard time finding legal representation. This subjects them to all manner of inequitable treatment, apparently including mutilation and deportation. Luckily, the bell had the last laugh, restored to its former greatness centuries later, proving that us humans are just a flash in the pan, and the average inanimate object just has to wait us out. As journalist Russell Baker observed, “The goal of all inanimate objects is to resist man and ultimately defeat him”.

Evans, E. P. (Edward Payson), 1831-1917. The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals. London: W. Heinemann, 1906.
Ives, George. A History of Penal Methods: Criminals, Witches, Lunatics. New York, 1914.