Counterfactuals and hypotheticals can be useful frames through which to examine history, as they can help scholars understand that the future is never set in stone and that contingent factors leading to diverging paths can result in wildly different potential outcomes for societies. Pre-Imperial Russian history is replete with these sorts of ‘what-if’ questions, ranging from thoughts about possible development were the Mongols to have avoided Russia to changes that may have resulted from a full Polish takeover of Muscovy during the Time of Troubles. One such question that sparks the imagination is: What would Russian history look like if the medieval statelet which anchored the nascent Russian nation was Novgorod instead of Muscovy? Would Russia have made a decisive turn towards Europe, centuries before the actions of Peter the Great? Unfortunately, historians can never know the answers to these questions; yet by studying the unique cultural aspects of medieval Novgorod, its parallel, but opposing development with respect to Muscovy, and the institutions and policies that made it different, we can envision the road not taken.
Medieval Novgorod, often styled as ‘Great Novgorod’ (Velikii Novgorod) or ‘Lord Novgorod the Great’ (gospodin Velikii Novgorod) after the mid-fourteenth century, was a semi-autonomous city-state located in the northwest of the lands comprising the polity of Kievan Rus’. It was distinct in nearly all attributes of state and society – economics, culture, religion, foreign relations, and internal politics – from other Russian polities of the time, particularly Muscovy. Novgorod was an essentially independent entity within greater Russia from the time of its expulsion of Prince Vsevolod Mstislavich in 1136 through its capture by Grand Prince Ivan III in 1478, but its history and alternative path began at least two centuries earlier. The city-state’s unusual character was reflected in its status as the only nominally republican polity in the Russian lands, as well as its ability to abstract itself from many of the typical concerns and politics that roiled its neighbors. It was able to keep its singular way of life, system of government, and ancient privileges of self-rule intact through five centuries of unmitigated chaos which completely upended the rest of Russian society. Novgorod’s history can be handily divided into four segments: the period of early settlement and development (900s to 1136), the phase of initial autonomy under Kiev (1136 to 1240), the era of local rule under the Mongols (1240 to 1387), and the final age of independence before the Muscovite takeover (1387 to 1478). During this era of autonomy and self-rule, the city-state controlled more than the city of Novgorod proper and its immediate environs; it held and administered a territorial and colonial empire that, at its zenith, “stretched from the Baltic to the Urals and covered an area approximately the size of present day France, Belgium and the Netherlands combined.”
Many attributes of Novgorod were remarkable when it came to the rest of Russia in the medieval period, but four key factors are the most relevant to the city-state’s development as an alternative to Muscovy: internal politics, foreign affairs, economics and commerce, and religion and culture. All of these realms of Novgorodian civilization were distinct from those of Muscovy in the medieval era and presage some of Imperial Russia’s future alignments and ideologies. From strong relations with the West, especially Germany, to the focus on commercial expansion and resource exploitation, Novgorod was reminiscent of Peter the Great’s Russia, as well as contemporary European maritime city-states. Novgorod was an outpost of high culture and religious piety in an age when neither were in large supply elsewhere in Russia; the pragmatic policies of the city-state allowed it to weather the storms of internecine Russian warfare, Mongol invasion and hegemony, and rising Muscovite autocracy – at least until 1478. It was in that fateful year that Novgorod’s nominal autonomy, independent status, and inimitable civic ethos fell to the armies of Moscow; still, Novgorodian cultural currents remained bubbling under the surface as a wellspring of the famed Russian ideology of dissent for centuries afterwards. Before delving into the specific traits of Novgorodian life that made it special, it is critical to contextualize how and why Novgorod was able to develop this exceptionality.
There are two primary explanations for the development of a distinctive Novgorodian civic culture and political structure – geography and history.
Novgorod’s location and the geography, climate, and topography of its surrounding environs had a great deal of influence on the city-state’s unique development. Novgorod is located at the confluence of important rivers, in an area that has served as a crossroads from Europe into Asia and from Scandinavia down to the Middle East; in its heyday, the Novgorodian empire stretched across hundreds of thousands of square miles of thick mixed boreal and deciduous forests, seasonally flooding meadowlands, and frozen tundra. These extensive territories were teeming with wildlife, including birds and fowl, fresh and saltwater fish, large mammals like deer and bear, and smaller mammals that were prized for their luxurious furs – squirrel, marten, otter, beaver, and fox. The location of the city of Novgorod gave it distinct advantages that allowed for the expansion of the commercial and territorial empire it developed.
Novgorod itself straddles the mighty Volkhov River, between Lakes Ladoga and Il’men; this location is a key nexus of freshwater travel in Russia and, in the medieval ages, the area was even more critical for international trade. The city-state was situated in a place where it could access the Gulf of Finland via the Neva River and Lake Ladoga, as well as control the channels and portages of the Upper Volga, West Dvina, and Dnepr Rivers. These waterways allowed the Novgorodians to meter access to both the Black and White Seas and were an important entrance point for European trade coming from the Baltic and traveling into the wider Russian lands. Novgorod’s prime location led to it being a chief clearinghouse of transit trade; the city-state operated as a key node of the Scandinavian-Byzantine-Arab trade in its early history, then transitioned to simultaneously become the westernmost outlet for Mongol and Asian goods and the easternmost outpost of the German Hanseatic League, a trading federation that dominated the Baltic. Prior to the development of more advanced land-based transit, the best way to get goods to market was via water transportation; Novgorod was adept at this critical skill, both due to its population’s navigational talent and its local reserves of naval stores and timber. The layout of the city of Novgorod in the fifteenth century illustrates its riverine orientation; as seen in Figure 1 above, Novgorod developed directly around the Volkhov, with two distinct halves of the town being split by the river. The city was divided into five ‘ends’ or kontsy, under which functioned ‘streets’ or ulitsy; the center of the town was the walled-in citadel, the detinets, which included the cathedral and other important buildings.
