April 08, 2020

Exploring Medieval Russia in Veliky Novgorod

Exploring Medieval Russia in Veliky Novgorod
A great place to play "Alexander Nevsky". Griffin Edwards

Far from the metropolitan centers of St. Petersburg and Moscow is the small city of Veliky Novgorod, in western Russia. It’s hard to imagine today, but at one time, Novgorod was one of the largest and wealthiest cities in eastern Europe. And by “one time,” I mean from about 1100-1450.

Novgorod is often considered the “Birthplace of Russia,” and for good reason. The story goes that the Viking adventurer Rurik arrived in the area in the 860s, and vowed to protect the city as its prince. His relatives spread through the rest of what is now western Russia and Ukraine, founding the first Russian dynasty, the Rurikids, who would last until 1612.

Novgorod became a wealthy trade hub on the Volkhov River, passing the goods of Northern Russia (honey, lumber, amber, slaves, furs) down into the Mediterranean through the labyrinth of waterways in the area. Medieval Novgorod was quite cosmopolitan, welcoming merchants from throughout northern Europe and the Hanseatic League. The policies of its lands were decided in a quasi-democratic city council (veche), making the city the capital of the Novgorod Republic. It was one of the only parts of Russia left relatively untouched by the Mongol invasion, and it was here that Novgorod’s Prince Alexander Nevsky rallied his troops to famously beat back the Teutonic Knights.

The walls of Novgorod
The walls of the Novgorod Kremlin | Griffin Edwards

Novgorod was finally brought to its knees in the fifteeenth century when the Muscovite Tsar Ivan III annexed it into his territory. A rebellion in 1570 led to Ivan IV's destruction of much of the city. Novgorod never returned to prominence. Ironically, Ivan IV “the Terrible” was the penultimate Rurikid tsar.

In the Soviet period, Novgorod became a major manufacturing center for TVs and radios. But, since the fall of the USSR, it’s largely become a tourist city.

St. Sophia's Cathedral, Novgorod
St. Sophia’s Cathedral, the oldest church in Russia, built in 1050. In the foreground is the 1862 Millenium of Russia monument, inside Novgorod’s kremlin. | Griffin Edwards

Visitors to Novgorod today can still get a glimpse of Novgorod’s former splendor. St. Sophia Cathedral’s golden dome dominates the historic core of the city, clustered around the Novgorod Kremlin and preserved as a UNESCO World Heritage Site along with dozens of other sites.

Perhaps most fascinating are the birchbark letters uncovered in archaeological excavations in the twentieth century. The swampy soil around the city has preserved dozens of personal writings of medieval citizens; the proliferation of personal notes, like premodern text messages, has led researchers to think that literacy in the city might have been quite high by medieval standards.

A birchbark manuscript from Novgorod
A Novgorodian boy's homework, preserved for the world to see. | Public domain

Novgorod can be accessed today by a three-hour ride by bus or train from St. Petersburg. It’s a town of about 200,000, a little like a Russian Cleveland: an overlooked, formerly industrial center. Ironically, its homonym city, Nizhny Novgorod (“Lower” or “Lesser Novgorod”) is one of the largest cities in Russia, with more than a million residents.

However, there remain many treasures in Novgorod. From ancient trade quarters to one of the largest collections of icons, it’s well worth a visit for the historically-inclined Russophile.

The ancient market of Novgorod
The site of Novgorod's ancient market. | Griffin Edwards


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