Novgorod: medieval democracy in Russia

An index to this series is found on its first post.

October 27, 2017

With several hours left in Novgorod, I set my sights on understanding the remarkable “veche” government of the medieval city.  What would 14th-century democracy look like?

First, though, I scratched an itch by returning to Holy Wisdom for another look at the Novgorod stone cross inside the cathedral. While I was there, I found a couple of gifts for people who might not have been expecting presents from this trip.  While I dithered over potential purchases, I realized I was standing right next to a chapel in which a service was taking place.  A priest in the chapel intoned from a script.  Individual parishioners stepped out of the service at my left to consult with a priest at my right.  From time to time he would punctuate the other priest’s litany with a singing cry, to which the other would respond “Amen.”  You can listen to a brief sound recording of the duo.


A dusting of snow makes anyone seem friendlier.

Snow continued to fall through the night, so I got to see the city plazas and statues with a light blanket of white. I realized that I recognized the figure standing in the plaza outside the Novgorod kremlin (walled fortress); he’s Lenin!


Five looks for the Monument to the Millennium of Russian Statehood

I took photos all around the periphery of the Millennium of Russia, a statue unveiled inside this city’s kremlin in 1862 to celebrate the 1000th year since Rurik came to rule over the Slavs and Urgo-Finnic people in this area.  Rurik appears in the left-most panel above; he’s the one holding the shield.  The next panel shows a ruler holding a cross aloft; this commemorates Vladimir the Great becoming a Christian (and forcibly converting all his followers) in 988.  The martial-looking dude to the right of the first panel represents Dmitry Donskoi, beginning to push back the reign of the Golden Horde in 1380.  The fellow who looks like a monk in the third panel represents Ivan III, “The Great,” who assured the power of Russia against the Tartars, Livonians, and Lithuanians in 1491 (just before Columbus’ fateful voyage).  The fourth panel shows the nobility guarding the ascent of the Michael I Romanov to close out the Time of Troubles in 1613.  The figure in the final panel should seem familiar after my post on Peter the Great!


Novgorod History Museum

From there, I turned to the history museum of Novgorod (called the “Novgorod State Museum-Reserve”). From its front step, one looks past the Millennium Monument, straight towards Holy Wisdom. There’s a lot of culture, all in one place! Sadly, the museum frustrated me, right out of the gate. I had walked through about four rooms of the place when I gave up; not a single exhibit in that space had an English label (or even one with Latin lettering)! I had already paid 200 RUB to enter the museum, and now I had to pay 200 RUB more, plus a 1000 RUB deposit, to rent an “audio guide.” As I walked through the exhibits, I touched the pen to the provided map to indicate where I was. The numbered spots would play back a recorded audio in English to describe those items. I would have preferred a printed book, because then I could capture the information with my camera.

It is plain that Lake Ilmen was popular with settlers from many tribes, over a very long period of time. The sediments around here are just loaded with the leavings of all the groups from which Russia was merged. I was fascinated with the quality of artifacts that have been recovered from Rurik’s Fort, just southwest of town. These ruins have produced a fair bit of glass, including an intact drinking cup. In the ninth century, glass was only available to the very wealthy!


The daily grind

The audio left an important leap of logic unfilled. It reported that the soils around Novgorod are not particularly great for farming, therefore the population turned to arts and crafts to get by. Generally, I think of cities working in the other direction. Once food production is ensured, then people start differentiating into specialties. In any case, Novgorod became very good at pottery, iron and copper working, and any number of other specialties. As I mentioned before, the city became part of the Hanseatic League. If any League member wanted to sell items in Russia, they were only allowed to sell to Novgorod. Sales to other communities in Russia would subsequently be handled by the merchants of Novgorod.


Some of the biggest and the smallest of coins!

Correspondingly, Novgorod has proven a rich site for coins from throughout Eurasia.  I particularly enjoyed a large sheet of metal that served as a high-denomination note.  The trove also includes large numbers of coins first struck in Moscow under Ivan III featuring a horse on one side.  The coins came to be called “kopeks,” nicknamed for that equine image.


While it may seem odd to make a wooden road, it would carry the weight of people and carts just fine.

Wood was in abundant supply to Novgorod. Almost everything was built of it. A model showed a reconstruction of a district of town. The mansions were wood. The lesser homes and outbuildings were wood. The roads were made of wood, and the walls separating public and private property were wood. In fact, when a segment of road had degraded too much, the city would add a new layer parallel to the flow of traffic and then another layer perpendicular to it. Over time, the roads became somewhat elevated, and drainage became an issue (as you may have guessed, the channels were also made of wood). A wood-construction open air museum devoted to wood construction has been open since the 1960s, but unfortunately I didn’t have quite enough time to see it.

Novgorod also became involved in long-range trade routes between Asia and northern Europe. I hadn’t been aware that a northern companion silk route fed this product to Scandinavia. The variety of coins and foreign products that have been found in layers since the 10th century is quite surprising. Obviously the city built close ties to Byzantium, considering its religious link.


One student became bored with writing exercises.