Novgorod’s geographic setting on the periphery of the Russian lands gave it room to expand into a vast territorial empire and made it resilient to external challenge or invasion. The Novgorodian realm, at its height, stretched “from the Baltic to the Arctic Seas, from Lake Peipus to the Urals and Siberia, and south and southeast to the borders of the Vladimir-Suzdalian (later Tverian and Muscovite) principalities.” This enormous swathe of land was sparsely inhabited and did not include many major towns or cities, but was immensely abundant in natural resources which could be exploited and traded for foodstuffs, manufactures, or luxuries. The extensive borders of the Novgorodian lands and their situation relative to neighboring states can be seen in Figure 2 below. The governance of this substantial territory was done largely from Novgorod, but it was a far lighter touch than may be expected; most colonists or outlying peoples would have a degree of self-government as long as they supplied the state’s traders with the natural bounty of their lands. Although most of the empire of Novgorod was spread thin population-wise, there were notable cities which operated as satellites of the main town; Pskov and Staraya Russa were significant settlements that worked somewhat independently of the center – in fact, Pskov would go on to split off from Novgorod and was recognized by the “elder brother” city as its own entity in 1347.
Novgorod’s geography of the periphery also made it a far less likely option for territorial incursion and attack, particularly from the east. For much of Russian history, steppe raiders periodically invaded and destroyed the towns and commerce of its people; this was easy to do, as most of the Slavic lands were bordered by massive stretches of open plain and steppe pastureland, giving nomadic raiders the ability to move quickly, keep supplied, and fight using their preferred methods. Novgorod, on the contrary, was located deep inside a region bordered by primeval forests and surrounded by marshy swampland, making mounted steppe incursions extremely difficult. This landscape provided respite for the city-state and preserved it from the epic devastation wrought by steppe armies, particularly the Mongol hordes of the mid-thirteenth century. Novgorodian lands were spared the destruction that visited the other states in the region, and thus were able to sustain their pre-Mongol economic growth better than their rivals. Novgorod’s peripheral location granted it greater autonomy and flexibility when making policy decisions, as it was challenging to assert power in such an advanced city so far away from the nominal centers of authority.
Novgorod’s distinct development was also due in part to its central role in the history of Kievan Rus’ and its initial consolidation of the Slavic lands into a territorial state. Most scholars contend that early Russian history was heavily influenced by the Scandinavian Vikings known as Varangians, who moved through and eventually settled in what is now Russia. According to scholar Thomas S. Noonan, “the main Viking routes into Russia led through the area which later became the nucleus of the Novgorod lands.” These Scandinavians had regular relations with Russians in the north from as early as the late eighth century and eventually settled at places like Old Ladoga to “dwell among the inhabitants of northern Russia”. Viking history was not limited to trading and minor settlement, but was the basis for the future Russian state.
The original foundation legend of Kievan Rus’ centers the Varangians and Novgorod and lays out a semi-mythical reason as to the innate difference of the Novgorodian culture and ethos. The tale of Rurik and the dynasty which emanated from him and ruled Russia, in some form or another, until the Time of Troubles, focuses on Novgorod. At a point in the legendary past, the Slavic inhabitants of Russia decided to kick out all foreign princes and rule over themselves – this did not work out well and many turned to the Vikings to provide them a leader, saying “Our whole land is great and rich, but there is no order in it. Come to rule and reign over us.” These Slavs invited three brothers to rule their lands, but the eldest brother Rurik was the most important; he set himself up in Novgorod, making it his capital, and was the fabled progenitor of the dynastic lineage which would continue for over seven hundred years – from his son Oleg in the ninth century all the way to Tsar Vasilii IV in the early seventeenth century. According to the chronicle entry, “On account of these Varangians, the district of Novgorod became known as Russian (Rus) land. The present inhabitants of Novgorod are descended from the Varangian race, but aforetime they were Slavs.” This early acknowledgment of Novgorod’s important place in Russian history is accompanied by a clear statement of Novgorodian variance: that they are not Slavic and are instead descended from Scandinavians. This assertion, whether true or not, depicts the Russian understanding and perception that Novgorod was in some important, deep-seated way different from the rest of the nation.
What Makes Novgorod Exceptional?
What institutions, policies, ideologies, professions, lifestyles, and cultures made Novgorod distinct? There are four categories of difference that need to be explored to properly understand the depth of Novgorodian inimitability: the city’s republican internal politics, its status with respect to foreign policy, Novgorod’s heavy focus on trade and commerce, and its wholehearted embrace of a separate religious culture.
Medieval Novgorod’s internal political structure was a fascinating blend of oligarchy, republic, and colonial empire. The city’s unique physical structure, separate culture, and peripheral status gave it room to develop republican institutions and governance akin to its contemporaries on the Italian Peninsula and in Dalmatia and very much counter to the autocratic currents of Russian society. The three factors which most represented Novgorod’s distinct political edifice were the popular assembly (the veche), the aristocracy and the role of the prince, and the city-state’s imperial pretensions.
The medieval Novgorodian veche, or popular assembly, was the longest-lasting body of popular representation in Russian history, running from 1016 through its abolition by force in 1478; yet it was not the only veche in Russia – many other cities had assemblies, but none survived as long or had as much power and influence as the veche of Novgorod. In Novgorod, particularly after 1136, the veche was the dominant political institution in the city-state’s governmental structure. Novgorod was not a democracy in the modern sense – it was far more of an oligarchic republic – but the veche could be broadly representative of the population of the city. The veche did not meet on a regular schedule, had the general character of a town meeting, and could in theory be summoned by any free member of society – boyar aristocrats, zhit’I lyudi (wealthy landed burghers who were not of the hereditary aristocracy), or chernye lyudi (lower classes of regular townsfolk) – through the ringing of the church bell. As in other oligarchic republics, the boyar aristocracy had the majority of political power within the veche, but they did have to respond to the desires and interests of their ‘constituents’ in the other parts of the urban population.
The veche essentially made decisions on behalf of the whole city; it “chose Novgorod’s prince, elected the three nominees from whom its archbishop was chosen by lot, elected the archimandrite who supervised the monasteries, elected the posadniki (‘mayors’) and tysiatskie, and decided all major political issues, including war and peace.” Officials who were elected by the veche could, and often were, dismissed by the popular assembly. Decisions were made in a collective manner, generally by acclamation, and approval was by consensus; formally, veches would only make decisions on an unanimous basis, but this was more complex in practice. The boyars who led the veche assemblies would often ‘coax’ the citizenry into making the approved choice, but this was not always possible. To achieve consensus, dissenters would be forced out of the veche area or badgered into voting for the choice of the majority. Not all veches were equal with respect to their legality; many scholars believe that, given the fact that nearly anyone could organize a veche, illegal veches – those spontaneous gatherings of townspeople – were commonplace. These illegal veches did not have the power of a regular veche in that they could not elect or depose officials or make policy, but they did show the will of a certain group. Much of the time these illegal veches were more of a violent “lynching mob” than a democratic assembly, and the term veche itself could be used to mean a “gathering of armed people.”
