Nikolai Shuvalov, bell maker

The son of a dairy worker and a truck driver, Nikolai Shuvalov, 42, is modest to a fault. A self-trained artisan in the art of bell making, Shuvalov founded the Italmas workshop in Tutaev, on the banks of the Volga in Yaroslavl region. Igor Konovalov, artistic director for bell ringing at the Moscow Kremlin and Savior’s Cathedral (who has a reputation for a perfect ear) called Shuvalov’s workshop a “local wonder.”

The large Shuvalov family moved from Izhevsk to this ancient town in the early 1990s. The family could only afford to purchase a half-burned house on the Volga river, which today houses all 20 members of the Shuvalov clan (Nikolai has two brothers, Vladimir and Mikhail). Nikolai Shuvalov himself has five children: four girls and a boy, ranging from two-year-old daughter Liza, to Yelena, the eldest, who is 22 and studying art in Yaroslavl.

Nikolai’s first casting workshop was located in the courtyard of the family home. His first bells were small because metal was rather expensive. He and his two brothers sold potatoes from the family garden and spent every spare kopek on their experiments in bell making. At first their wives objected, but gave in when they realized how passionate the men had become about their art.

Unsatisfied with the quality of their first bells, the Shuvalovs closed down their “courtyard experiments” in 1998 and leased space at a local machine building enterprise. There they set up a molding and casting workshop that works at partial capacity in the winter, because the casting space is still in need of serious repairs.

At first Shuvalov and his brothers cast bells using modern techniques--casting it in earthen molds. But they did not like the sound of the bell which resulted. “It was not natural,” Shuvalov said. “It was too sharp and cristal-like.”

Not the kind of man who accept second best, Shuvalov began studying older bell making techniques. High-tech bell makers use computer aided design and make molds with plaster and organic sand mixtures that dry to an epoxy-like hardness (molds, after all, must hold up to 2000* molten metals). But bell making has been around since long before computers and some of the best craftsmen still use techniques first developed in medieval times. The internal mold is made of brick, covered with layers of loam (a mixture of clay, straw, goat's hair, and horse manure). This is baked and dried like pottery, and inserted inside a mold for the outer part of the bell (in which the Shuvalovs carve inscriptions and images in keeping with historical traditions). The molten metal is poured in between the two molds. The final or shape and thickness of the bell (known as its profile), is critical in defining its distinctive sound. Indeed, the slightest imperfection can lead to defects in the tonal quality of a bell, and Shuvalov spent much time studying and measuring the profiles of Russian bells preserved from ancient times.

One of the hardest parts of Shuvalov’s task was to find just the right clay for their molds. They finally found it at a site (which they keep secret) in Yaroslavl region, after realizing that the Olovyanishnikov bell making factory, which had operated in Yaroslavl for two centuries, must have had a local source.

When the brothers cast their first high quality bell, they were ecstatic. They then gifted the bell to Pokrovsky convent in Suzdal, where their sister is a nun.

Today, the Shuvalovs have so perfected their technique that they can cast bells weighing as much as 11,000 kilograms. The work is entirely manual and it can take up to three months to manufacture a single bell. But it is well worth it. Shuvalov bells are considered some of the best in Russia, and they ring in church towers from Moscow and St. Petersburg to Kostroma, Sochi, Bryansk and beyond.

Nikolai Shuvalov loves his work. To him, each of his bells is a human being. And not without reason. Russians have long likened bells to men. Its toll is its voice (golos), its message, the signal addressed to the people. And the measure of the Shuvalovs’ success is a measure of Russia. As Nikolai says, “As long as we cast bells, everything will be OK in Russia.”

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