I hadn’t realized that Novgorod had been such a center of literacy for the Old Russian language! The museum had two forms of written works on display. The first was a small tray to produce a thin layer of wax. A student could practice with a stylus on the wax and then re-melt to erase. A psalter in this format was on display, one of the earliest examples of the written communication in this part of the world. The next type of written work was birch bark. Certainly, there are enough trees of this type in this part of the world! They displayed a few “pages” from a small boy who enjoyed doodling when his attention wandered.


The bells on display at the St. Sophia bell tower range back to 1614.

Novgorod is remarkable for its form of government. The merchants had enough sway that they were able to retain right of approval on their political leader; essentially the merchants pushed the nobility out of town and elected a prince from time to time. Novgorod was the city that elected Prince Alexander Nevsky in the time of Swedish and Livonian attacks. They retained him as Prince even though he agreed to pay the Mongols protection money; in fact, Novgorod paid more than its share of Russia’s tribute under the “Mongol Yoke.” A key symbol to Novgorod democracy was the bell calling the city to have a veche, or assembly.


St. Nicholas, by Alexa Petrov, 1294

The museum has a really phenomenal collection of Russian Orthodox icons. I’ve seen enough that I know this isn’t my favorite style of art! Just the same, the collection is astounding. The Peter and Paul icon is taller than I am; it had been placed in the Holy Wisdom Cathedral in the twelfth century. The St. Nicholas icon is pretty recognizable. When I was at the museum, an artist was trying to duplicate the face of the saint on a fresh canvas. I particularly liked an icon that showed a battle between the Prince of Suzdal (another Russian princely state) and the people of Novgorod. An archbishop held one of the city’s icons up on its wall, and an arrow apparently bounced off the icon. The bishop then exclaimed that the icon had begun crying in response. The icon representing the battle then showed heroes from the dead (such as St. Nevsky) fighting on the side of Novgorod’s defenders.


Detail from icon of battle with Suzdal

All good things come to an end, and the Novgorod Republic found its end in Ivan the Terrible (1530-1584). He felt that their ties to the west represented a betrayal of Russian ideas, and he sent his unsavory Oprichniki forces to raid the city. They burned and pillaged Novgorod, killing thousands. Perhaps their most symbolic insult to the city was that the bell to call together a veche was taken down and ported on a sledge back to Moscow (though legends reported the bell never arrived). After the assault of the Oprichniki, Novgorod would forever be part of a greater Russian state.

The museum really did have a great collection. I wish that they would improve their accessibility with more signs in English. I should also mention that Russian museums seem to be part of a large scale employment plan for little old ladies (LOL). Every room has its attendant LOL. As I completed the arts side of the first floor, a LOL kept interrupting my audio recording. Eventually I understood that she was saying that for the rest of the arts side, the audio guide was not in sync with the updated exhibits. She kept following me around and insisting about something or other. Eventually, my part of the conversation sounded quite like this: “I know you want to have a conversation, but neither of us speaks a language the other understands. What I want at this point is for you to sit back down let me get on with the museum.” In the end, I just turned my back and walked away. I sat in another part of the museum to hear about the literature that was no longer on display.


St. Sophia (it’s only a model)

Having finished with the history museum, I wandered back to the visitor’s information center. A line of sheds have been put in place to sell souvenirs. Of course one can buy bells, but many types of wood art are available. I bought a couple of items for loved ones. With that I went to the information booth itself.  I bought a bottle of kvas, which is a beverage fermented from rye bread. I had heard about it before this trip, and I thought I should try it. How would I describe the taste? It’s a little like beer, but not as sharp. It has very little alcohol in it (less than one percent). I like it!


The grounds of the St. Gregory (Yuriev) Monastery

The information folks hoped I would go ahead to visit the monastery of St. Gregory, just south of town. To get there, I needed to catch a city bus across the street. The bus cost was minimal (just 22 RUB), so I just gave it a whirl. In fifteen minutes, I was at the monastery. I took several photos within the grounds, but I saw my battery was running flat.


Palm Sunday?

I took a couple of shots in the Cathedral of St. Gregory. The floor is only partially intact, but there are some lovely works of art to see in the columns and the ceiling. As I stepped outside to take a picture of yet another pretty church, the dreaded “change the battery” warning appeared on my camera. Where was the spare? Dreck. I’d left it in my laptop case, which was waiting back at the hotel.  For some reason I had left my inferior camera battery from Watson in place rather than using the proper Canon battery.

My secret agenda in coming to St. Gregory’s was actually to see Rurik’s hill fort, visible from the river bank at St. Gregory’s. I walked over there, in hopes of squeezing just one more shot from my battery. The first place was on the water, but my view of the fort was blocked by trees. I crossed a concrete bridge after trekking through a muddy road bed. Then I slogged across a very muddy trail up and down a bluff to get to the perfect spot. I said a brief wish for good things and attached my 55-200 mm zoom lens. The camera powered up! I fixed my zoom on the fort (at least on the church above the ruins), hit the shutter trigger, and… “change the battery.” I didn’t get my photo after all.


2 thoughts on “Novgorod: medieval democracy in Russia

  1. Pingback: Russia: acquiring a tourist visa for the world’s largest country | Picking Up The Tabb

  2. Pingback: Lübeck: Queen City of the Hanseatic League | Picking Up The Tabb

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