This level of popular democracy could and often did lead to rampant internecine violence; the city of Novgorod was riven by internal strife many times during its long history of autonomy. For instance, significant “revolts, uprisings, insurgencies, conspiracies, plots,” or internal conflicts took place in 1228, 1230, 1255, 1270, 1290, 1291, 1316, 1337, 1342, 1346, 1384, and 1418. These factional fights would result from family disputes, civil or criminal matters, political disagreements, and more; the democratic nature of Novgorod made these disputes harder to tamp down, as there was not a central civil authority that was always empowered to adjudicate these issues. Oftentimes the prince or especially the archbishop would be called in to calm things down, but these conflicts could escalate into major destruction. For instance, one such time when violence spiraled into a city-wide war was in the year 1359; in that year a dispute over the mayoralty of Novgorod led to the two halves of the city coming to blows. Both sides “armed themselves against each other; the Sophia side sought to avenge the dishonor to its brothers, the Slavno side fought for their lives and property.” In this battle, which lasted multiple days, the main bridge crossing the Volkhov was destroyed and the conflict was not resolved until the holiest men of the city came to speak. Even then, violence erupted outside of the city center; “they sacked Selivester’s villages, and many villages of the Slavno quarter were seized; and also many innocent people perished then.” As one can tell, unfettered democratic participation could lead to intense violence; it was the role of the boyars and prince to channel these animal spirits into actual governance.
The Role of Aristocrats and the Prince
The prince of the city-state, as well as the hereditary Novgorodian aristocracy, through the elective positions of government, provided a check on the democratic veche system. Boyars dominated the offices which ran the day-to-day life of Novgorod: the posadnik, the tysiatskii, and the Sovet Gospod. Each position had a different responsibility and nature. The posadnik, basically the ‘mayor’, “was originally a princely lieutenant appointed by him [the prince], but in effect soon became the chief elected spokesman of the feudal lords and representative of their interests.” The posadnik was the most important purely secular power in Novgorod, and asserted great authority over foreign affairs, justice, and trade, as well as serving to rein in the sitting prince. The tysiatskii, another official elected by the veche, started out as a military command position – the title roughly translates to ‘chiliarch’ and relates to command of one thousand men – but gained further responsibilities like running the Commercial Court (crucial in a trading city like Novgorod). The tysiatskii was initially a representative of the non-boyar population of the city, but this function was subsumed as the power of the elite oligarchy grew in the fifteenth century. These positions evolved over time and increased significantly in number; initially there was a single posadnik for the city, which then was expanded to include a head posadnik and sub-posadniks for each kontsy (giving a total of six), then to a total of eighteen, and finally to twenty-four. The reasoning behind the rise in the number of elected officials is not necessarily a function of a more complicated political environment, but was largely a salve for the issue of a few select boyar clans monopolizing these positions; opening up the ranks to a wider group of aristocrats did a great deal to calm rising tensions. Another change that helped consolidate boyar oligarchic rule in Novgorod was the focus on the Council of Lords, or Sovet Gospod. This body started out as an “executive committee” of the veche, but was actually an independent power center. The Council was not specifically elected, but instead included “the highest town officials, current and past, as well as the elders of the five boroughs (kontsy)”; these town officials would be the aforementioned posadniks and tysiatskiis. The Sovet Gospod was helmed by the archbishop of Novgorod, who had a unique position in Russia for an ecclesiastical figure: he was the nominal head of state for the Republic of St. Sophia. Boyar oligarchy was the main source of power within Novgorod, but it was offset by more than just the veche; Novgorod’s princes were a counterweight to the aristocracy.
The role of prince was distinct in Novgorod and played a somewhat minor role for most of Novgorodian history compared to the importance of monarchs in other Russian principalities. From the early days of Novgorod’s history within Kievan Rus’, Russian princes saw the seat of power in the northwestern city as the jumping-off point for the true prize: the throne in Kiev. Novgorod’s status as the historical heart of Russia combined with its marginal location allowed it to exert a degree of authority over its prince; this culminated with the act that most scholars believe started Novgorod’s period of autonomy – the expulsion of Prince Vsevolod Mstislavich in 1136. The Chronicle of Novgorod relates it thusly:
The men of Novgorod summoned the men of Pleskov and of Ladoga and took counsel how to expel their Knyaz Vsevolod . . . and guards with arms guarded him day and night, thirty men daily . . . And they made these his faults: I. He has no care for the serfs; II. Why didst thou wish to make thy seat in Pereyaslavl? III. Thou didst ride away from the troop in front of all, and besides that much vacillation, ordering us first to advance against Vsevolodko and then again to retreat; and they did not let him go until another Knyaz came.
That passage describes the expulsion of Prince (Knyaz) Vsevolod, the naming of his faults – including indecisiveness at war – and his being held captive by the townsfolk until a prince of their choice arrived. The expulsion of princes became a fairly routine affair in Novgorodian history, particularly in the period starting in 1136 and continuing through the age of Mongol domination. During this period, the Novgorodians were “necessarily subservient to outside Russian princes, but by manipulating rivalries among the Riurikids,” they were able to maintain self-rule. The status of the prince became less important over time, with his role being far more about defense and administration of justice than any sort of actual decision-making; the position has been compared to the podestà of the medieval Italian cities. The prince’s rights and duties to the citizens of Novgorod were spelled out in the riad, a legal document, that each new prince had to swear to uphold via oath. The ability for Novgorod to enforce these terms on princes for hundreds of years, under the nominal suzerainty of powers ranging from Kiev to Sarai to Moscow, was an incredible achievement and speaks clearly to the unique status of the Republic of St. Sophia. After the death of Novgorod’s favorite son Prince Alexander Nevsky in 1263, the city-state ceased naming its own prince and began simply to accept the rule of foreign princes from afar; at first Novgorod followed the yarlyk, or patent, granted by the Tatar khans and shifted allegiance accordingly, but with the rise of Muscovy and the collapse of the Golden Horde, Novgorod’s autonomy became fatally imperiled. Historian Michael C. Paul has made the case that Novgorod’s princes were more powerful than typically understood and that Novgorodian choice in princes was limited; his article on the subject makes interesting points, but does not completely undermine the idea of Novgorodian autonomy. On the contrary, his deep dive into the many times in which Novgorod dismissed its princes shows that, even in situations with restricted options, Novgorod was able to protect its traditional autonomy and overcome its constraints by choosing the best option available.
