The Road Not Taken: Medieval Novgorod as an Alternate Path in Russian History

Introduction

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[1], 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[2], 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).[3] 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.”[4]

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.[5] 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.

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Boycott Beijing’s Genocide Games

The 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing are starting; Americans who care about human rights or geopolitics should join me in skipping them.


The 1936 Berlin Olympic Games live in infamy as a terrible example of how a genocidal authoritarian regime can use international media and sport to serve as propagandists for its evil cause. Despite our appropriate modern appraisal of the Nazi Olympics, the Games were a clear success at the time and greatly legitimized the Hitler regime in the eyes of the wider world. Newspapers around the world largely covered the events as though they occurred in a free nation, only occasionally touching on authoritarian Nazi policies in between race results and medal tables. Some papers even promoted the ceremonial aspects of the Games – obvious and direct Nazi propaganda – with wide-eyed admiration. There were those brave few who pushed boycotts of the Berlin Games for the very abuses we see today as blatantly immoral, but their pleas mostly fell on deaf ears. We must not make that same mistake again.

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Historical Presentation, Two Ways

If you have the chance to travel to Charlottesville, Virginia and are interested in history, the area is fantastic for exploring the landscapes of the early American republic. Two estates of former Presidents – and good friends – are within only a few minutes’ drive of one another: James Monroe’s Highland and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. The differences in how each estate is presented to visitors are a microcosm of contemporary society and tell us quite a bit about where things may be going culturally.

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In Defense of American Exceptionalism

ex-cep-tion-al (adjective): unusual; not typical; extraordinary; unique; special


American exceptionalism is an oft-used phrase that is generally taken as a bit of patriotic pablum that few people actually earnestly believe in the modern day. The concept’s critics suggest that it is inaccurate and jingoistic, and claim that ‘American exceptionalism’ ignores all of the country’s many flaws, past and present. Some who embrace it are naive in their understanding of America as purely good and entirely perfect, and use ‘American exceptionalism’ as a club with which to beat political opponents. Both are completely wrong. American exceptionalism is real, it matters, and it’s why I could never see myself living anywhere else.

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Pandemic Restrictions & Religious Freedom

Why the Supreme Court got it right in overruling California’s draconian lockdown rules.

The United States has been dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic for over a year now. Some states — including my own, New Jersey — have been in varying stages of lockdown or otherwise heavily restricted for many of those past 365 days. California is a perhaps the exemplar of this lockdown approach, having drastically curtailed civil rights for millions of its citizens under the guise of Governor Gavin Newsom’s “emergency powers”. Just a week and a half ago, those restrictions — in California and by proxy elsewhere — were dealt a crushing blow by a majority of the Supreme Court. Much of the coverage of this important decision has been framed negatively, focusing on the religiosity of the petitioners, the fact that the decision was a split one, or decrying the Court’s ‘new direction’ after the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Some pundits have even gone as far as claiming that the Court’s decision “Doubles Down On Religious Rights Amid Pandemic,” or that the majority had ulterior motives for its decision, as they are all “ultraconservatives” whose decision “may kill people”. This is all utter nonsense. The Supreme Court absolutely made the right decision in this case when it comes to religious rights under the First Amendment and the government’s power to curtail them in times of crisis.

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