Harvard University will return 18 massive brass bells rescued from a Moscow monastery nearly 80 years ago during a Soviet era crackdown on religion.
A delegation from Harvard signed an agreement with officials from the Russian Orthodox Church on Tuesday and the bells are expected to be at the Danilovsky Monastery by June 2008.
In return, Harvard will receive 18 replica bells, which are being cast at a foundry in Russia.
"This has been a gradual process of agreement, but today there's actual ink on the paper," Diana Eck, a professor of comparative religion at Harvard, told The Boston Globe. "It's a very important thing, not just for the Russian Orthodox Church, but for so many people in Russia, for whom this represents one of the great historic bell sets of their cultural heritage."
The bells, which have rung in the towers at Lowell House and Harvard Business School's Baker Library for decades, were cast in the 18th and 19th centuries and are decorated with etchings of Jesus Christ and Mary, saints and angels.
The largest, the Mother Earth Bell, weighs 13 tons (11.79 metric tons) and has a 700 pound (317 kilograms) clapper.
The bells were bought by industrialist Charles R. Crane from the Soviet government in 1930, a time when Joseph Stalin was killing thousands of monks and destroying monasteries across the vast nation.
The Orthodox Church has pressured Harvard for their return since the demise of the Soviet Union.
"We are thankful to Americans for saving these bells from melting by the Communists," Patriarch Alexy II said at the signing ceremony, according to The Moscow Times.
Their return was made possible by Russian metals tycoon Viktor Vekselberg, who is paying several million dollars for the exchange, Eck said, reports AP.
Vekselberg would not say exactly how much he is paying. "These bells are priceless for Russia, and we'd pay any price to get them back," he told the Times.