The Novgorodian Lands
Novgorod’s sovereignty, exhibited in its ability to choose its princes, was also reflected in its control of a vast territorial empire that was “larger than all the other Russian principalities taken together.” This extensive landmass was controlled centrally, but was unique in its organizational structure and administrative apparatus. As discussed earlier, the city of Novgorod was divided into five kontsy, or ends, and this interesting and complex structure was mirrored in the setup of the Novgorodian colonial lands. According to Halperin, “Novgorod’s territorial empire included prigorody (subordinate or ‘satellite’ cities); volosti (districts), perhaps later converted under Muscovite rule to piatiny (literally: fifths), and very outlying tribute-paying zones only irregularly visited by Novgorodian expeditions, having at most temporarily occupied pogosty (outposts).” The five major piatiny (Votskaya, Shelonskaya, Derevskaya, Obonezhskaya, Bezhetskaya) corresponding to the kontsy of Novgorod proper can be seen in Figure 2 above; although these territories were initially intended to be governed by each kontsy, in practice governance fell far more on the local level – the farther away from Novgorod itself, the greater degree of autonomy granted. Outlying areas were expected to pay tribute, normally in the form of furs, to Novgorod, but that was the extent of their responsibility to the center. This lack of practical centralization allowed the Novgorodian lands to grow rapidly and expansively, but also made them far more susceptible to eventual absorption into other, more centralized states like Muscovy. Part of this difference in governing ideology was due to Novgorod’s status as a commercial republic; it saw colonial hinterlands primarily as areas with resources to be extracted and sold versus seeing them as lands to be settled and permanently cultivated.
Novgorod’s unique autonomous status in greater Russia gave it the ability to negotiate its own foreign policy and deal with outsiders without interference. The city-state’s foreign policy was pragmatic and focused heavily on protection and expansion of trade and commerce; Novgorod would generally try to avoid becoming directly involved in conflict and attempted to play rivals off one another for its own gain. More than anything else, Novgorod was set on retaining its ancient rights and privileges of autonomy in politics and religion and worked to ensure the survival of this system. Foreign relations for Novgorod can be divided into three major areas: relations with other Russian polities, dealings with the Mongols and Tatars, and affairs with the West, particularly those states active near the Novgorodian lands in Eastern and Northern Europe.
Relations with Other Russians
Novgorod’s special history as the entrance point for the Varangians into Russia and the fledgling nation’s first capital under its mythical founder Rurik made it an important player in intra-Russian relations. During the Kievan period, Novgorod was seen as a heartland for Russia and was the second city of the realm; as it was the stepping stone to overall rule in Kiev, princes from around the Russian principalities would vie for control of Novgorod, giving the city itself leverage over the princes. This competition allowed Novgorod to retain its autonomy, as described above; much of Novgorod’s interest in maintaining relations with other Russian statelets was selfish – they wished to keep Novgorod separate and protect its rights above all else. Novgorodians did, however, directly compete with other Russian polities in trade, colonial expansion, and military affairs.
Novgorodian military expeditions were often tied to trade issues or raids for supplies and treasure. The Republic of St. Sophia was notorious for its history of lauding and supporting its young men in taking on the task of riverine raiding, calling those involved – essentially pirates – “brave lads”. These brigands traveled down the river systems of Russia, attacking towns, stealing goods and treasure, killing and taking captives the whole way. In an infamous episode relayed in the Voskresensk Chronicle for the year 1375, Novgorodian river pirates with seventy boats traveled down the Volga, devastating cities including Kostroma and Nizhnii-Novgorod, taking Christians and Muslims captive, plundering the landscape, and arriving in Astrakhan at the mouth of the Volga – only to be killed deceitfully and “without mercy” by the leader of the city. These raids were painful for Novgorod’s neighbors, but ensured that the city-state kept tight control over the waterways that were so crucial for Novgorod’s economic success.
Other military actions were taken to protect outlying territorial holdings from the incursions of rival Russian groups; this became more significant after Muscovy’s rise began in earnest with the Battle of Kulikovo Field in 1380. In 1398, for instance, Novgorod dealt with an invasion of some of its colonial lands in the Dvina region by the Muscovite Prince Vasilii I; Vasilii was officially the recognized prince of Novgorod, as he held the Mongol yarlyk, so combating this incursion was ideologically challenging. To overcome this issue, the Novgorod veche along with the archbishop sent envoys to Vasilii to plead for him to cease harming Novgorod. When he refused, the Novgorodians resolved to take back their lands by force and eventually did reconquer the area. This defeat at the hands of Lord Novgorod the Great made the Muscovites even more wary of the independent power center that existed in that republic; Muscovy’s centralizing, domineering destiny as consolidator of the Russian state was in conflict with Novgorod’s mercantile autonomy. Subsequent Muscovite rulers worked to diminish the power of the Republic of St. Sophia and were incredibly successful; Novgorod’s end as an independent entity came in 1478 when Moscow’s Grand Prince Ivan III the Great “took the city by force of arms and abolished the posadnichestvo (mayoralty), the tysiatskie, and the veche”. Ivan also “ordered the removal of the veche bell to Moscow, indicating not only the end of independent Novgorod and the triumph of Muscovite centralization over autonomous or independent tendencies, but also the success of the princely office over alternative, more participatory republican or aristocratic offices or institutions.”
Relations with the Tatars
Novgorod’s affairs with the Mongols and Tatars after the invasions of the thirteenth century were quite different than their relations with their Russian neighbors; Novgorod was spared the initial assault on the surrounding lands and worked within the Tatar system to retain its traditional autonomous status and political institutions. Its pragmatic stance meant that it generally accepted the prince to whom the Tatars granted their patent, or yarlyk, and only agitated around the edges when they felt it may be most beneficial. They accepted Mongol census-takers and benefited by having their city spared from the devastation that was wrought by the Horde across the Russian land; the survival of the city intact was critical in its ability to retain its institutions and cultural knowledge – Novgorod’s library was the only major one not destroyed in this era. The Republic of St. Sophia gained in trade as well; although the Mongols reoriented the fur trade away from Novgorod and towards Moscow, they protected the east-west trade routes that Novgorod relied upon. This allowed Novgorod to fully embrace the Hanseatic League and the city’s new role as an entrepôt of all Baltic trade, as well as building new connections with territories in Asia. The city-state was helped in these goals by excellent leaders, especially Prince Alexander Nevsky, who gained the Mongol yarlyk in the mid-thirteenth century and led Novgorod and Russia as a whole into partnership with the Tatars. Nevsky traveled to the Tatar capital of Sarai more than once, as well as going to the Mongol homeland to meet the Khan at Karakorum; his “willingness to cooperate with the Horde may well have saved Russia from more severe exactions.” Nevsky’s most famous deeds, however, came in relation to Novgorod’s European rivals; this orientation westwards was a key aspect of Novgorod’s distinctive history.
Relations with the West
Novgorod’s strong linkages with Europe – and the novelty of those connections – are exhibited clearly in the impact of the plague on the Republic of St. Sophia compared to its effect elsewhere in Russia. Across most of the territory that would become modern-day Russia, the Black Death’s impact was minimal, but the deadly disease absolutely ravaged Novgorod and its ‘younger brother’ Pskov. The plague hit the Novgorodians and Pskovians severely in 1352, with death and destruction “just as terrible as in Western cities”. Other Russian lands were more isolated under the Golden Horde, while Novgorod’s open relations with Westerners, particularly merchants and itinerant traders, made them extremely susceptible to outbreaks of the Black Death. The trade routes which passed through Novgorod (see Figure 3 below) touched almost all areas of Europe and Asia that were heavily infected with the disease. Novgorod’s relations with the West were not only reflected in their exposure to the plague, but were complex and involved conflict and cooperation.
The autonomy of Lord Novgorod the Great gave the city-state flexibility to arrange its own relations with European nations, including Scandinavia, the Hanseatic League, Livonia, and Poland-Lithuania; these relations could come in the form of warfare or peacemaking. Novgorod’s great Prince Alexander Nevsky showcased the martial option, as he was the defender of Novgorodian (and Russian) lands from their European enemies: the Swedes and the Germanic Livonian Knights. Prince Alexander received his appellation ‘Nevsky’ after his famed victory at the Battle of the Neva in 1240 against Swedish troops, where he repelled an invasion of Novgorod’s western territory and defeated the Catholic armies of Sweden’s King. This fracas was followed up by another conflict, this time with the Livonian Order of German Knights, a crusading order based in the area known as Livonia (comprising modern-day Latvia and Estonia). The Knights and Alexander went back and forth over the city of Pskov, and this confrontation came to a bloody head on April 5, 1242, when the epic ‘Battle on the Ice’ occurred on a frozen Lake Chud. This conflict was a resounding win for the Novgorodians and was followed up by further action against Lithuania. These military campaigns were carried out without the approval or say-so of any other Russian principality, evincing Novgorod’s ability to dictate its own policy.
Conflict was not the only way the Novgorodians dealt with their western neighbors; cooperation and deal-making were just as commonplace and played to Novgorod’s strengths as an independent polity. Coincident with the city-state’s wars were peace negotiations, all of which were carried out without external Russian interference. One such treaty that depicts Novgorod’s unique ability to work out long-lasting deals with its western counterparts was the Treaty of Nöteborg between the Republic of St. Sophia and the Kingdom of Sweden, which set the border between the two states through the sixteenth century. This complicated agreement, signed on August 12, 1323, ended a conflict over access to and control of the land now known as Finland, and incorporated both marked, linear border points as well as more nebulous zones of influence. This demarcation created a supposedly demilitarized zone between the states, allowing for commercial flows across the ‘border’ and taxation of residents. This negotiation was carried out without any influence from Muscovy or even the Golden Horde, a normal occurrence for Novgorodian dealings. Novgorod also negotiated with western powers for security reasons outside of ending conflict; for example, the town talked with King Casimir IV of Poland in 1470 in an attempt to stave off the incoming power of Muscovy by inviting her rival to rule Novgorod. This last-ditch effort by the Novgorodians was meant to safeguard their traditional privileges in the face of impending domination by the autocratic Muscovites, and the treaty itself spelled out that Casimir would send an Orthodox Christian to govern locally, respect the political institutions of the city-state, and defend Novgorod from any attack. King Casimir agreed to these terms, but did nothing to respect them when Grand Prince Ivan III of Muscovy sacked Novgorod and ended its period as an independent polity in response. Treaties were a small portion of Novgorod’s cooperation with Europeans; the far more crucial ties related to economics and trade.
Economics and Trade
One of the most unique aspects of Novgorodian society was its commercial orientation, which had been part and parcel of the Republic of St. Sophia since its early days as a waypoint for Scandinavian trading parties on a quest for high-quality silver dirhams from the Islamic world. Novgorod was a clearinghouse for transit trade, acting as a middleman and convenient trading center for merchants from across Europe and Asia; this can be seen easily in Figure 3 below, which is a map of the myriad trade routes that crossed Novgorod or its outlying colonial possessions. Novgorod maintained its status as an epicenter of commerce throughout the medieval period, through periods of chaos and conflict, and only relinquished this title upon its conquest by Muscovy in 1478. Initially, Novgorod was concerned with the north-south trade from Scandinavia to the Islamic world and the Greeks in Byzantium; this trade involved carrying Greek manufactures to market, selling goods aped from Byzantine designs, and moving items like furs south to meet demand in the Middle East. As this trade declined in the thirteenth century, due to factors like the Mongol conquests and the 1204 sacking of Constantinople by crusaders, Novgorod reoriented its commercial talents to facilitating and controlling the east-west trade from Asia to Europe. With this shift in focus, Novgorod became the easternmost commercial power on the Baltic Rim and was further integrated with the Hanseatic League; foreign merchants set up permanent bases in Novgorod and were able to live and trade under their own laws, as long as similar protections were afforded to Novgorodian merchants.
The Republic of St. Sophia was a center for passing trade, but also exploited and exported its own resources to great effect. The Novgorodian territorial empire was replete with a wide variety of exploitable natural resources, most importantly furs, wax, timber, and salt. The primary driver of Novgorod’s wealth throughout its period of independence was absolutely its trade in furs; the city-state had a “near-monopoly domination of the market” prior to the European discovery of the New World and the immense natural resources therein. Fur was extremely fashionable during this time and “by the end of the eleventh century most of the furs reaching Western Europe came from north Russia,” primarily bought in “the increasingly important market of Novgorod.” These furs were harvested from and processed in Novgorod’s extensive hinterlands, sent to the metropole as tax payments in advanced bags with cylinder locks, and sold through to places as far west as London, where “squirrel furs from Novgorod attracted high prices.” Squirrel furs were the most important for trade, but other animals – beaver, marten, otter, sable, and fox – were also widely exploited.
Novgorod was not a manufacturing center, nor was it able to produce its own staple foodstuffs, generally trading “salt, furs and salmon” to southern Russian principalities in exchange for “grain and livestock”. The fact that the city-state could retain its autonomy and freedom even while relying almost exclusively on outsiders for food is impressive and speaks to a relatively advanced economy. This advancement was seen in Novgorod’s position as “unquestionably among the most impressive cities in Europe at that time,” both size-wise and with respect to “public amenities.” The Republic of St. Sophia, for example, had streets paved with wood to ease transportation around the boggy cityscape as early as 953. The benefits of being a wealthy commercial republic were not solely restricted to the elite; archaeological digs have found evidence of “high levels of prosperity in rural society,” including jewelry and other high-status items. Novgorod’s advanced economy also provided the room for a unique urban religious and literary culture to flourish.
Religion and Culture
Medieval Novgorod used the wealth that came to the city-state as a product of commerce “to build hundreds of churches, paint hundreds of icons and frescoes, write chronicles central to our understanding of medieval Russian history, copy, write and collect hundreds of books and illuminated manuscripts, and pay for other activities that made Novgorod the cultural centre of Russia for three and a half centuries.” This distinct religious and literary culture can be seen in two aspects of city life: symbolism and iconography as well as the position of the archbishop.
Symbolism and Iconography
Novgorod’s culture of independence and autonomy, in addition to the city-state’s high level of self-regard, are obvious when looking at the appellations Novgorodians gave to their beloved homeland. As stated earlier, Novgorod was known by the titles ‘Great Novgorod’ (Velikii Novgorod), ‘Lord Novgorod the Great’ (gospodin Velikii Novgorod), and even ‘sovereign Lord Novgorod the Great’ (gosudar’ gospodin Velikii Novgorod). The city, as was custom for many merchant republics, associated itself with a patron saint, in this case St. Sophia, or Holy Wisdom; similar nomenclature was adopted by Venice (Republic of St. Mark) and Ragusa, now Dubrovnik (Republic of St. Blaise). This pious styling “resonated with the prominent institutional role of the archbishop and the cathedral apparatus,” which is discussed below. Novgorodian urban symbology was likewise seen in the iconography associated with the city-state; one important religious icon that related to Novgorodian civic culture included depictions of “four saints: St. John the Merciful, St. Varlaam of Khutyn’, St. Paraskeva Piatnitsa, and St. Anastasia”. The icon depicted “the evolution of the merchant class and its worldview,” and how this important class fit itself into the civic life of the city; it utilized the lives and images of saints to promote their loyalty to Novgorod and the civic structure. That this sentiment was expressed through religious imagery is not at all surprising, as Novgorod had a very pious culture focused on defense of the true Orthodox faith. One relic of this culture of religious literacy was The Tale of the White Cowl, a famous piece of early Russian writing that depicted Novgorod’s unique destiny as the defender of Orthodoxy and the true ‘Third Rome’. The story, which describes a fictional transfer of a holy white cowl from Rome to Constantinople to Novgorod, symbolizes the failures of the Latin (Catholic) Church and of Byzantium to represent the one true faith, while lionizing Novgorod and her Archbishop Vasilii as truly holy and deserving of divine providence. The pro-Orthodoxy, anti-Catholic message of The Tale of the White Cowl was reflective of Novgorodian attitudes; the powerful, temporal role of the Republic’s archbishop was even more representative of this distinct religious culture.
Novgorod’s location on the geographic and religious frontier of Europe influenced its development of a robust Orthodox culture, opposition to Catholicism, and promotion of the Church apparatus. These attributes of the city-state are reflected in the institution of the archbishopric of Novgorod, which was established in 1165 after its elevation from a bishopric. The archbishopric of Novgorod had two major qualities that set it apart from religious leadership positions elsewhere in Russia: Novgorod’s archbishop had a great degree of temporal power within the polity and it was also an elective position.
Novgorod’s religious establishment was one of the major landholders in the territorial empire, which thus necessitated a degree of temporal involvement, but archbishops had more power than their lands alone provided. The archbishop, known in Novgorod as the vladyka, presided over the Council of Lords (Sovet Gospod) and thus assumed “first place in the secular hierarchy of the republic.” Monastic communities were important to the Church’s secular power as well, as “the treasures and the strength of the Novgorod monastic community served as a reservoir to be utilized in times of war or social unrest.” The strength of the Novgorodian abbeys was not just spiritual, but physical – “the Church established a chain of largely fortified monasteries in the immediate environs of the city, thus providing it if not with a formidable outer defense system then at least with an ‘early warning system’.” Hardened monasteries were not the only way that Novgorod’s ecclesiastical establishment provided for the city-state’s physical defense; the archbishop was responsible for a large role in military affairs at various times. One such instance revolves around Archbishop Vasilii Kalika and the crucial fortress of Orekhov at the juncture of Lake Ladoga and the Neva River; this fortress was vital to protecting Novgorod’s flank and access to the Baltic Sea and its commercial lifelines, and it was constantly under threat from the Swedes. Given Archbishop Vasilii’s strong stand against non-Orthodox religions, namely the Catholicism of Novgorod’s western neighbors, and his office’s significant wealth, the citizens of Novgorod petitioned their archbishop to rebuild the fortress at Orekhov in order to stop Swedish incursions. This temporal and secular power, sometimes expressed militarily, was abnormal for Orthodox bishops; still more bizarre was the uniquely Novgorodian practice of electing their religious leaders outright.
Typically, bishops and archbishops in medieval Russia were appointed by the local princes, the Grand Prince of Kiev – later of Vladimir and of Moscow – or the Metropolitan of Kiev and All Rus’. Novgorod, with its strong tradition of democratic institutions, bucked this trend and chose to elect its archbishops, as well as other positions like the archimandrite, in a fascinating process. Novgorod’s first election of a bishop (prior to the elevation to archbishop) was in 1156; between that year and the final archbishop election in 1471, all but two archbishops were elected, nine of the twenty-one overall were chosen by lots. Initial elections for this critically important position were held by the veche, in the same way that other municipal elections were done: unanimity was required for a decision to be made. As time went on and the city became more fractured politically, the election system was altered so as to avoid the messy process of building consensus for such a spiritually important decision. Election by lots was tried in 1193 and 1229, but did not stick until 1359, when all episcopal elections were handled via the lot system; this more random process remained in place until the city’s fall. This system worked differently than did election by veche acclamation; first, three candidates were chosen from among the republic’s clergy, either by popular suggestion, selection by the prior archbishop, or nomination by civic elites. The three selected names were written on lots and placed on the altar of the city’s cathedral, St. Sophia’s, and the final choice of archbishop was made by God. How was this possible? God did not reach a heavenly hand down to Earth and tap on the shoulder of the new archbishop; instead someone who could not make their own choice – a blind or disabled person, or a small child – would go inside the church and remove one lot at a time until there was but one left on the altar, that of the new archbishop. This unique system encapsulated a great deal about Novgorodian culture, particularly its democratic character and its blending of the spiritual and temporal.
Given the vast differences between Novgorod and the eventual model for the Russian state, Muscovy, in the arenas of internal politics, foreign policy, economics, and culture, what could a Russia modeled on Lord Novgorod the Great have looked like? First of all, the European orientation of Novgorod, translated to a wider Russian context, would become reality in the reign of one of Russia’s most influential leaders: Tsar Peter I the Great. Peter’s push for Westernization came in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries; how different would Russian and European history be if that look westward happened four or five centuries earlier? Would this new Russia have maintained Novgorod’s mercantile economic outlook and expanded its commerce even further afield? Russia did not become a commercial nation and was instead tied to subsistence agriculture all the way through the twentieth century with the collectivization of Soviet farming; could a more Novgorodian perspective have extended the productive and commercial economy? The republican nature of Novgorodian politics may have provided a vastly divergent history for Russia as well; Novgorodian democracy, counter to Muscovite autocracy, may have broadened political inclusion and avoided the strife and subservience that came with authoritarian central rule. Another aspect of Novgorodian society that may have transformed Russian politics was the temporal importance of the ecclesiastical establishment. During the reign of Tsar Peter I, the Orthodox Church was subsumed into the state apparatus; could the Novgorodian archbishopric have done the reverse to the institution of tsardom? These questions, and others like them, can never be answered concretely, but thinking about alternative futures is a useful exercise for the historian. For as we know, the Novgorodians and Muscovites of the medieval era had no idea which model would come out on top. Indeed, the road not taken is always a path worth exploring.
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Rosenwein, Barbara H. “After the fall: Archbishop Genady of Novgorod and Dmitry Gerasimov, The Tale of the White Cowl (end of the 15th c.). Original in Russian.” In Reading the Middle Ages: Sources From Europe, Byzantium, and the Islamic World. North York, ON: University of Toronto Press, 2014. PDF.
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 Charles J. Halperin, “Novgorod and the ‘Novgorodian Land’,” Cahiers du Monde russe 40, no. 3 (July-September 1999): 347, DOI: 10.4000/monderusse.16
 Michael C. Paul, “Was The Prince of Novgorod a ‘Third-Rate Bureaucrat’ after 1136?,” Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas 56, no. 1 (2008): 72.
 Henrik Birnbaum, Lord Novgorod the Great, Essays in the History and Culture of a Medieval City-State Part One: The Historical Background (Los Angeles: Slavica Publishers Inc., 1981), 44.
 Katharine Judelson, The Archaeology of Medieval Novgorod in Context: A Study of Centre/Periphery Relations. Ed. Mark A. Brisbane, Nikolaj A. Makarov, and Evgenij N. Nosov (Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2012), 2, https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctvh1dqcg.
 Sheila Hamilton-Dyer, Mark Brisbane, and Mark Maltby, “Fish, feather, fur and forest: Exploitation of wild animals in medieval Novgorod and its territory,” Quarternary International 460, no. 1 (December 2017): 97, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.quaint.2016.04.024
 Thomas S. Noonan, “Why the Vikings First Came to Russia,” Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas 34 (1986): 322.
 Charles J. Halperin, Russia and the Golden Horde: The Mongol Impact on Medieval Russian History (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1987), 80-81.
 Cynthia Clark Northrup, “Hanseatic League,” In Encyclopedia of World Trade: From Ancient Times to the Present (Armonk, NY: Routledge, 2014), 443.
 Halperin, “Novgorod and the ‘Novgorodian Land’,” 350.
 Birnbaum, Lord Novgorod the Great, 56.
 Halperin, “Novgorod and the ‘Novgorodian Land’,” 351.
 Sergei Pushkarev, A Sourcebook for Russian History from Early Times to 1917, Volume 1: Early Times to the Late Seventeenth Century, Ed. George Vernadsky, Ralph T. Fisher, Jr., Alan D. Ferguson, and Andrew Lossky (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972), 81.
 Noonan, “Why the Vikings First Came to Russia,” 321.
 Noonan 322.
 Noonan 330.
 Serge A. Zenkovsky, Medieval Russia’s Epics, Chronicles, and Tales (New York: Meridian, 1974), 49-50.
 Zenkovsky 50-51.
 Zenkovsky 50.
 F.J.M. Feldbrugge, Law in Medieval Russia (Leiden: Brill | Nijhoff, 2009), 147.
 Birnbaum, Lord Novgorod the Great, 94.
 Birnbaum 74.
 Birnbaum 75.
 Birnbaum 95.
 Halperin, “Novgorod and the ‘Novgorodian Land’,” 350-51.
 Birnbaum, Lord Novgorod the Great, 94.
 Pavel V. Lukin, “Urban Community and Consensus: Brotherhood and Communalism in Medieval Novgorod,” in Imagined Communities on the Baltic Rim, From the Eleventh to Fifteenth Centuries, ed. Wojtek Jezierski and Lars Hermanson (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2016), 296.
 Feldbrugge, Law in Medieval Russia, 157.
 Olga Sevastyanova, “In Quest of the Key Democratic Institution of Medieval Russia: Was the Veche an Institution that Represented Novgorod as a City and a Republic?,” Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas 57, no. 1 (2010): 4.
 Feldbrugge, Law in Medieval Russia, 157.
 Sevastyanova, “Was the Veche an Institution that Represented Novgorod,” 10.
 Sevastyanova 12.
 The Chronicle of Novgorod: 1016-1471, Trans. Robert Mitchell, Nevill Forbes (Hattiesburg, MS: Academic International, 1970), 148.
 Chronicle of Novgorod, 148.
 Birnbaum, Lord Novgorod the Great, 95.
 Birnbaum 45.
 Birnbaum 95.
 Birnbaum 96.
 Birnbaum 45.
 Birnbaum 96.
 Lukin, “Urban Community and Consensus,” 297.
 Birnbaum, Lord Novgorod the Great, 95-96.
 Lukin, “Urban Community and Consensus,” 297.
 Birnbaum, Lord Novgorod the Great, 94.
 Birnbaum 94-95.
 Birnbaum 95. The moniker ‘Republic of St. Sophia’ is an alternate term for the city-state of Novgorod, similar to the appellations ‘Novgorod the Great’ and ‘Lord Novgorod the Great’.
 Paul, “Was the Prince of Novgorod a ‘Third-Rate Bureaucrat’,” 72.
 The Chronicle of Novgorod 14.
 Halperin, Russia and the Golden Horde, 50.
 Birnbaum, Lord Novgorod the Great, 96-97.
 Paul, “Was the Prince of Novgorod a ‘Third-Rate Bureaucrat’,” 72.
 Birnbaum, Lord Novgorod the Great, 96.
 Birnbaum 97.
 Paul, “Was the Prince of Novgorod a ‘Third-Rate Bureaucrat’”
 Feldbrugge, Law in Medieval Russia, 160.
 Halperin, “Novgorod and the ‘Novgorodian Land’,” 350.
 Birnbaum, Lord Novgorod the Great, 70-71.
 Birnbaum 71.
 Judelson, The Archaeology of Medieval Novgorod, 4.
 Judelson 4.
 Paul, “Was the Prince of Novgorod a ‘Third-Rate Bureaucrat’,” 82.
 Pushkarev, A Sourcebook for Russian History, 73.
 Pushkarev 73.
 Halperin, Russia and the Golden Horde, 69.
 Pushkarev, A Sourcebook for Russian History, 73-74.
 Pushkarev 74.
 Pushkarev 74.
 Paul, “Was the Prince of Novgorod a ‘Third-Rate Bureaucrat’,” 73.
 Paul 73.
 Halperin, Russia and the Golden Horde, 50-51.
 Halperin, Russia and the Golden Horde, 120.
 Halperin, Russia and the Golden Horde, 80.
 Halperin, Russia and the Golden Horde, 80-81.
 Halperin, Russia and the Golden Horde, 49.
 Boris Kagarlitsky, Empire of the Periphery: Russia and the World System (London: Pluto Press, 2008), 50-51.
 Kagarlitsky 50.
 Halperin, “Novgorod and the ‘Novgorodian Land’,” 351.
 Zenkovsky, Medieval Russia’s Epics, Chronicles, and Tales, 227-30.
 Zenkovsky 230-31.
 Zenkovsky 231-32.
 Kimmo Katajala, “Drawing Borders or Dividing Lands?: the peace treaty of 1323 between Sweden and Novgorod in a European context,” Scandinavian Journal of History 37, no. 1 (2012): 24, DOI: 10.1080/03468755.2011.643543
 Katajala 40.
 Katajala 41.
 Pushkarev, A Sourcebook for Russian History, 77.
 Pushkarev 77-78.
 Pushkarev 78.
 Noonan, “Why the Vikings First Came to Russia,” 346.
 Feldbrugge, Law in Medieval Russia, 263.
 Kagarlitsky, Empire of the Periphery, 66-67.
 Feldbrugge, Law in Medieval Russia, 263.
 Lukin, “Urban Community and Consensus,” 279.
 Pushkarev, A Sourcebook for Russian History, 76-77.
 Kagarlitsky, Empire of the Periphery, 67.
 Kagarlitsky 67.
 Hamilton-Dyer, “Exploitation of wild animals in medieval Novgorod,” 103.
 Hamilton-Dyer 103.
 Kagarlitsky, Empire of the Periphery, 66.
 Kagarlitsky 39.
 Kagarlitsky 39.
 Judelson, The Archaeology of Medieval Novgorod, 9.
 Michael C. Paul, “Archbishop Vasilii Kalika of Novgorod, the Fortress of Orekhov and the Defence of Orthodoxy,” in The Clash of Cultures on the Medieval Baltic Frontier, ed. Alan V. Murray, (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2009), 254.
 Halperin, “Novgorod and the ‘Novgorodian Land’,” 347.
 Halperin, “Novgorod and the ‘Novgorodian Land’,” 347.
 Halperin, “Novgorod and the ‘Novgorodian Land’,” 362.
 Bushkovitch, “Urban Ideology in Medieval Novgorod,” 24.
 Barbara H. Rosenwein, “After the fall: Archbishop Genady of Novgorod and Dmitry Gerasimov, The Tale of the White Cowl (end of the 15th c.). Original in Russian,” In Reading the Middle Ages: Sources From Europe, Byzantium, and the Islamic World (North York, ON: University of Toronto Press, 2014).
 Birnbaum, Lord Novgorod the Great, 87.
 Birnbaum 87.
 Birnbaum 60.
 Paul, “Archbishop Vasilii Kalika,” 255-56.
 Paul, “Archbishop Vasilii Kalika,” 269.
 Paul, “Episcopal Election in Novgorod,” 259.
 Paul, “Episcopal Election in Novgorod,” 259-60.
 Paul, “Episcopal Election in Novgorod,” 260.
 Paul, “Episcopal Election in Novgorod,” 262-64.
 Paul, “Episcopal Election in Novgorod,” 262.
 Paul, “Episcopal Election in Novgorod,” 272.
 Birnbaum, Lord Novgorod the Great, 69.
 Birnbaum, Lord Novgorod the Great, 72.
 Birnbaum, Lord Novgorod the Great, 51.